Into the wild blue yonder
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 9, 2014 1:46 PM
Photo courtesy of 4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Airman 1st Class Brittain Crolley
4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Jeannie Leavitt signals her crew chief before taking flight at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base July 17. After standing down for more than three months, the 336th Fighter Squadron was finally given the green light to resume flying hours and return to combat mission ready status and their leader took them skyward.
An Air Force colonel cracks a smile as she pins one of the nation's oldest military decorations on the chest of one the young men under her command.
"To be able to ... pin the Purple Heart on him was just an incredible honor," she said.
Nov. 8 was one of the good days.
But for every memorable experience 4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Jeannie Leavitt was a part of in 2013 -- for every accolade and celebration -- there was an unprecedented challenge to overcome.
From sequestration and the government shutdown to having to cancel the annual air show that pumps millions of dollars into the communities that surround Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the colonel characterizes the low points of the past year as "difficult," "challenging" and "disappointing."
But rather than dwell on all that was lost in the wake of historic adversity, Col. Leavitt chooses, these days, to focus on how her airmen responded to all they were forced to endure.
"2013 had a number of significant challenges with sequestration and the government shutdown, but the 4th Fighter Wing stepped up and knocked it out of the park," she said. "They did amazingly well. They overcame the challenges. ... They persevered."
The 336th Fighter Squadron is grounded, thanks to federal budget woes, for the first time in its history.
And in the days after the orders were handed down, Col. Leavitt is outspoken about just why the decision concerns her.
There is a morale issue to worry about -- and national security.
"We'll have reduced combat capability," she said back in April. "You know, the mission of the 4th Fighter Wing is to deliver dominant Strike Eagle air power -- any time, any place -- and very shortly, we will only have one of our two operational squadrons ... combat mission ready and worldwide deployable."
But given the fact that the Rocketeers have long since returned to the skies, the colonel thinks, now, about how her aviators and maintainers dealt with the circumstances they found themselves in.
"Do they stay upset and kick the dirt and say, 'Woe, is me?' Or do they make the most of that time? That's what they did. They stepped up and did incredible work. They had more simulator time than we have ever seen. They did a lot of volunteer work in our community. You saw Rocketeers all around town," Col. Leavitt said. "I was very proud of our airmen -- the way they stepped up and handled it -- because it was a very unfortunate set of circumstances."
Members of the 336th were not, however, the only members of the 4th who impressed their commander in 2013.
When, as a result of the shutdown, the base was prevented from participating, the way it normally does, in the local Veterans Day Parade, the men and women who serve at Seymour Johnson came up with another way to join the fray.
There would be no robots or bomb suits -- no military vehicles rumbling down Center Street.
"With all the restrictions, we weren't allowed to," Col. Leavitt said.
But nobody, she said, told them they couldn't march.
So senior leaders spread the word that airmen could volunteer to join the annual procession.
And what unfolded on Nov. 11 -- when more than 500 uniformed men and women converged on downtown Goldsboro -- still leaves the installation's highest ranking officer at a loss.
"I was just overwhelmed by the response. The turnout was just amazing," Col. Leavitt said. "And the response from the community, it was very, very special. The gratitude from the crowd -- the thanks yous and I love yous -- it was awesome.
"Just that feeling of pride and understanding how much our community and society appreciates the service and the sacrifice of our airmen ... that meant a lot."
Problems within the federal government -- and the turmoil created as a result of them -- were not the only things that made an impact on the Seymour Johnson history books in 2013.
In fact, perhaps the most notable occurrence had nothing to do with stalemates in Washington.
But the Operational Readiness Inspection the 4th Fighter Wing participated in was a test in its own right.
The team charged with determining whether the 4th was ready for combat brought plenty of adversity with it.
So when the time came to show off what the wing was made of, the men and women who serve within it did something that left Col. Leavitt "incredibly impressed."
Their mission was to demonstrate that they could quickly deploy assets to a simulated theater -- that once there, they could carry out missions akin to those they face in deployed locations while thwarting "attacks."
"Usually, it was one or the other, so we were the first one where they were combining the two in a compressed timeline. ... That's what made it incredibly challenging," Col. Leavitt said. "But we kept that focus -- that we were going to ensure this wing was mission ready."
And after several "very long days," they did just that.
"I was incredibly impressed, but it is the 4th Fighter Wing standard," the colonel said. "They did knock it out of the park."
Now that one of the most challenging years of her career is behind her, Col. Leavitt is looking ahead to the year to come.
There will be more training and exercises -- more airmen leaving for tours overseas and others coming home from them.
The 2015 air show -- if the budget allows for one -- could move into its planning stages.
And at least one fixture at the top of the chain of command will prepare to move on -- and then do so.
So as Col. Leavitt completes her stint in a job she never dreamed she would report to one day, she remains focused on ensuring that whatever the challenge, her airmen are prepared to overcome it.
And she will continue to count herself among those people lucky enough to do what she loves every day -- even if some are far more trying than she imagined they could be when she first stepped into her nation's uniform.
"As a lieutenant in the Rockets, I never could have in a million years imagined being here. I have truly tried to cherish every moment as I've gone. You know, the time has gone way too fast," she said. "There's ups and there are downs, but I wouldn't trade a minute of it. It really has been an incredible experience and I will continue to cherish every moment."