Col. Robert A. Meyer Jr. officially took command of the air-refueling unit Thursday during the change of command ceremony at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. (Robert Ward/The Asbury (N.J.) Park Press)
Standing in an airplane hangar with an oversized American flag draped behind him, Col. Robert A. Meyer Jr. took a deep breath as he turned to receive the New Jersey Air National Guard 108th Wing's unit colors, officially taking command of the air-refueling unit.
"I am truly honored and humbled," Meyer said to the nearly 1,000 soldiers, officers, veterans and families gathered Sunday morning in the airplane hangar to witness the change of command ceremony. "To the men and women of the 108th, you never cease to amaze me."
Then, glancing over at his friend and outgoing commander Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Keehn, Meyer joked, "Did I ever thank you, buddy, for leaving me the last old guy standing?"
Meyer, 54, of Egg Harbor Township, and Keehn, 56, of Bayville, have known each other for 28 years and flown numerous missions together, including being sent to Oman right after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"The unit is getting an outstanding individual who will take it to the next level," Keehn said. "Meyer is a high-integrity, trustworthy, people person."
During his speech, Keehn credited the 108th Wing's dedication with the unit's many successes.
"I can't tell you how proud I've been to be your wing commander," Keehn said, his voice thick with emotion. "You've always made the best of it, no matter where we've gone. I honestly do not know where we find people like you," he added with pride in his voice as he talked about the sacrifices Guardsmen make, such as leaving their families and jobs to serve.
The 108th Wing has been deployed numerous times in the past decade, including for both Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
Meyer said one of his goals as incoming commander is to ensure the unit remains operationally relevant. "We want to be poised and ready for whatever the future holds."
As to whether the unit may be deployed anytime soon due to the current resurgence of violence in Iraq, he said, "We will support any tasking our leaders deem appropriate."
Taking over command for a unit of nearly 1,300 soldiers, Meyer stressed the importance of leadership – and just as importantly, mentorship.
"I've been blessed to have many mentors throughout my career," he said. "Mentorship is a relationship that's a two-way street. … We can only accomplish our mission when we all do our part."
"Nobody does it alone, and if they think they do, they've got it wrong," he said. "As we mentor others, they continue to grow, and then they can mentor others. It's a win-win all around."
Many soldiers said Meyer and Keehn were both men to be admired. Keehn joined the military in 1975 as an enlisted soldier and has made it all the way to general. Meyer joined the military in 1984 and has been with the 108th for several years.
"It's an inspiration for the enlisted," Staff Sgt. Stephen Burr, 39, said of Keehn. "He came in as a no-striper and ended up a general. That shows that people who aspire to do bigger and better can achieve that."
Staff Sgt. Robert Spiegel, 28, said the unit has already performed well under Meyer's leadership. Meyer recently led the unit through a grueling inspection, where the unit received the Air Force's highest grade given to date.
"We performed well under his leadership, and I think Meyer will be a good replacement," he said.
Staff Sgt. Michael Barcellona, 33, agreed, saying, "He's from the 108th, and it's good we have one of our own."