(Rich Galen, Mullings) – According to Wikipedia, there are approximately 2,247,995 uniformed personnel in America’s military services.
Last week, I was at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama to help one of them say goodbye.
Col. Ken Backes was retiring as a full Colonel after 40 years of service. The first 10 were as an enlisted Airman, the last 30 working his way through the commissioned ranks.
We met in Iraq. Ken had been promoted from Major to Lt. Col. in September of 2003 and a couple of months later found himself – along with a bunch of other Lt. Colonels – on a bus from the Bagdad International Airport to the Green Zone.
Each of those officers was assigned to one of the units. Ken drew the Health Ministry.
For those who followed my six-month tour during 2003-2004, you know that I have been honored to have since been invited to promotion ceremonies, medal awards, retirements, and changes of command.
When the invitation from Col. Backes arrived, I checked that I would be in the country, moved a few things already on my calendar out of the way, and sent the appropriate response.
Maxwell AFB is, according to its website, “the intellectual and leadership center of the Air Force.” That means there aren’t many airplanes, but there are a lot of schools from basic officer training to an advanced war college.
Newt Gingrich has – quietly until now – taught an advanced-level class at the Air War College there twice a year every year since 1985. And, he has never asked for a dime for doing it.
I tell you all that because there was a formal dinner on the night before Ken’s retirement. It was in honor of 120 young professionals who had decided to volunteer for military service, had completed their officer training course, and were going to become commissioned officers the next day. These young men and women are lawyers and doctors, nurses and physical therapists, will be using their training and skills on behalf of their nation, making Second and First Lieutenant pay.
The next morning, the officer candidates were on the parade ground, passing in review and taking the oath that every commissioned officer takes when he or she is first commissioned and at every promotion.
A few hours later, Col. Backes’ retirement ceremony took place.
Military retirements are often emotional undertakings. Like all things military, there are certain customs that must be observed and these differ according to the service. In the case of Ken’s retirement, there was a flag ceremony.
A group of Airmen and Officers assembled in front of the stage – a new airman at one end, a full Colonel at the other.
After folding an American flag in the traditional triangle, the airman on the left handed it to an E-2 next to him and saluted. That went on through every rank that Backes has held – enlisted and commissioned – with the narrator reciting the date of the promotion.
I’m not describing it well, but it was very moving.
During his remarks, Ken told a story I had totally forgotten. After serving in Iraq he was sent to Afghanistan to command a squadron of airmen and office who had ten installations to deal with. Ken thought it would be appropriate to fly a flag at each installation for each member of his team as a memento of that service.
As it happened, more airmen were sent to help, but Ken had run out of flags – and maybe run out of money to buy more.
Ken said he sent me an email to see if I could help raise some money to buy more flags. He said my only response was “How many do you need and where do I send them.”
As I wrote at the top, I’ve been to many military ceremonies. This one struck me as special because I witnessed the successful conclusion of Col. Backes’ career in the Air Force and the very first moments of 120 other careers.
Not a Change of Command; a Change of Generations.
Thank you Ken Backes, Colonel, USAF (Ret).
Mr. Galen is a veteran political strategist and communications consultant. He blogs at www.Mullings.com.