Col. Tom Palenske, a nearly 30-year veteran special operations officer, took command of the U.S. Air Force’s most deployed wing during a change of command ceremony at Hurlburt Field last week.
Lt. Gen. Brad Heithold, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, presided over the ceremony in which Palenske, the former vice commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing, assumed command of the wing formerly led by Col. Sean Farrell.
“This is a big day,” Heithold said. “You don’t rise to the point of where you command a wing in the United States Air Force unless you got something going on.”
Heithold commended Farrell’s efforts and achievements as the 1st SOW commander.
“Since January of 2015, Sean, when you took command of this great organization, you have crushed it on the battlefield,” Heithold said. “The Airmen you have led have performed magnificently. You have extraordinary Airmen that we ask extraordinary things from.”
Farrell led the command’s largest wing as the most deployed wing in the Air Force with more than 5,000 Air Commandos employed to execute 30,900 combat flight hours during his 18-month tenure. During Farrell’s time at the 1st SOW, he spearheaded the Air Commando Development Program initiative that fused the training needs of 24 squadrons and established deliberate tactical and leadership development of Air Commandos. During his tenure, Farrell fielded the first AC-130J Ghostrider, coined the “Ultimate Battle Plane” by Heithold, for operational testing as he stood up the 1st Special Operations Group, Detachment 2. As an additional phase of modernizing the force, he also oversaw the retirement of the AC-130H Spectre and the MC-130P Combat Shadow and their induction into the air park, here.
Under his command, the Highway 98 flyover bridge, 10 years in the making, was opened improving the travel for 47,000 commuters. The new base housing was also opened, improving the standard of living for 11,000 active duty members assigned to Hurlburt Field.
Farrell’s leadership led to award-winning success through 37 Air Force and 215 AFSOC awards across a number of units on base, including the 901st Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron being awarded the 2015 Department of Defense Phoenix Award for Maintenance Excellence, and the 1st Special Operations Force Support Squadron receiving the 2015 Hennessy Trophy Award.
Before receiving his final salute as the commander, Farrell expressed his appreciation to Team Hurlburt for their support during his command.
“The squadron commanders and senior (non-commissioned officers) set the tone and tenure for the wing,” Farrell said. “Your leadership drove the climate and the culture. You have the toughest job in the wing, and you have my enduring gratitude…To the Air Commandos of the 1st SOW, your sacrifice and service is an exemplar of what is best about our great nation…you are our nation’s guardian and its shield. It has been my honor to serve beside you.”
Farrell left the Air Commandos with parting words of mentorship and said moving on is much harder than he imagined.
“Strive to connect your subordinates and yourself to something bigger,” Farrell said. “Serve with a passion and a commitment that our nation deserves. Be proud of what you, as Airmen, bring to the fight, because nobody delivers (Special Operations Forces) airpower better than AFSOC and the 1 SOW.”
Farrell says the wing could not be in better hands moving forward.
“(As) you get ready to take this flag of the mighty 1st SOW, I ask that you continue, Tom, to do one simple thing,” said Heithold. “Focus on the things that we all have endeared as the priorities, and that is we provide combat ready forces…Because we have a mission we are going to win.”
Having spent the last 18 months as the vice commander of the 1st SOW, Palenske said the best part of his job was being able to work so closely and learn from his predecessor, Farrell. Although Palenske described the Farrell command team as a hard act to follow, he is grateful for the time Farrell invested in mentoring him and is ready to take the reins of the 1st SOW.
“As I become the commander, my role will change in that I pick up a whole lot more responsibility…last week the buck stopped with Col. Farrell, now it stops with me,” Palenske said. “Fortunately, our mission focus hasn’t changed, and there are more than 5,000 Airmen working hard to make sure the 1st SOW succeeds. Jeryn and I just need to do our part to help them.”
The 1st SOW is the host to 37 tenant units belonging to six major Air Force commands, and their mission is to organize, train and equip Airmen to execute global operations.
Palenske says the focal point of that mission is the Airmen and the need for them to mentor and teach each other to be great at their jobs, whether they are a recently-promoted staff sergeant or a recently-promoted colonel.
“(Air Commandos of the 1st SOW) are the 1% of Americans that have volunteered to protect the other 99,” Palenske said. “As leaders here at Hurlburt Field and within the 1 SOW, at every level, we can never do too much to ensure they have the best equipment and training that we can give them so they are prepared to win this current fight–which we will win…We can also never do too much to strive to make Hurlburt the best environment for our Airmen and their families.”
Palenske thanked Heithold for allowing him and his family to continue to serve the 1st SOW.
As the Palenske command team gets ready to put their knowledge to work, Palenske is confident the wing is moving in the right direction.
“We are a command at war and a wing that has been at war for 15 straight years, and we do not see that changing in the near future,” Palenske said. “We have to recapitalize the entire AC-130 gunship fleet in AFSOC, while continuously employing the legacy AC-130s into combat. We are moving the MC-130H Combat Talon II school-house from Kirtland AFB, N.M. to Hurlburt Field and plan to recapitalize that fleet with the MC-130J Commando II. We are focused on maturing the CV-22 Osprey enterprise so that we can push even more of that capability forward to the war fighters…it has proven its worth on the battlefield, and they are now in incredibly high demand. We have to accomplish all of these tasks while we lead a group of Airman that have been at 1:1 to 1:2 deploy-to-dwell ratios for the entirety of their careers.”
No stranger to deployments or the battlefield, Palenske has spent the majority of his career, which began in 1986 as an Army basic training recruit, in special operations aviation assignments. He started out his now almost 30-year military career as a UH-1H Huey crew chief with the 1st 108th Combat Aviation Battalion in Topeka, Kansas.
“I was always drawn to the Air Force. I started in 1986 as an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Cadet at the University of Kansas, and I graduated Army Basic Training later that year,” Palenske said. “It’s a story like many of our 1st SOW Airmen; I just wasn’t ready for college when I was 18 years old.”
Palenske says the 1st SOW will move forward in the same way it has in the past–mission focused, more tasks than time and more challenges than resources, but with exceptional Airmen that are up for all those tasks and challenges.
“I think being a wing commander is just another opportunity to serve our country,” Palenske said. “It is no more important than the defender on the line, the communication Airmen (at the 1st Special Operations Communication Squadron) or the public affairs Airman getting the stories out. Everyone assigned here at the 1st SOW has an important job; everyone has to do their best to make sure our shield is strong and our sword is sharp for this current fight against Islamic extremism and for any future fight we find ourselves in.”
Heithold referenced Palenske’s Army background and the time he spent as a helicopter pilot.
“He brings with him a sight of what the battlefield looks like,” Heithold said. “He’s been there, he’s done it, (and) he is exactly the right guy to have come up here.”