Kwast at SJAFB - more than a commander
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 12, 2007 2:20 PM
Steve Kwast was not surprised when his 6-year-old daughter, Lilly, nudged her way to the front of the crowd gathered on the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base tarmac Dec. 2.
It did not bother the colonel when that little girl dropped his hand and looked skyward as if her own hero was returning from months in the desert -- pointing and waving at each of the F-15Es coming in for landing with an undersized American flag.
After all, Lilly is simply living what her father preaches, Kwast said.
She learned the day he took command of the 4th Fighter Wing that every airmen within it became her brother or sister, that family can be built around more than just blood.
And for the command pilot, Lilly "getting it" at age 6 gives him hope that the philosophy he lives -- and leads -- by is rubbing off on others, too.
"Command is about being a father figure to those you serve," Kwast said. "As the servant of these people, I am like their father. I am responsible for every part of their lives. When you have a relationship like that, I do look at these airmen as my children.
"I see it in Lilly," he added. "She literally falls in love with every airman out here and it's in a way where she bonds with them. ... What a rich heritage for her to carry."
It was not much more than a year ago when Kwast spoke to a "cadre of warriors" outside Heritage Park, preaching the same message Lilly exemplified that day on the flight line.
A team that sticks together -- a "family" -- would never falter, he told them.
So for a year-plus, the commander and his family have been "just about everywhere" -- retirement functions, deployments, bake sales, ceremonies and community gatherings.
Some call it leading by example.
But for Kwast, it is simply "the way."
"I think it just comes from the philosophy that I am married to these people," he said. "And just as I make it a priority to be there for my own children, come Hell or high water, my No. 1 role is to be a father to my children so that the next generation is set up for success. So, too, am I a father to my children on this base.
"So I will sacrifice for them as if they were my own children," he added. "This is a much deeper relationship than just a job. It is a much more profound commitment to them. This is about blood. This is about love. This is about sharing a purpose."
Action replaces those words when an airman deploys, as Kwast and others base-wide reach out to families left behind.
"There is a tremendous amount of motivation to reach out and wrap our arms around those families whose spouses are deployed and engaged in the war on terror," he said. "We see the tremendous sacrifices the airmen and their families are making."
After all, he, too, has been there.
In the early-1990s, it was Kwast leaving Seymour Johnson in the cockpit of an F-15 bound for Iraq.
His family was left to wait and wonder.
Maybe that is why he is so "amazed" by the sacrifices he sees families of the deployed making every day.
"You don't hear them say, 'Wow, this sucks. I would like you to thank me for putting up with this,'" Kwast said. "No. What you hear from them is how proud they are of their husband or wife, how much they love serving this country. You get this really deep sense that they know they are sacrificing just as profoundly as a person who is looking down the barrel of an enemy's gun."
So caring for both the warrior and his or her family is a charge the colonel takes "very seriously."
"The motivational factor is huge for us who are here to be a band of brothers back home," he said. "The same sense of camaraderie and purpose and vision and friendship that gets forged in combat is the same dynamic that happens back here with families who are without. We bind together with friendship and love."
Kwast has other philosophies, too, and has watched them unfold across the wing.
"Working hard for other people creates happiness," he says.
So when he talks about his first year as commander of the 4th, words of praise for the hard work of "so many" airmen were accompanied by a soft smile.
"It's kind of extraordinary," Kwast said. "It is as if Seymour Johnson lives under a lucky star. Everything these airmen touch seems to turn to gold."
He will "well up with pride" every time he thinks about the "tireless work" it took for his maintainers and flight crews to pull off a perfect fly-over at former President Gerald Ford's funeral.
He will struggle to find words worthy of the commitment it has taken for airmen to leave behind friends and family members for sorties over Afghanistan and ground missions in Iraq.
"You have a sea of people here who are giving to their nation," Kwast said. "It really is an overwhelming position sometimes to be their commander and to watch the millions of miracles and millions of acts of sacrifice these fine Americans make every day."
But like every boss, the commander says he has even greater expectations for the future.
So do not be surprised when airmen show up to lend a hand with a local Habitat for Humanity build this spring.
When you see them serving meals at the Community Soup Kitchen later this month, just think back to one of many Kwast creeds.
"When I talk to community leaders, I say, 'Help me by asking my airmen to volunteer, because when they go downtown to help ... they are becoming better people," Kwast said. "And it's not only because they are giving. It's because they are making friends and building relationships with people out there in the community.
"So thank you community for allowing me to shape a better warrior," he added. "Thank you for making a better person out of this young airman so they can deal with whatever I throw at them. Because the one true fact in battle is that the better the person, the better a fighter they are. The better the person, the bigger their perspective."
He knows because he has been there.
His philosophies are learned ones.
So he will continue to pass them along in orders, speeches, handshakes and smiles -- hoping that the remainder of his time as commander of Seymour Johnson's storied fighter wing will be inspired and inspiring.
"I have been given a role to shape the hearts and souls of these airmen, and to give them the resources, training, equipment and attitude they need to go and win," Kwast said. "That's my role and I embrace it with joy, with gratitude and I love it.
"Yes, it's true: I might not be able to go out there and do the sexy part of the business -- pull the trigger -- but you know what? There are God fearing people out there doing that and God willing, they come home safely," he added. "And you know, if I'm doing my job right, they will."
And he knows that if ever a time should come when he forgets what leading is all about, Lilly will be there -- still looking skyward and waving that American flag, still following the example her father sets for all his children.
"When your children grow up like we do in the military -- we're moving all the time, Daddy's gone and in harm's way -- they grow up with a sense of perspective and a sense of value," Kwast said. "They learn that life is about connections. Life is about relationships and friendships. They learn fundamentally that there are only two things in life that can make you happy -- the loves of your life and hard work."
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