Departing Col. Steve Kwast pays tribute to courage ... and the community that supported it
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 7, 2008 11:50 AM
Col. Steve Kwast is among those gathered on a green just beyond the end of the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base flight line.
It is well before sunrise on a September morning last year.
The commander can sense the apprehension of those around him as more than 20 F-15E Strike Eagle air crews prepare to take off for an air base in Afghanistan.
So he starts shaking hands -- looking each family member and friend of the soon-to-be deployed in the eye -- telling him or her about the thrill of victory, just how much their support means to the airmen in those cockpits, that they would be OK.
He knows because he has been there.
But Kwast only allows himself to be the fighter pilot who flew missions over Iraq in the early 1990s as a member of the 4th Fighter Wing for a few moments.
In an instant, he is back to being the wing commander -- a post he will relinquish Tuesday.
"Here are families who have really sacrificed," Kwast said. "You know, you hear about great sacrifices, but one of the biggest sacrifices a person can make is to do without the company of their loved ones for the sake of the nation. That's such a precious gift."
Months later, he showed up to welcome a different fighter squadron home from theater -- an event that marked the end of much of the wing's deployment cycle.
As crew members climbed out of their jets, Kwast watched couples embrace -- smiling when a command pilot lifted up the daughter he had not seen in a quarter of a year.
"To see them reunite, there is such a unique brilliance and joy that comes with that. It's a joy that can't be understood unless you have truly sacrificed," he said. "For me to experience that, one airman at a time, one family at a time, to have my children there ... to see both the sorrow when they leave and the joy when they return, it's a life lesson that will grow a generation of youngsters knowing that there are some things worth dying for."
After Tuesday, it might be a while before Kwast hears the roar of an F-15E.
He might not get the chance to listen to a 20-year-old airman's combat story over breakfast.
He will relinquish command of the 4th and move his family to Langley Air Force Base -- leaving behind friends who seem more like brothers, sisters, children and parents.
But memories like the ones forged along that flight line will not soon leave him.
The colonel stands behind a lectern inside the Wayne Community College auditorium.
It is Memorial Day.
He is the keynote speaker veterans, active-duty airmen and Wayne County residents have come to see.
But those in the crowd have no idea that inside, Kwast is fighting.
"It was hard for me to talk up there on that stage," he said. "The lump in my throat was so big."
He makes it through a 30-minute speech about those who have died in combat without shedding tears.
"Somehow," he said.
The same could not be said for those on the receiving end.
Kwast vows never to forget that day.
"What I tried to do was put myself in the shoes of that young son who 30 years ago lost his father. I put myself in the shoes of that spouse, that wife or husband who lost their loved one, and I felt the pain that they felt when the flag was presented to them at that gravesite," he said. "I put myself in their shoes because they are the ones who suffer most for the good of the nation. ... It is those left behind, with a hole in their heart, who really endure the grieving and suffering for the good of the country.
"So when you connect with that, it's very heavy. It makes you want to cry. It makes you want to breakdown. It makes you deeply grateful."
Kwast knows he won't be present at next year's Memorial Day gathering.
He won't be the guest of honor at the local Veteran's Day parade.
But the thrill of the assignment that awaits him at Langley keeps him from focusing on those realites.
The colonel has been named Air Combat Command's deputy director of requirements, a post Kwast says will involve developing the Air Force's future weapons.
"I cannot wait to sink my teeth into that business, and our family, we are forward thinkers and forward lookers," he said. "We have absolutely zero regrets. We get to learn new things, flex new muscles and develop new friendships."
Still, he knows those friendships formed at Seymour Johnson will stay forever.
As will his pride in the accomplishments of the wing he is leaving behind.
"They blew all the records out of the water for mission accomplishment without failure," he said of the crews who deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, late last year and earlier this year. "But I would propose to you, if you could hear the stories of the Security Forces, of the Civil Engineers and the medics, if you could hear those stories like you have heard the Bagram story, you would find the same heroics.
"The stories that I hear from some of these airmen over breakfast -- somebody deployed with an Army unit in the Green Zone or outside the wire -- the same heroics were taking place, the same kind of excellence. ... I would say to you that those heroics, that excellence, were taking place everywhere a 4th Fighter Wing airman went. That's what I am so proud of."
Kwast takes a seat in a large conference room on Seymour Johnson.
He can't bring himself to entertain company in his office, as the walls where pictures used to hang are bare, his desk empty.
"Not much to see anymore," he said.
It is early August, not long before he would pass the 4th flag is to fellow command pilot and friend, Col. Mark Kelly.
He takes a moment before fielding a question about what makes Seymour Johnson great -- just why the "Fourth is first."
"I know the secret of the success here," he says after a pause. "The one common denominator here is the community. Us in uniform, we come in and leave a few years later. The one common thread is the community. We have a community that is so engaged, they help us keep the quality high. That is what has kept the Fourth first since World War II. That is why the Fourth will always be first.
"It certainly isn't about me," he added. "There is absolutely nothing unique or special about me. I, like these airmen, am just a person lucky enough to do extraordinary things."
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