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Commander reflects on past, looks to future

Col. Kevin Merrill

Col. Kevin J. Merrill poses in front of a C-145A Combat Coyote at Duke Field, Florida in 2019. Merrill reflected on the past two years recently and provided insight on his thoughts when he first stepped into the role as the 919th Special Operations Wing commander. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dylan Gentile)

DUKE FIELD, Fla. -- A wing change of command ceremony will take place July 11, 2021 at Duke Field, Florida. The ceremony will mark the moment 919th Special Operations Wing commander, Col. Kevin J. Merrill, hands over the guidon to his successor. This symbolic gesture can be one the most difficult changes for a commander when it appears the work associated with the job he is leaving is never complete.

Amidst the challenges of a pandemic and social unrest throughout the country, Merrill somehow managed to keep Citizen Air Commandos mission oriented. Merrill sat down with the 919th SOW historian to answer a few questions about his tenure as commander of the Air Force Reserve's only special operations wing. According to Merrill, the contributions of the members of the Wing over the last two years have been impressive and made him grateful for his time with the 919th SOW.

What were your initial thoughts when you were stepping into the role as the 919 SOW commander?

I can honestly say I didn't know exactly what I was getting into at that moment. I was excited and grateful for the opportunity but knew I had a lot to learn. Reflecting on the past two years, I am humbled I was able to be a part of this remarkable wing, even for just a short time. 

What do you consider to be your biggest successes and accomplishments during your time at the 919th SOW?

In my mind, the biggest accomplishment for this wing was it’s ability to maintain readiness and mission focus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 919th assessed across all categories for readiness and in the 12 months (from March 2020 to March 2021), the wing did not lose any readiness. In fact, we gained readiness in some areas.

What would you consider to be some of the biggest challenges you faced during your time here at 919th SOW?

The biggest challenge was COVID-19. In March 2020 when COVID-19 first started, we were getting a number of directions and guidance from multiple sources, multiple Major Commands. We are an AFRC unit on an Air Force Mobility Command base, gained by Air Force Special Operations Command, so there are at least three organizations giving us guidance. Sorting through all that guidance and still being able to accomplish the mission was the biggest challenge we faced.

Finally, we worked hard to stay connected despite the social changes that we have had in our country during the last 12 months. We have definitely worked to make sure everyone in 919th SOW feels that they are included, feel that they have a voice, and can contribute to the mission.

What challenges facing 919th SOW do you feel you will leave to your successor?

I think the biggest challenge he will have is preparing for our Unit Effectiveness Inspection in August 2022. We have chipped away at some of our Air Force Inspection System requirements, but not as much as I would have liked to have done in my time here. I think there will be some work there left for him. You have probably heard about AFSOC’s changes in some of their structure. Not only in their Wing structure, but in how they want to align their forces to meet future needs and requirements.

I think that will be challenging, because it has the potential to impact the 919th [SOW]. We do not know what those changes will entail yet, so he is going to have to work through all of that.

What do you see on the horizon for the 919th SOW?

Our Airmen are AFSOC’s and the 919th’s competitive advantage. I truly believe that because I’ve seen the caliber of our Airmen first hand. We’ve got Citizen Air Commandos imbedded almost in every AFSOC mission set. As AFSOC transforms from the AFSOC our nation has needed for the last 20 years into the AFSOC our nation will need in the future operating environment, I think the 919th will be right there with them as a relevant, valued mission partner.

What lessons do you feel you have learned from 919th SOW and what will you take to your next assignment at AFSOC?

Some lessons, some realizations. Some realizations are that this Wing and the people in 919th SOW are inclined to ‘lean forward.’ They want to be a part of the mission…to contribute…and to find a way to get it done.

One of Lt. Gen. Richard Scobee’s [AFRC Commander] priorities is to build strategic depth—We  have strategic depth in spades here at 919th SOW. We have Combat Aviation Advisors members who have been in it for years and years. We have civil Reservists who have been in the 919th Special Operations Civil Engineering Squadron since they were young Airmen and are now Senior Master Sergeants. The AFSOC culture is awesome and I love it. I will certainly take a lot of 919th SOW with me as I go to the headquarters.

What will you miss most about being a part of the 919th SOW?

Without a doubt, I’ll miss the people the most. This is an incredible Wing with a very rich heritage of heroic, selfless contributions to special operations and our nation’s defense. Much of what our Airmen do goes unnoticed, but they do it anyway. They aren’t in this for themselves. The pride they have in their squadrons and the Wing, and how they contribute to the overall mission, is second to none. Our Airmen today never cease to impress me with their skill, devotion, and sacrifice.

Any final thoughts as you reflect on your time here at 919th SOW?

Reflecting on the past two years, I am humbled that I was able to be a part of this remarkable Wing, even for just a short time. When I took command, one of my goals was to remove barriers, so people could accomplish the mission. I hope I was able to remove bureaucratic barriers or shield commanders and our Airmen from some of the things they did not need to worry about, so they could accomplish the mission. I think the numbers speak for themselves; I like to think that is why, though I suspect our Airmen would have done well anyway.

Finally, the biggest thing I will take away is the pride our Airmen have in this organization. It is impressive on a scale I have not seen anywhere else. They are proud to be here and a part of 919th SOW and they are proud to be Reservists executing the AFSOC mission. I am sure you probably see it too, but it is impressive.

People will say that squadron command is the best, but I do not think so. I think wing command is the best. As a wing commander, you are really able to impact people’s lives and the mission. Hopefully, I was able to do that a little bit.