Outstanding Airmen of the Year: Senior Master Sgt. Justin S. Cruz

The Air Force’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year for 2023 will be formally recognized at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference from Sept. 11-13 in National Harbor, Md. Air & Space Forces Magazine is highlighting one each weekday from now until the conference begins. Today, we honor Senior Master Sgt. Justin S. Cruz, the Superintendent of the Operations Flight with the 21st Civil Engineer Squadron at Space Base Delta 1, Peterson Space Force Base, Colo.

As the superintendent of Peterson’s largest flight, Cruz oversees some 134 military and civilian personnel across 12 different specialty shops, consisting of everything from electricians and HVAC technicians to plumbers and metalworkers. The flight has a $7.6 million budget and 18 service contracts, working to sustain more than 1,000 acres and 205 facilities valued at $2 billion. Cruz said his flight receives about 1,000 work tasks per month.

“We’ve got a very important mission,” Cruz said. “When [Guardians are] trying to track satellites and track objects in space that are traveling 1,000 miles per hour, they have computer systems that need to be working all the time. So, who supplies that power? That’s gonna be us.”

Prior to 2021, when he was first assigned to Peterson, Cruz said he’d never have guessed he would be such a central figure in supporting space operations. But now that he’s here, he has a better vision of how important the Space Force’s mission is—and how he can help.

“When you’re on a regular Air Force base, you can see the mission, as far as the planes and the jets taking off. When you’re on a Space Force base, it’s a little bit different,” Cruz said. “But [when] you go and get the briefings of how important the mission is and what they’re supporting, it’s pretty amazing. [I] just try to do my best to convey that message down to the lowest-ranking Airmen [in] the shops so they know what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis is important.”

From April to October of 2022, Cruz deployed to Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, in support of Operations Inherent Resolve and Spartan Shield. His mission was to reconstitute bare-base assets to improve living conditions for service members who had previously been living in tents. Cruz led a 25 joint-member team to stand up 340 new housing units with reliable power.

While he was deployed at PSAB, Cruz also found a more efficient way for Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) crews to clean their aircraft. The BACN aircraft needed to be washed every day to avoid corrosion in the high desert temperatures, but because of PSAB’s austere location that required flying the plane two hours away to the nearest wash station. By repurposing unused water tanks and pipes at PSAB to direct waterlines to the BACN maintenance crews’ on-site workspace, Cruz and his team cut out the need for nearly four hours of travel time per day.

“What we did is really quite simple when you get down to it,” he said. “We had a great team and they loved helping out and developing innovative solutions.”

Cruz also led a $3 million project to construct the first Air Force-owned “Coyote” weapon system site at PSAB. His team leveled the area, constructed access roads for fuel trucks, converted Conex boxes into work areas, and installed AC and power generators to support the site, which is now protecting six weapon system platforms valued at over $200 million against unmanned aerial attacks.

Senior Master Sgt. Justin S. Cruz. USAF.

“They had to prepare the entire area. I mean, it was just sand. There was nothing out there,” Cruz said. “So that was a very cool project that we had our folks working on and they did an amazing job with that.”

Selected as one of the Air Force’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year, Cruz is being honored for demonstrating exceptional leadership and innovation. But he said that it was the leaders in the last years—those he’s worked with while deployed overseas and stateside at Peterson—who showed him the way. In addition to crediting his wife and parents for their constant support, Cruz said that the teams he has worked with—from his command chiefs to his Airmen in the shops—are just as deserving of the award.

“I’m not the one out there doing these jobs. I’m just managing people and resources,” he said. 
“So, this award to me, even though they say it’s an individual award, I feel like it’s a team award. It just shows how great the men and women are out there, serving with me at PSAB [and at] the 21st Civil Engineer Squadron.”

Meet the other Outstanding Airmen of the Year for 2023 below: