GENEVA — When Brigadier Gen. Michael Conley looks at his Air Force career to date, he admits being surprised at the way it turned out.
“I did not come from a military family,” Conley, a 1992 Geneva High graduate, said recently by phone from California, where he is stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base. “Truthfully, going into the Air Force was not a dream of mine.”
Fast forward to the present. Last month, Conley was promoted to his current rank and named deputy commander of Space Operations Command for the U.S. Space Force; the newest branch of the Armed Forces, part of the Air Force, was established last December.
“To be honest, I’m still learning my job,” he said. “I am still in the Air Force, and only three people have transitioned from the Air Force to the Space Force, but it will grow rapidly.”
Conley, a lacrosse player at Geneva High, was recruited by a number of Division III colleges until the Air Force Academy came calling.
“I got recruited late to play lacrosse at the Academy, so I went out to take a look. It was only my second time on a plane and my first time west of the Mississippi (River),” he recalled. “For a kid from New York to see snow on the Rockies, that was an easy sell. My Dad said, ‘Give it a try.’”
Conley graduated from the Academy in 1996 and later trained to be a helicopter pilot. He began flying UH-1Ns, mainly out of Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., and later MH-53s and CV-22s.
“My goal coming out of the Academy was to do special operations,” he said. “In fact, my first day of special ops training in New Mexico was Sept. 11 (2001).”
Conley completed the 10-month training program and was assigned to Hurlburt Field, an Air Force installation in Florida.
“The war in Afghanistan was going by then, and stuff in Iraq was starting,” he said. “I was on the front edge of a major rise in special operations and deployed a lot, which was good and bad. I spent a lot of time in the early 2000s in Iraq.”
In 2007, the Air Force sent Conley — then a major — to George Mason University in Virginia, where he earned a master’s degree in strategic communications. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 2010 and took courses through the Air War College, and in 2014 earned a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.
“It was good to be back in the northeast for a year, although it was a super cold winter,” he remembered.
Conley was later assigned to the Pentagon and in 2016 was promoted to colonel and named vice commander at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. He was named commander at Hurlburt Field (near Fort Walton Beach, Fla.) in 2018, and had that assignment until being promoted to brigadier general and assigned to Vandenberg.
Conley has received numerous awards and decorations over the years, including being named 2005 Air Force Special Operations Command Pilot of the Year. He logged more than 2,400 hours as a pilot.
His wife, Melissa (Sovereign), also is a 1992 Geneva High grad. Conley said they were just friends then, but began dating in 1998 after they both were in Geneva for the wedding of a fellow graduate.
Conley said both his and his wife’s family moved from Geneva in the late 1990s, and his mother Donna — a former nurse at Geneva General Hospital — now lives near Allentown, Pa. Conley’s father Ed, who worked for International Paper, died some years ago.
The Conleys have three children — 18-year-old Justin, who just graduated from high school in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.; 13-year-old Abigail; and soon to be 9-year-old Thomas.
“The Air Force has been good to us, but we have moved around a lot. I slept in the same bedroom from the time I was 6 months old until I graduated high school. My oldest son has been to nine different schools,” Conley said. “We haven’t been anywhere for more than two years at a time since 2007 ... but we have embraced it. We’ve lived in a lot of cool places and seen the world and the country.”
Conley also explained the general mission of the Space Force, which was supported by President Trump, Congress and the Pentagon.
“The space program we know from 40 or 50 years ago was a peaceful domain ... but we as Americans have become increasingly reliant on the technology from space, including our phones, GPS, etc.,” he said. “Everything we take for granted is in space, and it has become contested. Countries want to exploit our technology and do harm to it. They want to harm our assets.”
Capabilities under the Space Force include domain awareness, space electronic warfare, satellite communications, missile warning, nuclear detonation detection, military intelligence, and surveillance and reconnaissance.
“Our military assets on the ground and water also use technology from space, so we have to protect it and defend it ... and, when necessary, fight the war for space,” he said. “Every day I learn more about it and how much we have in space, how advanced the technology is and how important it is. I see how professional and broad the space program is.”
After more than 20 years in the Air Force, Conley — who is only 46 — doesn’t see retiring anytime soon.
“I was promoted to brigadier general about as quickly as I could have been. I feel blessed to do this every day,” he said. “I will still keep doing this until the Air Force doesn’t want us anymore or it’s no longer fun.”