For retiring colonel, 'It's all about the people'
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 3, 2006 1:50 PM
Col. Leonard Coleman has carried the same piece of paper in his back pocket for more than 20 years. It reads, "It's the people. It's the people. It's the people ... It's the people."
Coleman said the folded loose leaf, which has survived numerous deployments and thousands of hours in a fighter jet, is not just a reminder. In many ways, it's an expression of what the United States Air Force means to him -- and what he will miss most.
Aug. 11, nearly 30 years after the self-proclaimed "naive kid" Coleman signed up for the Air Force, he will retire and relinquish command of the 4th Fighter Wing's Mission Support Group.
"As I finish up my Air Force career, I recall the most important thing that I was told very early on," he said. "I was told to remember that in the military we have a lot of things. We have a lot of equipment, we have a lot of buildings and we have a lot of vehicles. But you know what, without the people, they're nothing."
And that's what he will miss the most about Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Goldsboro and Wayne County, Coleman said -- the people.
"The people in Goldsboro and Wayne County are unforgettable," he said. "All of them really believe in what Seymour Johnson does. And it's not because the base brings income, not because it economically impacts Wayne County and Goldsboro. They believe in us because they are great Americans. They really do care about my airmen. That will be what I remember about Goldsboro and Wayne County -- the support those folks give to our men and women."
Coleman officially joined the Air Force in 1981 and has seen "every corner of the U.S.A." since. After relocating his family 17 times, he found his "dream job" here at Seymour.
"When I selected for this job, I had no idea what I was getting myself into," he said. "All I knew was that I was getting to command. I was a young lieutenant telling myself, 'you want to be a commander.' I would say this has been the biggest, most rewarding job in my career. And that's pretty significant when I say that. I've had some pretty unique experiences, but being here and getting to lead these 1,700 men and women has been unbelievable."
One of those unique experiences was flying in more than 150 air shows as a member of the Air Force Thunderbirds, he said. Many of his "proudest moments" were shared with that group.
"When I became a Thunderbird, I became a part of a team," Coleman said. "People used to ask me what it was like to be a Thunderbird. I told them it's about teamwork. It's about walking out to your jet on a Wednesday afternoon, when we're off, and finding your crew chief and two other crew chiefs underneath the wheel-well, in a compartment that's sealed, polishing ... It's about having the opportunity to work with 125 men and women who are committed to showing off the capabilities of the United States Air Force."
And that mission continued off the airfield as well.
"My proudest moment was having the chance to stand with them at air shows," he said. "But it was also getting to stand with them at hospitals and watch them interact with kids who were terminally ill, or families who had lost a loved one. It was at high schools where you and I probably wouldn't want to go -- ones with bars on the windows. It was watching the crowd embrace them, cheer them, and at the end of the day, grow to love them."
Before coming to Seymour, Coleman also served as commander of an F-16 squadron. It was during this time that he learned about strength, duty and sacrifice from his men.
"When we were deployed, it was during Kosovo and Southern Watch," he said. "While we were over there, watching the men and women, they were disappointed. They wanted to go home and see their loved ones. We had been over there 80 days and every one of them was fired up for a different reason. But you know what they did? Every one of them pulled their belt a little tighter, every one of them jacked their chin up a little higher and said, 'hey, eight more weeks, and we'll get another word.' That level of professionalism, that level of get the job done, that level of pride in your job, unit, mission and country, makes me proud every day I wake up and put this uniform on."
In both roles, Coleman said he learned more about what made his life in the United States military worthwhile -- the people. As his career continued, they got "better and better" with every new city and job, until he came to Seymour in 2004 and met the "ultimate team," he said.
"I have had the opportunity for the last two years and two months to be a part of the most exciting, most dynamic team in the United States Air Force," Coleman said. "And that's the Mission Support Group here in the 4th Fighter Wing."
Commanding the group gave him the opportunity to be more than a just a warrior, he said. He and those he led were the ones who looked after families of the deployed, too.
"It's said many times that we recruit the airmen, but we retain the families," Coleman said. "And the 4th Mission Support Group is a vital piece of that."
He hopes that during his time in command, he taught his young airmen to put life, and the things they will do with theirs, in perspective.
"What I tried to do was keep everything in perspective," he said. "I tried to look at the positive. I hope that when they look back at what we've done, and what we've put in place, I really don't want them to remember me. I want them to remember what they did. What they did because we gave them the tools, because we gave them the experience, the freedom and the ability to make an impact. I hope they remember that they did it, that the men and women of the 4th Mission Support group have got it. They are warriors."
And while he held the rank and made the decisions, he wants them to remember that they are the ones who made his dreams possible.
"The F-15E is a tremendous fighting machine, but without the people that support it here at Seymour and abroad, without the maintainers who make it go, without the pilots and the navigators and the air crew that make it great, it's just a piece of metal. That's what I have tried to leave."
For those outside the U.S., the ones he fought to protect over Kosovo and the Middle East, he hopes they one day get to experience democracy. For the freedom provided under such a system is every human being's right and what makes America great, he said.
"Democracy is a crazy thing," Coleman said. "It gives a guy the right to go burn that flag. But we're all on the same team. That's what democracy is. People around the world don't get that. How can you all be on the same team? But we are because we believe in that freedom our forefathers put forth more than 200 years ago. Pretty smart people. It still amazes me when I look at that Constitution."
And for the people in communities nationwide who supported Coleman and his comrades while they lived on bases in military towns like Goldsboro, he hopes they know just how much their support means to everyone in the armed forces -- at home and abroad.
"It was so interesting because as we moved around. You get out there and you get to meet people from all corners of the U.S., from all walks of life," he said. "And as you sit back and talk to them, they are proud. They're proud of what are military has done. They're proud of our Air Force. They're proud of our men and women. Whether they support the policies of our government, whether they're for or against what we're doing overseas, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because everywhere out there, they are for our people."
For that reason, Coleman said he doesn't identify himself as a Georgian, North Carolinian or Texan. He's an everyman -- an American.
"I really call myself a citizen of the United States," he said. "A citizen of America."
After his retirement ceremony and formal change of command, Coleman said he plans to move to Colorado, the perfect place to play some golf and step into his next role.
"The Air Force will always be a part of me," he said. "I always joke with guys when they retire or even separate from the Air Force. They now become the biggest recruiters across America. The success they've had, when they go back to their hometowns, or across America, to the factories and the schools, people see them and want to grow up to be just like them."
The move, he said, is coming at the right time -- for himself and his family.
"At the end of the day, I know that moving on at the right time," Coleman said. "I'm never going to take off the uniform. It will always be right here, (in my heart). I may not wear the greens, but I'll wear the uniform with my support for this base and in my support for these men and women. I hope they remember that I will believe in them every day. I think, no I believe, that what we do, why we do it and with whom I did it was worth it. And that's all anyone can ever hope for."
And rather than remember a retired colonel, a Thunderbird and a friend, he hopes the men and women at Seymour Johnson will remember the simple words he kept on that paper in his pocket for 20-plus years, "it's the people, it's the people, it's the people ... it's the people."
"I hope when they look back, they say, 'he allowed us to do our job, to gain an identity', an identity I hope they never look back from. I hope they continue to reach high, to challenge barriers. Nothing can stop them. I'm firmly convinced that there is not one thing that can be asked of this group that they can't accomplish."
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