HURLBURT FIELD — As the band played and the airmen stood at attention in the muggy airplane hangar, Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel strode onto the stage for the last time as leader of Air Force Special Operations.
Moments later he handed over command of the 19,000 special ops airmen to Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold.
The top brass of the Air Force, including Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, were on hand for Thursday’s ceremony at Hurlburt Field, the headquarters of Air Force Special Operations.
Addressing the airmen in attendance, Welsh noted it had been 12 years, 8 months and 26 days since the attacks on 9/11.
“That’s a lot of combat. That’s a lot of sacrifice. And that’s a lot of heroes,” Welsh said. “You are the most feared and most respected special operations team in the world.”
After serving three years as commander, Fiel is retiring from the Air Force.
“Brad’s got big shoes to fill, but luckily he’s got big feet,” Welsh joked. “One of the great things about the U.S. military is every time we see a great leader walk out the door, we get to see another one walk in.”
Heithold had been serving as vice commander of U.S. Special Operations in Washington, D.C.
He said his priority in the new position will be creating an environment where airmen can thrive.
“Not certain cliques, not certain groups, but so all airmen can thrive,” he said. “That’s number one, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Heithold was planning to retire until he was “humbled” by the offer to take over as commander of Air Force special ops.
“Frankly this is the only job that could keep me in the United States Air Force after 40 years,” he said after the ceremony. “When you get offered the opportunity to command 19,000 great Americans, you are going to do it.”
Heithold first came to Hurlburt Field in 1985 as a young captain and his wife fell in love with Northwest Florida, he said.
His family has had a presence here ever since.
“This is home for us,” he said. “We never left.”
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4443 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRnwfdn.