Mission of leadership: Col. Mark Kelly looks back on first year as 4th Wing commander
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 22, 2009 1:50 AM
It started with a phone call to the desert -- an Air Force general on one end, a seasoned aviator and war fighter on the other.
Col. Mark Kelly had no idea he was about to be asked to command Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's 4th Fighter Wing -- that within days, his deployment to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, would end so he could lead the unit that molded him into an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot.
"I didn't see it in the cards, so it was a little bit of shock, a little bit of a surprise, but all welcome nonetheless," he said. "We still have good friends (in Goldsboro) that we have had forever. This is where we had owned a house for the longest period of time. This is where both of our children started and finished high school. ... So it was a pretty darn easy place to come back to."
The hard part was leaving his squadron -- and the troops on the ground who often called on him for air support.
"It was more a choice between personal duty and personal selfishness," Kelly said. "The selfish part of me wanted to stay there and finish up, but in the big scheme of things, I knew I could do a lot more here in charge of 5,000 airmen than I could there as a vice wing commander. ... What we do here has such a huge impact 7,200 miles away."
It has been more than a year since Kelly was pulled out of a war zone to begin his latest mission.
And in the months since, the colonel has realized just how tightly Afghanistan and his Goldsboro base are connected -- and just how courageous and committed the new generation of airmen really are.
He has been there on the flight line hours before sunrise as young men and women boarded transport planes bound for that same base he left back in the summer of 2008.
"The radio was so silent. The fact was, nobody needed anything," Kelly said. "Those airplanes were so ready, so well-prepared, so well-postured, that the radio was silent. That doesn't happen. That doesn't happen with an airplane that is so complex."
He has heard stories from Air Force leaders about lives saved by 4th air crews, how maintainers from his wing produced a record number of combat sorties.
"Our maintainers, our aviators and our support folks over there have flown more hours and more sorties and more troops-in-contact situations ... than at any time in history," Kelly said. "That is literally hours and hours of sweat and blood and toil on the flight line. You can deliver as many airplanes as you want to somewhere, but if they don't stand the test of time -- the test of combat -- it doesn't really mean much."
And he was a witness when those under his command pressed on after the war in Afghanistan came home to Wayne County, when news that an F-15E had gone down in theater reached him via a phone call placed mere miles away from the crash site.
"Obviously it was a tough time for everybody, not just for myself or the immediate family, but for the base and the squadron," Kelly said. "Whether it was right or wrong, my first concern was for our squadron deployed down there -- for their ability to press on in spite of this. That was misplaced concern because they did great.
"Behind the scenes, I couldn't help but think that what we do, we often do it so well, whether it be at an air show or down range, sometimes we make this look easy, but that doesn't make it easy," he added. "Sometimes, just because we land safely several thousand times in a row, people naturally start to believe this is a safe business. But continuing to point your nose toward the ground at night in high terrain is never safe. I don't care how much technology we have."
With his airmen's accomplishments and fortitude in mind, Kelly said it has been an honor leading men and women he sees, in a way, as his own children.
It is, after all, their sacrifices, that have inspired him to be the best commander he can.
"The fathers and the mothers of this nation entrust us with their sons and daughters, so they have to be treated as our professional sons and daughters," Kelly said. "So the most benevolent thing we can do for them is make sure they have the right training, the right perspective, the right equipment. ... We owe it to them to set them up for 100 percent success."
Despite all he has seen over the past year, Kelly remains focused on a country 7,200 miles away -- the place where his journey to the commander's seat began.
With hundreds from the wing currently serving in Afghanistan and more set to deploy next fall, he knows he has to be.
And knowing that a different officer will sit atop the 4th's chain of command this time next year, he will work to prepare his airmen to tackle the major readiness inspection and deployment they will face after he is gone.
"Not only will I be leaving, but all four group commanders will be," Kelly said. "To that end, our inspection preparation and our (deployment) preparations have to be solid. We owe that to (the incoming leaders)."
And he owes it to his airmen -- those men and women who have made his latest stint at Seymour Johnson so memorable.
"There is probably a moment ... every few weeks where you are taken back by these airmen," Kelly said. "Something unique happens. ... There is always a small personal story that really brings the idea of service home."