A new flight plan
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 1, 2014 1:50 AM
Col. Jeannie Leavitt, 4th Fighter Wing commander, walks away from an F-15E Strike Eagle with her family, husband, Col. Craig Leavitt, daughter, Shannon, and son, Michael, after taking her final flight at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
After taking her final flight, Col. Leavitt looks out of the cockpit at a crowd of salutes and waves.
Col. Leavitt shakes the hand of her WSO.
As Col. Leavitt walks away from the aircraft, she is hosed down with water by her children.
Jeannie Leavitt will always be the little girl at an air show -- watching, awestruck, as various aircraft streak through the sky overhead.
The F-15E will forever be a part of her story -- a tale of barriers broken, adversity met and excellence realized.
So when the 4th Fighter Wing's first female commander guided a Strike Eagle toward the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base flight line one final time Thursday afternoon, the moment was as bittersweet as she imagines her final salute at the helm of one of the military's most notable unit's will be when she delivers it Monday.
Decades ago, a fighter pilot is all she ever wanted to be.
She had no idea that the career that started when she, at last, realized her dream, would unfold quite like it has.
From the moment she executed her first salute in front of members of the wing she once trained as a member of, Leavitt knew this particular assignment would be a memorable one.
"It's such an incredible honor, and it's nothing I could have imagined," she said. "I just wanted to fly fighters, so to look out at all the airmen of the 4th Fighter Wing knowing full well the history and heritage tied to this wing, I was truly humbled."
And when, for the first time, she fired up a Strike Eagle under the "Lion 1" call sign, it was special.
"It was a little surreal because again, I've flown in this wing three times ... and I've always known the 'Lion' call sign and it's always been tied to the 4th Fighter Wing commander," she said. "So it was very different for me. It was very surreal ... for me to be using that call sign."
But her command, ultimately, would be defined by much more than her precision as a pilot.
A looming Operational Readiness Inspection, budget crisis and unprecedented defense cuts -- all while preparing to execute combat taskings overseas -- forced the colonel to push the men and women under her command through adversity.
She remembers the day she was charged with informing members of the 336th Fighter Squadron they were grounded.
"I challenged the Rocketeers. I told them, 'This is something we have no control over. The fact is the unit is going to be grounded. We don't know for how long. The question is, what now? What are you going to do about it?'" Leavitt said. "And I challenged them to make a productive use of their time. I challenged them to not have self-pity ... but to step up."
And they did.
During the three-plus months they were off the flight line and out of the skies, members of the 336th completed various volunteer projects in the Wayne County community.
They took to the classroom and simulator.
And when they were given the OK to return to their mission, Leavitt was among those in a cockpit.
"I was very proud of (how the Rocketeers responded). It was unprecedented that we were standing down a squadron due to lack of funds. You know, we've grounded the fleet in the past -- due to safety concerns -- but this was the first time we've grounded squadrons due to a lack of funding," the colonel said. "After 99 days of being stood down, they were able to launch the first jets."
The ORI was a challenge in itself.
Many members of the 4th had endured inspections, but this one would be different -- a far more rigorous test than any had ever experienced.
"This was the first time that Air Combat Command was exercising this construct," Leavitt said.
And to make matters worse, weather issues reduced the amount of time in which they had to prepare.
So when the Inspector General team arrived on Seymour Johnson and witnessed how the 4th prepares for -- and executes -- its mission in theater, they -- and Leavitt -- were blown away.
"The team absolutely rocked," the colonel said, noting that 98 members of the wing were recognized as superior performers by the IG team. "They got an overall 'Excellent' on what was a very challenging scenario. I was incredibly proud of how this wing performed."
Adversity met and overcome.
It's a mantra that has been tied to Leavitt since the day the Air Force chose her to be its first female fighter pilot.
But during her stint as commander of the 4th, it has been her pleasure to watch others come into their own.
In the two years since she took the wing's guidon, more than 1,500 airmen have deployed to 15 countries across the globe.
And even as she prepares to relinquish command, several hundred will be in theater as Monday's ceremony unfolds.
"We have airmen deployed around the world, day in and day out. We have few hundred airmen at any given time deployed," Leavitt said.
Preparing them -- and their families -- for those tours has been an honor, the colonel said.
"Any time you're sending them down range, there's that responsibility to ensure that we have fully prepared them so they are prepared to execute the mission," she said. "I think we've been very successful in that."
And receiving "rave reviews" about their performances has been inspiring.
So when she got the opportunity to pin the Purple Heart on a young man who exemplified the courage she would tell you every one of her airmen, in their own way, have displayed down range, she was humbled.
Moments like those, Leavitt would say, are among the ones that make being a leader so rewarding.
And when a mother shed tears as she placed a ceremonial wreath at the foot of the stage located inside the Wayne Community College auditorium, Leavitt was there.
She knew that the emotions that accompanied losing her son to war were still raw.
"That was a tough one for me," the colonel said. "How can words describe your feelings for how much you understand what they've lost?"
Every dream runs its course.
And for Leavitt -- for that little girl at the air show who still lives inside her -- walking away from an assignment that marked the culmination of a career in the skies will be difficult.
"It's truly been an honor and a privilege to serve as the 4th Fighter Wing commander and to fly in this airplane has been incredible as always," she said. "I was reflecting on the fact that this has been an amazing assignment. I was thinking that it would be sad to go. And I was talking with my children and children are insightful. They came with a paraphrase of a Dr. Seuss quote, which is, 'Don't be sad that it's over. Instead, be happy that it happened.'"
But having been the one who broke another barrier -- the colonel was the first female fighter wing commander in Air Force history -- Leavitt will, in a way, always be on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
Her presence will carry on inside the little girls who attend the next Wings Over Wayne and look skyward.
"If I can inspire someone to inspire their dreams, I consider that mission success," Leavitt said. "So if me taking this job inspires someone to follow their dreams in a career field they thought not possible, I think I've accomplished something."
And her message will live on inside the men and women she will salute one final time Monday morning before Col. Mark Slocum takes the reins.
"The moment will be bittersweet. It's been an incredible two years," Leavitt said. "But I will thank the airmen. And I will challenge them to lead the way -- to be fourth but first."