FORT CARSON, Colorado – Like many an FA40 (Army Space Operations) officer, Capt. Ian McQuillan, commander of Detachment 6, 18th Space Company, 1st Space Battalion, 1st Space Brigade, is passionate about his job and space as a whole.
At an early age, the St. Paul, Minnesota, native wanted to be an astronaut and a pilot. He longed for adventure and seriously considered the Air Force Academy as a means to do so. But, after a visit to the Colorado Springs-based military academy, he reconsidered his decision and decided to go the more traditional college route and enrolled at the University of Iowa picking up an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship and commissioned as an engineer officer, with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2014.
His eight-year career thus far has taken him from Alaska to Afghanistan, and he recently spoke to me about his journey and where he wants to go from here.
Q: Why did you join the military?
A: I was in fifth grade when September 11th happened, and it had a lasting impact on me. I witnessed how my family and community reacted and it was kind of then that I knew I wanted to join. It inspired me, as it most likely did a lot of people who eventually joined. Also, I didn’t want to sit behind a desk coming out of college and that drove me into a career with a little more adventure in it.
Q: You were accepted into the Air Force Academy and were ready to go. Why the change in plans?
A: I toured it and saw how the cadets were eating in the mess hall. It all seemed too rigid for me at the time. So I decided to go to a school that wasn’t too far of a drive to stay somewhat close to home and I familiarized myself with both the Air Force and Army ROTCs at Iowa. I was turned off by the Air Force cadets and the culture, so I went with the Army. I got a better vibe from them. Guess the Air Force just wasn’t in the cards.
Q: So you come out of college as a young lieutenant looking for excitement and adventure, and it sounds like you got it with your first permanent duty station.
A: Oh yeah. After graduating from Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Leonard Wood (Missouri), I was sent to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, where I was assigned to the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. I had gone through Airborne and Air Assault schools as a cadet in college, so I was sent to a bit more high-speed unit and did a year as a platoon leader in an airborne engineer unit.
Q: How long were you in Alaska and how was that experience?
A: Four years and it was the best experience of my life. Being in an airborne unit with arctic responsibilities was awesome. I helped plan the then largest arctic exercise north of the Arctic Circle ever. I hit the ground running, coordinated with joint forces, and planned a battalion-level exercise to jump onto the arctic tundra in February. Getting to be in charge of engineers jumping out of airplanes blowing stuff up was tons of fun. I got the adventure I was looking for in the unit. Everybody there had a lot of pride and motivation.
I was also fortunate to live somewhere as beautiful as Anchorage, and the hunting, the fishing, the hiking, the snowboarding – everything - the absolute adventure of it, was awesome.
Q: So why the switch to space?
A: I loved being an engineer, don’t get me wrong, but since I was a kid I always wanted to go into space. As I was finishing up my time as a lieutenant, I realized that being an officer in a maneuver support branch doesn’t give you as much adventure as I thought I was looking for. I didn’t want to be a random captain on a brigade operations staff. I knew I was going to be doing staff time anyways, so I wanted to pick something that really excited me, and from a young age I was very interested in space. I wanted to get into something that was a little bit more technical that would allow me to specialize a bit more and I thought space would be a good fit.
Q: So how has it been so far?
A: Transferring over to Space was a bit of a culture shock for me. I was used to working in a maneuver-focused infantry brigade combat team with NCOs and officers of a certain mindset. At first my initial reaction was ‘this doesn’t really feel like the Army, or the Army I am used to,’ but after being over here for a little bit and getting to know some of the Soldiers, I realized it is absolutely just as much of the Army as anywhere else, it’s just now I am working with technical experts.
Q: What were some of the more glaring differences between where you came from and SMDC?
A: The most glaring difference is the competency of the people within the command. Incredibly smart, talented and motivated Soldiers across the board from E-1 to the most senior of officers, I get the pleasure of working with. As an engineer I was used to supporting maneuver operations, but it was at a very tactical level. The biggest impact I could hope to make was at the brigade level. Here we have a command that is working at every geographic command globally, making an impact on operations all throughout directly supporting the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the secretary of defense and the president, providing unique capabilities that are only available within this command. Everything we do here seems to have such a relevant effect, and such a large potential impact. It’s such an opportunity to support the entire Army rather than just one brigade at a time.
Q: Any deployments in SMDC yet?
A: In 2020 I deployed to Afghanistan as part of a six Soldier ARSST (Army Space Support Team) where I was the STO (Special Technical Operations) chief for Special Operations Joint Task Force Afghanistan. I was part of an organization that had a part to play in everything that happened in the theater. We were working on messaging, message campaigns, and non-kinetic effects. We brought space tools to officers and Soldiers that had never been trained on them and exposed them to this whole aspect of military operations they weren’t familiar with and made a significant impact. The team became very close throughout that deployment. My commander, Maj. (David) Maddaford was one of the best bosses one could ever work for. It was just a really unique experience.
Q: Where do you see yourself in this command down the road?
A: As long as FA40s exist in the Army, that’s what I want to do in SMDC. I’ll probably leave to work at a division or a corps for brief stints, but I’ll come back. The opportunities that exist here and the impact I get to make – I couldn’t imagine being happier anywhere else.