Leading from the front: Col. Kwast takes over 4th Fighter Wing
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 17, 2006 2:05 AM
Col. Steve Kwast chuckles every time he talks to his 8-year-old son about work. Even at a young age, the boy has "captured the essence" of what a leader should be, he said.
"I think he has the sensation that I am here to serve these people," Kwast said. "I think he gets that. He'll say, 'Daddy, how are your customers doing today?' I smile every time he says that because he senses the real essence of what I am here for. I'm merely a steward. I am the servant of these people. I'm here to fight for them. I need to find out what my customers need, and I need to deliver it."
For the new commander of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's 4th Fighter Wing, being a father brings a unique perspective to each day on the job and fills him with a strong resolve to fight for freedom and the families of the men and women in his charge.
"Where I'm at in my life with these kids, it makes me that much more aggressive at fighting for families," Kwast said. "Having children reinforces that. It brings that fight home even more."
"I think anytime you have young kids, it gives you a deep sense of compassion for and understanding of the struggles (airmen) have in trying to balance serving their country and serving the family," he added. "And you've got to do both. You can't let one go. When you sign up to serve your country, the nation doesn't expect you to sacrifice your happiness. They expect them to be able to take care of their family and serve. Having young kids allows me to really tap into the sense of importance of what it means to have a structure -- to take care of families and catch them when they're in need."
The responsibilities that come with leadership are ones he will never shy from, he added. In fact, as the son of a missionary, being a servant to the public has always been his life's goal.
"I knew I wanted to lead people," Kwast said. "I never aspired to be going up in the ranks of the military. My only aspiration was to lead people, to be with people and to couple those things with my passion for flying. Those two are perfectly married in the Air Force."
As a boy living with his family among a tribe in Africa, long before his first flight as a missionary pilot, something was always guiding him toward the sky he said -- even before he knew what a plane was.
"I lived in a village, 7,000 feet up on Mt. Cameroon in a grass and mud-thatched home," Kwast said, adding he had no access to television or magazines. "I had never seen an airplane. But almost every night of my life, I dream about flying -- and not necessarily in an aircraft, but I'm airborne. I have vivid memories even from when I was a young child."
Growing up in a different culture helped shape the man he has become and the way he will lead the 4th, he added.
"Understanding how different people think at a very visceral level is very helpful in learning how to reach out and connect with them," Kwast said. "You become friends with them. Understanding how different people think allows you to treat them with the dignity, respect and honor that they deserve. I take it as a real sacred obligation to work hard to make sure that not only are the people taken care of, but that taking care of the people will make our mission a success."
A mission that is currently focused on fighting the War on Terror, he added.
"Our nation needs people who are willing to put their life on the line to protect our future," Kwast said. "Our future is at risk. My sense of energy, enthusiasm and passion to make these airmen the very best in the world is because I know they are going to be tested. I want to make sure they're ready so they can survive and protect America. What I see clearly is that this is a battle for the hearts and souls of the future of America. We in the military have to be the defensive line. To me there is no more important work, no more honorable work than putting ourselves in harm's way ... We, in the military, have to live a strenuous life so that others don't have to."
And just as the airmen at Seymour Johnson make sacrifices during deployments and other assignments, Kwast said he, too, will take on an extra load -- as a father figure and friend to those family members left home on base and throughout Goldsboro and Wayne County.
"Here is my promise to them: My promise is that I will take care of their children, those sons and daughters of the people who wear the uniform," he said. "I will take care of their sons and daughters so that they are safe, so they are effective and the families left back home are taken care of. That's a sacred obligation, and I will fulfill that. But I will also make sure that we will deliver air-power on time, on target, every time, so that America is never at risk, so that we can live in safety here. Nobody is going to come close to threatening our way of life."
Kwast said he plans to lead in every way as payback for all his fellow airmen have done to make his life's dream a reality.
"My role is to lead from the front," he said. "So, what that means to me is I will lead in the air, and I will lead on the ground. You'll see me up there."
Being up in the air is a spiritual experience, Kwast added.
"When you're high enough where you can see and touch the face of God, you see the curvature of the Earth, you can see the Sun rising and setting, you feel like you are closer to God," he said. "I've had those moments over Iraq, Kosovo and some of the battlefields that we've flown over. Those moments when you feel like you're closer to God are surreal. It's a very powerful and spiritual experience. And I tell my wife that the reason I am so happy all the time is because I get to go up in the air. When I do, I come down like I've gone to the mountain top. It's a beautiful thing."
And as his F-15 comes in for landing over U.S. 70, he hopes to set an example for the young children watching the Strike Eagle touch down.
"When I fly over and see those boys, what I feel is a sense of responsibility to be an honorable example of what it means to be a humble servant of this country with the courage, leadership and humility to do whatever it takes," Kwast said. "That young kid is a customer, too. He is somebody I need to serve. I was one of those boys. When I came to America, I would go to the airport and watch the planes fly. I understand that fascination and that curiosity in children to want to aspire to do something great. "
Thanks to his father and other childhood heroes, he had those same aspirations at a young age, he said.
"My hero is my father," Kwast said. "He is my No.1. But I have a couple of other heroes as well. One of them is King David because he was humble enough to put God first. He was a warrior, and he was a leader, but he was kind. More in our time, I would say Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. They were men of courage who stood for what was right even when it was at the risk of their lives and everything they owned. They were willing to stand up."
And despite that fact that some will likely consider him a hero as he leads the 4th and eventually moves on, Kwast said he would rather not be remembered.
"It's not about them remembering me," he said. "What I would like to have as my legacy is that anybody who meets somebody from this community and they say 'hey, you're from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Goldsboro and Wayne County,' when they see them they'll say 'I can tell you're from there. You're inspired, you're courageous and you are honorable.' If people say that about the airmen here at Seymour Johnson, that's the kind of legacy I want to leave. It's not about me, it's about these people."
The people of Goldsboro, Wayne and Seymour are a special bunch, Kwast added.
"The first few days have been overwhelmingly positive," he said. "It is such a humbling experience to be welcomed into this community with such warm arms. It makes me feel like the luckiest man in the world. It's not because of the flying. It's because of the people. The joy that I get from getting to serve these people and give back to them, by being their champion and taking care of them and the mission, it's just an enormous honor. What a privilege."
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