09/09/08 — Col. Kwast stands down, Col. Mark Kelly assumes command of SJAFB's 4th FW

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Col. Kwast stands down, Col. Mark Kelly assumes command of SJAFB's 4th FW

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 9, 2008 1:33 PM

Three weeks ago, Col. Mark Kelly was taking air power to enemy forces in Afghanistan.

But a phone call from 9th Air Force and U.S. Air Forces Central Commander Lt. Gen. Gary North ended his tour.

"I said to him, 'I've got a deal for you. I need you to come lead the 4th Fighter Wing,'" North told those gathered at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base this morning. "He said, 'Sir, that's wonderful, but can I finish my full rotation in the combat zone?'"

North could not accommodate him.

So after Kelly grasped the 4th guidon, and by extension, command of the storied fighter wing, he let each airman on hand know just where his mind was.

"7,200 miles east," he said. "Simply because that is where the fight is."

A decorated war fighter and former 333rd Fighter Squadron commander, Kelly accepted command from the man who was on the other end of that phone call weeks ago.

North called it "fitting."

"It's a great Air Force morning. ... Welcome home to you and your family," he said. "The return of the journey begins today."

But today's ceremony was not just about Kelly.

North praised outgoing commander Col. Steve Kwast for his "courage," "outstanding leadership" and commitment to his country.

Kwast was awarded the Legion of Merit shortly before he saluted 4th airmen one final time as their commander, mouthing "Fourth but first" as he brought his hand above his chin.

"No change of command is about one person. It's about the fighting spirit of this nation," he said. "It has been an honor. It has been a pleasure. I am humbled."

Kwast's next move will be to Langley.

The colonel has been named Air Combat Command's deputy director of requirements, a post he says will involve developing the Air Force's future weapons.

Kelly called him "great."

"You know, I told Public Affairs the other day, 'Show me someone who has to follow Col. Steve Kwast at anything -- badminton, horseshoes, public speaking, much less commanding a huge fighter wing -- and I'll show you a guy who's just a little bit intimidated,'" Kelly said. "He simply leaves a trail of excellence in his wake."

More than 1,000 airmen, community leaders and retired service members attended the event.

So at the end of his speech, Kelly urged them to turn their focus overseas -- to the theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq -- and left them with this charge.

"Every single day, every single person plays a part ... in the force we push 7,200 miles east," he said. "The good guys over there ... they hail from the highest levels of our nation. ... They are America's truest national treasure, and they deserve our support."