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Commander’s goodbye celebration emotional

  • Published
  • By Master Sergeant Linda E. Welz
  • Fourth Air Force public affairs
Family and friends of Maj. Gen. Robert E. Duignan, Commander, Headquarters, Fourth Air Force, Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC), gathered at the historic Mission Inn, Riverside, Calif., Saturday night for the general's retirement dinner, although his official retirement date is Feb. 6, 2009.

Throughout dinner, guests were able to see glimpses of him growing up, thanks to a slide show put together by his wife, Karen Petruskevich.

She said one particular photo (of the young officer standing by his jet, in his flight suit, holding his helmet) always left her with this impression, "You bet I can fly this baby, because I am a zipper-suited sun god."

When the laughter subsided she turned more serious and relayed a story about one of her husband's instructors who had asked his students to write their epitaph. She said the general simply wrote, "He made a difference."

She then presented her husband with a book of memories complied from emails she received from those who knew him, telling about a memory they had of the general.

"This book proves your simple statement," she said. "He, you, made a difference!"

Chief Master Sergeant Patricia Thornton, 4th Air Force Command Chief, presented Ms. Petruskevich with a gift to honor her for her support over the years, and then explained how Maj. Gen. Duignan made a difference for the enlisted.

As a former C-141 flight engineer, she said one of the things that is key to a crew is what an aircraft commander does when he or she enters the airplane. If they go straight up to the flight deck, it shows they don't care about the crew, but if they look to the right, toward the loadmaster and flight engineer, and asked how things are or what is going on, that shows they care.

Although she never flew with him as a crewmember, she said he was the kind of commander who cared. He is the one who would tell the maintenance workers that he would be there as long as they needed to be, or he would send a bus for them if they needed to stay longer, she said.

"He is always thinking about what is fair. He has the heart of the enlisted people. And for that, we salute you," she said.

At that, she presented the general with a plaque in the shape of chief stripes. Encased in the plaque is a command chief coin from each of the 4th Air Force command chiefs, along with a special coin from when the general was made an honorary chief at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio. She was joined by all the past and present command chiefs in the room who recited the Airman's Creed, as the general stood in front of them, holding the plaque and fighting back tears.

"General Duignan, thanks for always looking to your right," she added.

In addition to looking to his right, General Duignan has earned the reputation of doing what is right.

"He is a people person, always asking how a new program is going to impact the people," said Lieutenant General Charles E. Stenner, Jr., Chief, Air Force Reserve, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C., and Commander, AFRC, Robins AFB, Ga. "You are destined for great things in the future that are yet to be determined," he said.

Being on the same base as his boss (the latter being the tenant), Brig. Gen. James L. Melin, Commander, 452nd Air Mobility Wing, March ARB, Calif., said it was great to be able to pick up the phone or walk down the street to get that positive feedback from him.

"When I need money, I call him. When he needs air conditioning, he calls me," he said.

The constant theme running through the speeches and presentations was that Maj. Gen. Duignan cares about his people and is available to help if they call.

"General Duignan has always cared about his people, both in word and deeds," said Colonel Abel Barrientes, Vice Commander, Headquarters, 4th AF. "He has always said to take care of your people and your people will take care of you. He lived that mantra daily."

"I kept hearing people talking (tonight) about (how I) take care of people. It sums up how to do my job--make sure your people know how to do their jobs, get them the resources to get it done and take care of them along the way," said General Duignan.

Chief Master Sergeant (retired) Kenneth Mitchell, former 4th AF Command Chief, quoted from chapter 15 of his favorite book, which he referred to simply as John. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend."

He then told about an experience he and the general shared when they went to Afghanistan. They were the only two Air Force guys on a trip with Army personnel to a forward operating base. When they arrived at this all-Army location, there was a sole Airman in the entire organization. That Airman was so happy to see them, the chief said.

"To see the way General Duignan reached out to this young man and touched his life, was an experience that touched my life and I'll never, ever forget it," he said. "No matter where I am or what I'm doing, if you need me, all I need is a phone call and I'll be there," he told the general.

As the two friends embraced the general could barely get these words out, "That was a good trip."

Mr. Jim McKenzie, who is married to the general's sister, Sharon, spoke about another trip on behalf of the family. He remembered General Duignan, or "Bobby" as they knew him, taking his first airplane trip as a young boy of 10.

"That was when he knew he wanted to be an aviator," said Mr. McKenzie. "For the next eight years, he taught me several things about visions, goals and commitment as he pursued that dream."

Having received a full Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship to the University of Washington, during the Vietnam Era, it wasn't always easy to be in uniform, Mr. McKenzie said.

But after graduation he said the 22-year-old, 2nd Lieutenant (Duignan) stepped off the bus and was saluted by some airmen with a puzzled look on their faces. "Bobby realized why when he looked into the window and saw his reflection with his hat on backward," said Mr. McKenzie.

The awards and accolades he received tonight are a testament to the goodness of his soul and how he lived his life, said Mr. McKenzie.

Part of his life was lived on the golf course, a game he said he enjoys.

Colonel Jeffery Robertson, Director of Staff, Headquarters, 4th AF, remember a day on the course with the general, who was having "an uncharacteristically bad day." Apparently, the general had some trouble making par that day and commented that he should just jump into a water trap and drown himself, according to the colonel. "I said, Sir, that won't work. You can't keep you head down," said Colonel Robertson, a close friend and confidant to the general.

Another close friend, Lt. Gen. James E. Sherrard III (Ret), former Chief, AFR, and Commander, AFRC, said "Bob helped me through a lot of amazing times and trying circumstances." They worked together on 9/11 at the Pentagon.

"He asks the tough questions. He is a family man who watches over and protects everybody," said General Sherrard.

As commander, General Duignan was also a part of the local community family, whose leaders were in attendance at the farewell dinner.

"This has been a wonderful, wonderful relationship the military has had with the community here," said Commander Harrison Heublein, Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce Military Affairs Committee. "It has been a distinct pleasure to be here and participate in building this strong relationship," he said to the general, presenting him with a framed sketch of the Flyer's Wall at the Mission Inn.

Mr. Jamil Dada, Moreno Valley Chamber of Commerce and March Field Museum, took the stage with Ms. Patricia Korzec, also with the museum, and Ms. Laura Froehlich, Moreno Valley Chamber Military Affairs Committee. "It has been my pleasure flying with you, experiencing the C-17, and working with you on Congresswoman Mary Bono-Mack's programs," said Mr. Dada.

Ms. Froehlich read the inscriptions of three tiles that were being placed in the museum's courtyard in honor of the general before adding, "He is a true officer and a gentleman."

General Duignan concluded the evening with a few words, and some gifts for his family.

He thanked his sister, Sharon, for being a great, older sister, and for playing referee between him and his sister, Sue.
"Karen is the kind of person who would just sit and listen to me vent. Thank you for being my partner, he said.

He said he couldn't be more proud than he is of his two children, Colleen and Kyle. He told a story about how he dropped Colleen off at Boston University, on his way to a new assignment in Washington, D. C., to begin college. He said she didn't know anyone but her new roommate that she had just met.

"When I dropped her off that night, she said, 'Daddy, I don't want to do this,'" he said. He told her it was too late. "I already paid the tuition." Later that night, he tried to call her from his hotel room to comfort her, but she didn't answer her phone. "She was out having pizza with her new roommate," he said. "All the while, poor old dad was back in his hotel room crying."

He told about his son wanting to enlist in the Marines. "He wanted to be a machine gunner. I always thought he was going to be an Air Force pilot, until he went over to the dark side," the general said. "Thank you for being a great son and a great American," he said emotionally.

General Duignan reminisced about the friends he had made from high school and through his military career.

"It's humbling to hear people say so many nice things about me. But I'm just a simple Airman trying to do his job. We never put these uniforms on trying to get rich. We did it because it was simply what we wanted to do. Thank you all."