By Staff Sgt. Gregory Brook , 42nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
/ Published April 16, 2014
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. - --
As the child of a missionary growing up among the Ndu tribe in the West African nation of the Republic of Cameroon, Steven Kwast and local children rubbed mud and ash from the previous night's fires into their hair to mimic the appearance of respected tribal elders.
In a region of the world that now Maj. Gen. Steven Kwast spent some of his formative years, gray hair was a sign of wisdom. The children of the Ndu often wanted to grow up to be the elders, respected for making the tribe better.
In the early 1980s, the Kwast family moved to Los Angeles after his father accepted a job there as a pastor. The move symbolized a shift in perspective for Kwast, who experienced a new culture that celebrates youth and individuality.
Shaped by these different cultural experiences, Kwast has a unique perspective he brings to every position he holds.
Today, the commander of the Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education dedicates his energy to benefitting his "tribe," the Air Force, while understanding the value of his Airmen's individuality.
"I went from a culture that respected what you did for others and what you did for the tribe, to a culture that was all about the individual," said the U.S. Air Force Academy graduate. "It was a clash of cultures for me, and it made me appreciate the need to respect others and do things for others."
That's why the general, who also serves as the Vice Commander of Air University, believes the military was such a perfect fit for him.
"The military is about respecting your elders and respecting the fact that there is wisdom with experience," Kwast said.
During the course of his 28 years of service, Kwast served in some unique positions.
After graduating from the Academy in 1986, he was a student at the Air Force Institute of Technology, studying at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, earning a master's in public policy.
"It helped me understand the nature of our government and the balance of power that our forefathers created," Kwast said of the school. "It helped me understand how that system operates so that I can be a better servant to it as a military officer."
As a major in the late 1990s, Kwast served as the military aide to Vice President Al Gore.
"My time in the Air Force has allowed me to observe how the Department of Defense and our nation changes and adapts with each subsequent challenge," he said. "The trick is to communicate that to our leaders in a way that allows them better information to make better decisions."
He also learned the value of military force as a command pilot with more than 3,300 flight hours, 650 of which were combat hours in the F-15E Strike Eagle during Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Southern Watch, Allied Force and Enduring Freedom.
Kwast said his first combat experience, Operation's Desert Shield and Storm, motivated him to be courageous enough to take some risks to help others.
"You do the best you can, and you are humble about the fact that you are going to make mistakes," he said. "You learn from them, and you pay the consequences. Then you move on, find other ways to help, other ways to contribute. That's as good as anyone can do as a human being in an imperfect world."
The general's efforts have left lasting impressions on those with whom he served.
"He is one of the greatest leaders I have come across in my 18-year career; he leads by example," said Lt. Col. Micah Nodine, who served with Kwast when he was the commander of the 492nd Fighter Squadron, Royal Air Force Lakenheath. "He is always out in front with his troops, and he takes the time to engage with the people on his team on any occasion. He genuinely cares about his people and ensures they are able and capable to perform their mission."
Nodine is now the Chief of Fighter Operations Integration at the LeMay Center.
Before becoming the LeMay Center Commander, Kwast was the Director of the Air Force Quadrennial Defense Review. The QDR is a comprehensive review of Department of Defense force structure, defense strategy and infrastructure, modernization and budget plans.
"It was a good year of thinking, of going over who we are, why we do what we do, how we do it and what we want to do in the future," he said.
The general said he believes he learned much from living the past year in Washington, D.C. He took advantage of the opportunity to speak to all of the different stakeholders within the DOD and gained an understanding of the direct link between strategy and doctrine.
"The LeMay Center can be a place where we learn from our mistakes so that our doctrine evolves quickly enough to stay relevant," Kwast said. "The experience I've had in the QDR allows me to bring a greater understanding of what's happening today to the LeMay Center. That helps us write better doctrine because it links today to doctrine."
Kwast expressed that what he brings to the LeMay Center would be useless without a good team.
"One of the things about teams is that when you look at it objectively, every part of the team is equally important," he said. "You need to understand what you are trying to achieve, where you are trying to go and the resources, the people, and the money it is going to take to get there."
No one is ever going to know everything, Kwast added. That can paralyze the decision making process, and be devastating to the people a leader is trying to serve.
"If something good happens, I give credit to the team," he said. "If something bad happens, I take the responsibility personally, I pay the price."
Today, Kwast, who leads an organization that develops and publishes doctrine, teaches doctrine through resident and online courses and advocates airpower through wargaming, believes there is an art to making decisions.
He gathers as many facts as possible and then makes a decision based on integrity and the faith that all he can do is his best. As an Air Force "elder," he looks out for his entire team and hopes to leave the Air Force even better than he found it.
"It is not about creating enemies out there; it is about creating friendships," Kwast said. "We are all in this together as a global community. We are going to need friends to bind together to help this world evolve peacefully. It is about contributing to a better world."