08/03/08 — Col. Bergeson reassigned: called to duty in Alaska

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Col. Bergeson reassigned: called to duty in Alaska

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 3, 2008 11:02 AM

Col. Thomas Bergeson might still be at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base training in the F-15E Strike Eagle, if the 3rd Fighter Wing family did not need him more.

He would have been named 4th Fighter Wing Commander at a star-studded ceremony Aug. 15, a post he called a "dream assignment", during a phone interview from Baghdad in April.

But in light of a recent tragedy at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, the command pilot will, instead, be diverted there, to replace the late Brig. Gen. Thomas Tinsley as commander of the 3rd.

Tinsley died last Sunday of a gunshot wound.

Thursday, many on Seymour Johnson and bases across the Air Force were still grieving the general's passing when word of Bergeson's reassignment started down the command.

When current 4th Commander Col. Steve Kwast got the news of Bergeson's new assignment, he called it "difficult", but said it made perfect sense.

After all, it is critical that all wings in the Air Force be ready to go to war at a moment's notice, he said.

And the 3rd -- the largest unit within the 11th Air Force, comprised of more than 6,600 men and women and a fleet that includes F-15C/D, E-3B, C-17, C-12 and F-22A aircraft -- might not be without the proper leader.

So it felt right to Kwast when Bergeson was reassigned.

"That wing up there is one of the few F-22 wings in our Air Force, and the F-22 is such a new weapons system, that there are very few senior leaders that have experience in it," he said. "In fact, Col. Bergeson is the only one in the Air Force with the background and experience to heal this crisis. He needs to get up there right now and help that community heal.

"We have a lot of people who can lead an F-15 wing like ours, but there really only two can lead that wing," he added. "One of them just died and the other was supposed to come here."

Coming to that realization is something he hopes the base community and those that surround it do, too.

"The gift they can give us, the community, is to be understanding of the greater good that is created for our nation by making sure that wing up there is ready to go to war tomorrow, and that this is the right decision," Kwast said. "I know all 4,600 officers in this Air Force and, without a doubt, Col. Bergeson is the one to go up there. I would have chosen him, too, as painful as it would have been for me to take him away from the 4th Fighter Wing, the crown jewel of my Air Force."

The morning after Kwast first got the news, local media outlets were breaking the story.

But out of respect to his friend, the late Gen. Tinsley, his family and the 3rd Fighter Wing, he wanted to keep this information close until today.

"It's a real tragedy for the Air Force," he said. "The family and that whole community is hurting. Our prayers are with them."

Keeping the news close also gave Air Combat Command Commander Gen. John Corley the opportunity to inform local officials, including Seymour Support Council Chairman Troy Pate, ahead of the public.

"Gen. Corley said 'I want to call (local military officials) myself and break that news to them,'" Kwast said. "It is that important because Seymour is so important to this Air Force."

Pate said he was saddened by the news, that he was looking forward to welcoming Bergeson as the 4th's commander.

"But I think the Air Force did what they had to do," he said. "And I am sure that whoever they decide to bring in to replace Col. Bergeson will be just as good, if not better."

Kwast, who has been preparing for his new assignment at Langley Air Force Base, was scheduled to hand over command of the 4th to Bergeson Aug. 15.

But for the good of the Air Force and the men and women under his charge, he will remain at Seymour Johnson until a replacement is named.

That announcement should come relatively quickly, he said.

And while he would not name the front-runner, he offered his opinion of the person he expects to fill the void left by Bergeson.

"I think they have got a guy in mind who, right now, is over fighting the war," Kwast said. "He is flying the F-15E right now. He is a King Kong colonel. He is extraordinary."

So despite the "minor discomfort" associated with losing a commander a few weeks before he was set to take the reins, Kwast said he is certain that months from now, every airmen and Wayne County resident who come into contact with his replacement will see that something positive really can come out of tragedy.

"A few months from now, we will be celebrating a new wing commander and a wonderful change of command and the wing will be surging forward," Kwast said. "But right now, Gen. Corley wants this community to understand that this is the crown jewel of the Air Force. This decision is not about Seymour Johnson being less important than Elmendorf. It's about this tragedy and the uniqueness of the F-22.

"So the one thing they can do is be understanding and flexible," he added. "The hallmark of an airman is that they are flexible like no other service members. ... We embrace change because change means victory."