Surrounded by his wife, family and friends, Gen. Mark Welsh bade a tearful goodbye to the Air Force in his retirement ceremony Friday.
The Air Force's 20th chief of staff was saluted by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, and his son, Marine 1st Lt. Matt Welsh, during the ceremony in a massive hangar at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. An A-10 Warthog and an F-16 Fighting Falcon — two of the aircraft Welsh flew — were on display in the hangar, in tribute to his days as a command pilot.
Welsh became emotional during his speech to the gathering — especially when speaking about the airmen he spent four decades serving alongside.
"No one is prouder to serve than an American airman," Welsh said. "It has been the honor of my life to represent you. Thanks for standing the watch proudly. This may be the understatement of my life, but I'll miss you."
Welsh also tipped his hat to Gen. David Goldfein, who will succeed him as chief of staff, as a highly respected officer who "loves airmen more than anyone I know."
"Dave is brilliant, really brilliant, and he's also got a heart the size of this hangar," Welsh said. "Congratulations, brother. Take care of them."
Carter lauded Welsh, not only for the way he modernized the Air Force — getting the latest electronic jammers in aircraft, focusing on cyber defense, reforming the nuclear enterprise, and strengthening the airmen who keep drones flying — and integrated it with other services, but also for his dedication to airmen.
"Mark has said he first joined the Air Force because he fell in love with airplanes and wanted to fly," Carter said. "He stayed in the Air Force because he fell in love with the people. He fell in love with the idea of the Air Force and what its people stood for and provided their nation."
Welsh's son Matt spoke about the example his father provided as he grew up, and how he helped him find his own path into the Marine Corps.
And Matt paid tribute to his mother, Betty Welsh, and the way she held their family together during trying times. He described the day in 1990, shortly before he turned 5, when he came home from playing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to find his mom in her bedroom with the door closed, crying because she had just found out then-Lt. Col. Welsh was being deployed for the Persian Gulf War to fly an F-16.
"By the amount they spoke, and looking at her eyes at dinner that night, we knew what was up," Matt said.
The silence continued into the next day, Matt said, but something soon changed. As she drove Matt and his sister Liz past a sports field packed with children, she smiled and spoke for the first time to ask him which sport he wanted to sign up for, football or soccer. Matt said he smiled back, answered football, and became excited as he imagined his first season.
"It took me years to realize what was really going on that day," Matt said. "The second that mom walked out of that room, she quit feeling sorry for herself. She quit feeling sorry for dad, because she had four kids to take care of. The silence that morning had nothing to do with her or what she was feeling. She was trying to figure out how to get her kids back on track."
Welsh presented Betty with 24 yellow roses — one for each of their 23 military moves, and another for their next move to Texas, where Welsh will become dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
"She's everything," Welsh said. "She is the story of my life. And I can't wait to write the next chapter."
He thanked his friends and loved ones for keeping his family balanced over the decades, through all the challenges.
"There is a wonderful, gentle life that quietly and persistently calls to those who serve in the military," Welsh said. "You helped us understand that this day would come, and that we should embrace it when it did."
And he thanked his children — Mark, John, Matt and Elizabeth — and his daughters-in-law for reminding him why he put on his uniform every day for four decades.
"Thank you for making the journey worthwhile," Welsh said to his children, as his voice cracked. "For reminding us that we serve to protect something of unimaginable value. Something worth dying for."