Jim Herren’s military career – which included 20 years in the U.S. Air Force – changed the course of his life. It gave him the focus his active mind needed, setting him on a path for not only success but intellectual satisfaction. He’s continued on that path at Viasat, where he works as the director of aircraft innovation and integration.
The Air Force celebrates its 74th birthday on Sept. 18, and in conjunction with the day, Herren took a look back at his military career.
During his two-plus decades of service, Herren served as a member of the U.S. military’s elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). This select and secretive force includes the military’s top tier special operations units, among them the Army’s Delta Force, Navy’s SEAL Team 6, and the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron. Together, they conduct a gamut of special, typically behind-the-scenes operations. (JSOC members killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.)
Herren rose to the level of physical and mental fitness required for JSOC from humble beginnings. He grew up in El Paso, TX, home of Fort Bliss. His father was a Marine, and his brothers served in the Navy.
“There was no question I would join the military,” said Herren. “When I was 10, my parents divorced and I didn’t have a lot of discipline in my life — and that led to me getting into some trouble.”
That changed after joined the Army National Guard during high school.
“The military definitely helped instill the discipline I’d been missing, and a different view on my future,” he said. “Having that shape the early part of my adulthood changed me forever.”
At 18, he enlisted in the Air Force, in large part because he wanted training for a solid career after his service.
“At that time, you either got scholarships to attend college or you had to have wealthy parents; we didn’t have all the student loan programs available back then,” Herren said. “So college wasn’t going to be an option after high school. I decided to join the military and made a career out of it. It changed my whole trajectory.”
Once in the Air Force, Herren trained and became a registered x-ray technician. He then cross-trained to become a forward air controller, coordinating air-ground operations.
Herren spent the last 10 years of his military career with the JSOC, starting in 1992. Membership in the group is by invitation only, and Herren caught the attention of recruiters when he participated in the annual Lightning Challenge competition.
He relished his decade with the JSOC, describing those he served with there as “the cream of the crop.”
“I take a lot of pride in having been with that group of people,” he said. “They were of a different caliber. They could have been Olympic athletes or first string on any athletic team. They chose to do what they do because they believe in something greater than themselves. The mission was important and directly affected our national defense. Most people will never know about the things we did, and that’s OK, because the things we did allowed our fellow Americans to sleep well at night.”
During that time, Herren worked on highly technical projects, most linked to military aircraft. He researched and developed innovative, specialized ground and airborne C4ISR communication systems.
C4ISR stands for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. It refers to technologies that optimizes the awareness of adversaries and environments, shortening the time between awareness and response and guiding military and intelligence decisionmakers in their directives.
After 9/11, he helped improve communications on the B2 (Stealth) bomber, which features technology designed for penetrating dense anti-aircraft defenses. Herren helped add radios to the aircraft that enabled ground forces to send coordinates to the plane, enabling GPS-guided bombs.
Herren also worked under JSOC commander Stanley McChrystal, and was asked to come up with an effective way to stream video from airplanes to ground. Herren researched solutions, and found that Viasat’s hatch-mounted SATCOM antenna for planes appeared to be the best solution. The military tested it on planes in Afghanistan and agreed.
In 2008, while he was with JSOC, Herren recommended Viasat as the best company to replace the communications systems on U.S. Government senior level and VIP aircraft. Viasat first won a contract to provide in-flight broadband and connectivity to those aircraft in 2015, and continues providing those services today.
Herren joined Viasat in late 2012. His job entails producing innovative and disruptive airborne and aircraft communication systems that meet the most challenging mission requirements.
“It’s my sweet spot, the things we’re doing,” he said. “I’ve been blessed beyond what I deserve, and I think it’s been mutually beneficial. I’ve helped Viasat significantly and they’ve been very, very good to my family and me.”
The Air Force is the youngest U.S. military branch, and as a result, Herren said its birthday isn’t as lauded as those of some other branches. But he expects to take a moment Sept. 18 to pay homage to the institution that has so shaped his life.
“It was home for me for 20 years; it was my life,” he said. “The Air Force is very big about family and taking care of the individual; my family was always very well taken care of, as was I. In that way, it’s kind of like Viasat.”