09/21/08 — New 4th Wing commander back 'home'

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New 4th Wing commander back 'home'

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 21, 2008 7:27 AM

Mark Kelly had only been a member of the 4th Fighter Wing for a few months.

It was late summer 2001, a time that found him, mostly, in the cockpit of an F-15E Strike Eagle.

Col. Kell

News-Argus/Mitch Loeber

Col. Mark Kelly

He had no idea, then, that he would need to use the training he was receiving as a member of the 334th Fighter Squadron.

Or that when the day came that he would, it would be in response to an attack on American soil.

But a few weeks after he watched the 9/11 attacks unfold from the living room in his Goldsboro home, Kelly was the first member of the 4th deployed to fly countless combat hours over Afghanistan.

He was one of the many gladly passing on sleep to take air power to the enemy.

"There was no problem getting guys to fly 11-, 12-hour missions," he said. "It was fresh."

In his mind, seven years later, it still is.

So ask Kelly about the fight still brewing in the Middle East and he might talk about flying out of Bagram Air Base less than a month ago -- about dropping bombs and responding to troops-in-contact calls.

"It was a big summer. Strategically, the reason Afghanistan was so busy is because of the successes we have reaped in Iraq," Kelly said. "Some of the Taliban have gone home to roost."

He tells those stories but does not boast.

He won't even talk about his Bronze Star.

He would rather credit the maintainers who have kept his Strike Eagle in the air for nearly a decade and those Marines from North Carolina still taking the fight to insurgents on the ground in two theaters.

Maybe that is why 9th Air Force Commander Gen. Gary North chose Kelly to lead the 4th -- a wing he called "the crown jewel of the Air Force."

Or why the general said it was "fitting" that Kelly's call sign is "Grace," that he asked to finish out his tour with other flyers from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, before making the trip to Seymour Johnson.


Kelly downplays even this assignment.

He chalks it up to "perfect timing" -- not skill, achievement or determination.

Just a fighter pilot and committed war fighter who happened to get his dream job.

That is how he sees himself.

So when he got word he would be leaving Afghanistan to assume command of a wing he considers "home," he accepted the news feeling a "deep sense of responsibility."

A responsibility to train a new generation of airmen for the fight he has been engaged in since a few weeks after an infamous September morning in 2001 -- to tie each one of them to the missions unfolding in the desert he left behind to lead them.

"Me getting my mind around closing out the 2008 budget, that's a challenge," Kelly said, "Tying each one of our airmen to our mission over there, that's easy. That's easy."


Kelly walks into a classroom filled with first-term airmen He might be their new commander, but his mind is still focused on the fight he left behind.

He knows how important each airman before him is to that fight.

So he paints a picture for them that became all too familiar during his stint at Bagram.

"I draw a mission unfolding in Afghanistan and I show a troops-in-contact situation. This five-vehicle convoy hits an (Improvised Explosive Device) near the Pakistan border and the Joint Tactical Air Controller has put in a request, through his laptop ... for air support," he says. "Two Strike Eagles that are 100 miles north turn south."

The colonel stops there.

"I don't care if the class is five people or 50 people," he said. "One by one, I go, 'What do you do?' ... It's easy to tie them into that mission 7,200 miles away. When they are done, I ask the rhetorical question, 'Which one of these airmen could you do without?' ... It doesn't exist."


Today's fight is different than the one Kelly encountered as a younger man.

The airmen now under his charge are "better" than he was during missions he flew in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

"We were kind of new to the (close-air-support) game in 2001," Kelly said. "These guys now are pros."

But some things have not changed.

Like the responsibility of caring for families that comes with being a wing commander.

"We owe them a lot for their service to this nation," Kelly said of the airmen under his care. "What we owe them is taking care of what means the most to them."

Or his charge to prepare each of them for the battles they will likely join in the coming months.

"When I chat with them, I'm like, 'If we have a failed component on an aircraft that doesn't fly here, we miss a training sortie. We miss the training we need to take over there,'" Kelly said. "But if we don't get the sortie there, if that airplane fails, if the person flying that day fails, if the person who put gas in failed that day ... we have failed the sons and daughters of North Carolina -- those young Marines (on the ground) from Camp Lejune."


Walking the Seymour Johnson flight line is nothing new to Kelly.

A member, earlier this decade, of each of the 4th's fighter squadrons, this particular place is quite familiar.

So are the communities outside the gate.

"Home." That is how Kelly describes it.

So as he prepares for his time at the top of the 4th's ranks, he does so knowing that like those missions in Afghanistan still fresh in his mind, this, too, is "no fail."

"Imagine playing football for a high school somewhere, and the next thing you know, you're hired as coach," he said. "You feel a little more pressure because you're in front of the hometown crowd. ... So it's a good feeling, but you feel a deep sense of responsibility. This is homecoming and everybody is looking for a win."

But don't ask him if he expected this assignment as an officer flying missions with the 335th Chiefs.

Seven years ago, he would not have allowed himself to dream that big.

"Lots of folks who become colonels want to be wing commander, but I don't know another who became a wing commander back at the base he considers home -- where both of his kids started and finished high school, where he got to deploy to two major theater wars, where his wife was a substitute teacher," Kelly said. "(My wife, Tanya), she used the quote, 'Dream come true.' That kind of sums it up."