07/01/07 — 916th Air Refueling Wing's Col. Sykes retiring

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916th Air Refueling Wing's Col. Sykes retiring

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 1, 2007 2:01 AM

Paul Sykes would rather not talk about his retirement.

He has little desire to discuss his 33-year Air Force career.

The 916th Air Refueling Wing commander would rather spend his last few weeks in the post talking about his "heroes" -- the men and women under his charge -- and the warmth of a military town he has come to call home.

"How you do you come to a screeching halt on all this? Well, it's been 33 years," Sykes said. "People say time flies by, but it doesn't. It was a long time ago when I was a second lieutenant graduating from the Citadel."

A Charleston, S.C., native, the colonel said he always knew he would serve his country. His grandfather fought in World War I, his father was in World War II and his brother was an airman.

"It was just something that you did," Sykes said. "And we had the Vietnam War going."

But while he had never questioned joining the Air Force, he had "no idea" he would one day make commander -- or that he would fall for a Carolina town other than Charleston.

"To progress throughout my career and at the very end to be given a wing command, it's just been an incredible honor and privilege," Sykes said. "And to come to Goldsboro, a place where when you walk around town and talk to people and they understand what it means to serve, it's had a big impact on me. The people here are amazing."

So when it came time to ponder passing the baton, he and his wife thought seriously about staying.

"We talked about it, thought long and hard about staying here," Sykes said. "We just really enjoy the town and the people."

But home is calling.

In fact, until he was assigned to the 916th, Sykes had never lived anywhere else.

Luckily, though, he now has a second place to hold onto.

"You know, I can walk into Mickey's Pastry Shop in the morning and see the guys, the regulars, or go to the Lantern Inn for breakfast and you always see somebody you know," Sykes said. "It's going to be very tough to leave that behind."

But the community outside the Seymour Johnson Base gates will only represent part of the void he will feel back in Charleston.

"The people of this wing, they are the real heroes," Sykes said. "They make waking up and doing this job so worthwhile. They are the ones taking time away from their families, coming here on the weekends and on all the other times -- on deployments or accomplishing a mission. It's all about them. I have just been fortunate to be their commander."

Reservists are a "special breed," he added -- people who give time they don't really have to their country.

"They are twice the citizen. They really are," Sykes said. "They go out there and lead their lives. They play a role in the towns and neighborhoods they come from, and then they come out here and serve. We have folks that have high-paying jobs and they leave their families and come over here. And I'm not even paying those guys."

He will miss the camaraderie -- the hand shakes, conversations and glory that come with a job well done.

And he will miss his friends in the 4th Fighter Wing, too.

"I couldn't have been more fortunate than to be on the same base as the 4th Fighter Wing," Sykes said. "Col. Kwast and all his folks have been incredible partners. Just outstanding."

But most of all, he will miss those whom the routine of military life has brought to his door every day.

"It's the people," he said. "It's the people in this wing I shake hands with every weekend. To get to know them and have the appreciation for their sacrifices and their families' sacrifices, I wouldn't trade it."

So when he passes the flag to Col. Stephen Linsenmeyer July 14 at 9:16 a.m., don't think Sykes will take a deep breath and happily accept that a career in the Air Force is over.

It wouldn't be in his nature to welcome the end of his ride with no sadness.

"It's going to be weird, a little strange, not waking up in the morning and putting on my flight suit," Sykes said. "It's going to be very odd not being able to participate at the level I have for 33 years. I feel a sense of loss. It's my time to retire, and I have accepted that, but it's still hard."