Steve Behmer

U.S. Air Force Col. Steven Behmer, former commander of Hill Air Force Base's 388th Fighter Wing, prepares to exit an F-35 on base, May 27, 2021, after his final flight as commander of the wing.

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Steve Behmer was at the helm during one of the 388th Fighter Wing’s most historic and — thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic — turbulent stretches of its existence.

But the soon-to-be brigadier general, who left his post as commander of the Air Force’s only fully combat-capable F-35 fighter wing last week, is quick to deflect any hint of praise that comes his way.

From April 2019 through November 2020, each of the Hill Air Force Base fighter wing’s three F-35 squadrons, alongside reservists from the 419th Fighter Wing, deployed in support of the Air Force Central Command’s mission at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. The Hill service members employed the F-35 on close air support missions, performed offensive and defensive counter-air attacks, and participated in joint exercises with U.S. allies around the Middle East.

The 4th Fighter Squadron’s mission, which began in April 2019, marked the first time the Air Force’s F-35 performed a real-world combat operation, and the group completed at least two combat strikes on enemy forces. That included an air strike at Wadi Ashai, Iraq, hitting a long-established Islamic State tunnel network and weapons cache in a remote area of the Hamrin Mountains. In September 2019, F-35s and pilots from Hill were part of a group that dropped about 80,000 pounds of bombs on Qanus Island in Iraq — a spot that has been used as a hideout by the Islamic State group.

And the ramped-up deployment pace was complicated in March of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in the United States. Airmen who returned from deployments in June, July and October of 2020 were required to quarantine for 14 days to help prevent the spread of virus. Some of the airmen who returned during the summer weren’t allowed to leave the state for their customary rest and relaxation leave, due to the Department of Defense’s coronavirus regulations.

Like many other entities, the virus also complicated typical, everyday procedures within the wing. And during the two-year stretch, the wing’s upper management also saw a big shakeup.

“The entire front office of the 388th Fighter Wing changed out,” Behmer said. “Except for one person, and that was me.”

But despite guiding the new and still developing F-35 fighter wing through multiple combat operations amid a pandemic, Behmer seems sincere when he says the credit belongs to the members of his wing who fly the planes and those who help put them in the air.

“The accomplishments of the ... wing over the past two years are the results of not one person,” Behmer said. “But the grit and determination of the 2,000 airmen that I’ve had the honor to lead.”

Behmer entered the Air Force in 1998 after receiving his commission from the U.S. Air Force Academy. Over his nearly quarter century in the Air Force, he’s been a command pilot with more than 3,100 flying hours, primarily in the A-10 and F-35, including over 110 combat sorties in Operation Enduring Freedom. He’s also flown as an evaluator, instructor, weapons officer, and operational test pilot. He leaves Hill, heading to the Pentagon, where he will serve as the Air Force’s director of F-35 integration. There, Behmer will advise the secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force chief of staff on the multibillion-dollar F-35 Lightning II program.

While Behmer’s nature is to downplay his role in the 388th’s benchmark two years, Maj. Gen. Chad Franks, commander of the Air Combat Command’s 15th Air Force, takes a less deferential tone when talking about Behmer. Franks described the wing’s past two years as “exceptional,” an outcome he says starts at the top.

“They’ve been exceptional because they were well-led,” Franks said.

Behmer will be replaced by Col. Craig Andrle, who has served as the vice commander of the wing for the past year.

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