Colonel Marc Sands
M.S. Nuclear Engineering, 1999
Colonel Marc Sands is the Chief of the Nuclear Operations Division for the U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) located at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. He leads 61 personnel and is the command lead for all nuclear operations, plans, security, maintenance, and command and control. He directs standardization and sustainment of $5.9B in munitions assets and develops policy to ensure safe, secure and effective nuclear operations.
“The mission set is so unique. In this position, probably more than any other I have had, I really feel the relevance of it and there is an urgency to make sure we get it right. One of the challenges of this position is working with our foreign partners who support the nuclear mission set. Sometimes there are cultural differences, language barriers, as well as just issues making sure that this mission area, which is always under scrutiny, is working properly. It’s a positive challenge, because I have a lot of good people working with me to make sure the mission doesn’t fail” stated Col Sands.
Sands earned a bachelor’s degree in space physics from the USAF Academy and then served as an analyst and researcher at the National Air Intelligence Center (NAIC). He then joined AFIT and earned a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in 1999.
When talking with Col Sands about his education and career it is clear that he is a very driven and focused person and most of the demands placed on him are self-imposed. While some people would shy away from putting themselves in difficult positions, Col Sands seems to thrive; but he is very honest and direct about the amount of hard work, long days and personal sacrifices that must be made to make it through.
“I learned very early on that academics do not come naturally to me. I was not the best student and to compete with the people around me I had to work harder. When I graduated from AFIT I honestly felt relieved that I had made it. At AFIT I learned critical thinking skills and an immense amount of technical information. It wasn’t a comfortable experience, but I am glad I did it.” Speaking directly about AFIT, Col Sands’ says, “I definitely see a benefit and need to having an AF focused education where students get the technical education while focusing on an AF issue. We are in a more technical environment and an AFIT education helps posture graduates to lead in these changing situations.”
Col Sands has not followed the traditional career path of a 61DN scientist. “I have been lucky enough to have many very cool, very interesting jobs that most scientists don’t normally have access to.” One of his favorites is the assignment to the Central Intelligence Agency’s office of the Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Collection where he was the Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT) program technical collection analyst. “This was the most unique, exciting and rewarding position from a career and knowledge perspective, but it was also the most stressful and time consuming of the positions that I have held.”
Next, Sands spent 12 months as Commander of AFTAC’s Detachment 452 in Wonju, Korea. The unit directly supported the monitoring and enforcement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which banned signatories from performing nuclear weapon testing.
To be successful in short duration assignments, Col Sands says that the key is asking a lot of questions, listening to the answer, understanding how things work and putting those pieces together. “Often times, folks will go into a job and not understand where that job fits into the mission set of the branch, division, or organization. You can only understand that by talking to folks and really listening to the answers – focus on what might be keeping that person or group from succeeding either better, or faster, and use your best judgement to make the difficult decisions. You can’t be passive.”
In 2006 Col Sands volunteered to deploy to Baghdad, Iraq as the Team Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and Special Weapons analytical cell, Multi-National Force-Iraq. In this role he led a team of scientists and chemical engineers to assess and report on WMD threats to coalition forces in Iraq to support both operations and investigative efforts against possible WMD targets.
“As a scientist, we don’t have a lot of opportunities to deploy. I spoke to a lot of folks that were down range and what I found was they had a different mindset and that is what drove me to volunteer to deploy. I had a desire to feel like I was closer to the operations. I wanted to see what it was like and understand their issues.”
In 2010 Col Sands again volunteered to deploy, this time to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan where he served as the Director of Operations for the 152nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron (ERS) responsible for all air operations and intelligence analysis. This deployment was different than his tour in Iraq where he joined an established unit. In Afghanistan he was responsible for putting together and leading the team that would deploy. “It was a different mindset and leadership challenge for me, but it is part of my drive to push myself to meet expectations that I have of myself and that I feel the AF has of me.”
After his second deployment, Sands was the deputy director of AFTAC’s Nuclear Treaty Monitoring Directorate where he operated the sole U.S. system responsible for real-time monitoring of nuclear treaties. He then joined the Air Force Nuclear Weapon Center (AFNWC) as the Nuclear Capabilities Principle Systems Integrator working with NATO, EUCOM, USAFE and Host Nations in support of NATO’s nuclear mission. Following that assignment he was the Deputy Chief of USAFE’s Nuclear Operations Division where he was the deputy principal staff advisor and focal point on all nuclear matters for headquarters managing oversight, policy, and advocacy for the nuclear mission area throughout the European theater.
In 2015 Col Sands was selected as an Air Force National Laboratory Technical Fellow at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee where he conducted base and applied research. “Most of my career has been in support of intelligence collection and analysis. Going to Oak Ridge was going back to an area that I had not done a lot of work in since my time at AFIT. That is where the skills that I learned early in my career to ask a lot of questions and engage people in conversations about what they are working on and how it fits together helped me. I was able to go into a lab environment and learn from the researchers to connect what Oak Ridge is trying to do with AF and DoD costumers to match capabilities and needs.”
Col Sands is an officer worthy of emulation. It is very clear that he is focused on the mission and strives to meet the expectations set by others as well those that he places on himself. He is a great example that through hard work and perseverance, success is more than possible.
“When I talk to Lieutenants or Captains, I am very clear that you can have a very successful career without being the number one person. You may have to work harder; you may have to work for the opportunities; and you may have to work harder to ensure that when you are given an opportunity that you make the most of it. Be available and ready for the opportunities when they come around.”
His advice for others is to work as hard as they can and strike the balance between work and personal life that each person is comfortable with. “Make sure that at the end of the day you are happy with the decisions you have made. Find what motives you, work hard, and definitely don’t quit. Be an active participant in making decisions on where the balance is for you and don’t let systems or people push you into situations where you will feel regret in the end.”