07/01/09 — Mission ready: Kwast knows this is the real-life test

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Mission ready: Kwast knows this is the real-life test

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 1, 2009 1:46 PM

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Photo courtesy of 916th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs Chief Maj. Shannon Man

455th Air Expeditionary Wing Commander Col. Steve Kwast on the Crow's Nest catwalk at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

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Submitted photo

The Crow's Nest at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- Steve Kwast is no longer the young Air Force lieutenant who flew into Iraq during the early stages of Operation Desert Storm.

He is not the same kind of leader he was a year ago, when running Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's 4th Fighter Wing was his daily charge.

The message he sends members of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing currently under his command at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, comes across more brash than those who knew him years ago might expect.

But the colonel -- scheduled for promotion to brigadier general this fall -- would tell you that his values haven't changed.

Protecting the men and women who represent America's fighting force is still his top priority.

Only now, he is leading them from "the tip of the spear."

And to keep them safe at war, there is no room for error.

"When I talk to the young men and women here at Bagram, it's a very different talk than you have ever heard me give before, but it's to shake them into an awareness of what they are stepping into," said Kwast, who currently controls all air forces in Afghanistan. "This is not a game. This is no longer training. And we are no longer in the States. You are here to fight for your life, and if you are not switched on every single day here, you might be the next one who gets shot at because you weren't paying attention.

"It looks fun and it's neat and it could look like Las Vegas if you close your eyes and squinted just right, but I warn them that that is a false sense of security. This is a dangerous place. It's dangerous within and it's dangerous outside the wire. So you better be on your game. You better be ready to rock and roll at a moment's notice. And if that means drawing your weapon and shooting someone right between the eyes if you need to save someone's life or prevent a complex attack from being developed, you better be ready. That's why you train. That's why you carry a weapon like another arm around here."

From Bagram's "Crow's Nest" -- an aging Soviet-built control tower that looks out on both the mountains that surround the base and the flight line -- Kwast spoke Tuesday about the new philosophy in Afghanistan, his long-term hopes for the country and flying alongside members of Seymour Johnson's own 336th Fighter Squadron.

"I see (the war in Afghanistan) as a great experiment globally. What I mean by that ... is the world is a playground, and right now, there is a bully on the playground," he said. "This bully is going around hurting other people. The question is whether the peace-loving people of the world are able to put together a structure that is sufficiently powerful enough to provide no sanctuary for that bully, disarm the bully and prevent the bully from hurting anymore people on the playground -- permanently."

But putting an end to extremism in the region is no longer about dropping bombs on target, he said.

In fact, it's quite the opposite.

"When you look at combatants shooting at you, you may not be looking at all bad guys. What you are probably looking at is one or two really bad Al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders who have gone into a village and, at gun point, threatened some 23-year-old man -- pointing a gun at his son or daughter and saying, 'You'll pick up this weapon and go fight with me because the Americans are right around the corner or I am going to shoot the child right now,'" the colonel said. "So that 23-year-old father picks up a gun reluctantly and follows that leader. He knows if he's not shooting at us, those guys are going to turn around and shoot at him. And then, they are probably going to turn around and go kill that man's family.

"The intimidation factor in this fight cannot be underestimated. So my proudest missions are when I am able to defuse an engagement without killing the insurgent, because I can't tell who is really the bad guy and who is being coerced into doing something to save their family."

He referenced a recent mission he flew with members of the 336th.

Insurgents were "in a position where they were going to employ their usual tactic -- which is to fire at us and then move to a civilian village, trying to draw us into killing civilians to defend ourselves," he said.

But Kwast and those alongside him in F-15E cockpits didn't take the bait.

"If I had dropped that bomb, I would have killed one or two really bad guys and three or four innocent young men who were just trying to keep their family alive," he said. "And if those innocent men had died, the whole tribe would pick up weapons and fight against us. The loss of one innocent life will turn 50 people against you. That is why President Obama is turning this around. He understands that we need to go at this differently.

"Victory in this war has nothing to do with how many Taliban I kill. It has everything to do with taking the center of gravity -- the population -- away from the Taliban. If the population turns against the Taliban because they recognize that the Taliban is bad, we will win this overnight. We could kill Taliban until we spend ourselves into oblivion as Americans and we would not win this war. Until we ... truly win the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan, we will never win this."

But that doesn't mean bombs don't get dropped when they are needed.

And when the time comes to do so, 336th air crews -- and others under his command -- deliver.

So he thanks them by doing everything in his power to keep them safe, to send them home to the hero's welcome they deserve.

"For me, it's just a fierce sense of protectionism. In other words, I am here to protect them. I am here to keep them safe. So I have just a very aggressive sense of focus to not lose sight of that," Kwast said. "My leadership style out here is much different than it was at Seymour Johnson for that very reason. Every minute I'm awake, every minute I am conscious, I am thinking about their safety and my obligation to keep them safe."

And every time he deploys an aircraft, he thinks, also, about those people back home -- the young families like his who will only enjoy freedom as long as America's enemies are contained.

"We've got to get this right. If we fall apart here, that bully will be free to terrorize the world again and again," he said. "So we're making a stand here in Afghanistan. I really believe that. And that's why this is so deep and so personal. I want my children to grow up in a world where there are no bullies like that. And if we get this right, we can make that a reality."

A reality he believes will come to fruition before his children have families of their own.

"I have very strong and deep hope, but I have reasons for that hope, and it's in the faces of the people of Goldsboro. It's in the eyes of those young warriors who are here for the long run. They are going to fight until this is won. They are not going to back down," Kwast said. "This is quintessential American spirit. John Wayne is not dead. He's out here fighting in Bagram and he's in the faces of those young men and women in the 336th Fighter Squadron. I pity the enemy. It's going to be costly and it's going to be difficult, but it's going to worth it. I truly believe that we are going to defeat those who wish us harm."