4-160th SOAR changes leaders during bittersweet ceremony
July 16, 2012
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- Under a dark, grey and foreboding Pacific Northwest sky July 13, Lt. Col. Heath Niemi prepared to walk away from the best thing to come along so far in his 20-year Army career.
Niemi handed over command of 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment to Lt. Col. Chad Chasteen during a ceremony on Gray Army Airfield as the time on Niemi's more than two-year stint leading the battalion had officially run out.
"Of all days, it is indeed a very unlucky day for me, as I will be leaving the highlight and the culminating command of a 20-year career," said Niemi after passing the battalion's colors, signifying the end of his time and work there and a closeout to a laundry list of accomplishments.
"Fourth Battalion, it is time to go," he told a formation of the unit's 580 Soldiers and rows of seated Family members and friends in attendance. "It is with a heavy heart. The last 13 years of my life I've been with the 160th, and you have been, by far, the highlight of my career."
During Niemi's tenure, the battalion flew more than 12,000 hours, completing more than 2,000 combat and training missions as part of its undertaking to support U.S. and coalition forces' most elite troops operating within the Army's Pacific Command and abroad.
Over the past two years, the battalion supported 27 joint training exercises in the Pacific theater while also closing down operations in the final culminating months of Operation New Dawn.
While forward deployed with the unit, which operates overseas for a few months at a time, Niemi served as the Army Special Operations Aviation Task Force commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanding seven separate helicopter assault packages in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Currently, the unit has three MH-47G Chinook crews comprising more than 80 Soldiers conducting daily operations in two separate locations in Afghanistan, Niemi said.
"Under his command, 4th Battalion has grown more that any other battalion in the regiment," Col. John Thompson, commander of the 160th SOAR, which is headquartered at Fort Campbell, Ky., said during the ceremony. "But that is what Heath does and has been so good at for the past two years -- making this battalion seem larger than it really is by providing phenomenal support everywhere it is needed."
But it wasn't the battalion's many achievements that gave Niemi mixed feelings as he reviewed his formation for the last time. For him, it was all about the Soldiers who made them all possible.
"What I'll miss most is the men that perform the mission," he said. "It's two years of hard work, so there's an emotional attachment to the men and the mission."
Niemi leaves the battalion and the regiment he has served the past 13 years for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., as the command's operations officer. There, he'll have no face-to-face involvement with the troops -- his most cherished aspect of his time as a battalion commander.
"I will become a staff officer again a couple of echelons above, so I will not be working so closely with the troops, and that is disappointing," he said. "Maybe in the future I'll get to go back and work with troops again, because that's what it's all about."
The chance to work closely with Soldiers young and old, which Niemi enjoyed most about his time with 4th Battalion, is what Chasteen is looking forward to about his new assignment.
For the past few years, Chasteen has worked as a staff officer in the 160th, the majority of his time spent with other officers -- not the Soldiers he has always loved being around.
"It was a very important job, and I enjoyed it immensely, but this is really where you want to be -- directly involved in the lives of Soldiers," he said after the ceremony.
"That's really the reason I joined the Army -- to get out there and be with the Soldiers, train with the Soldiers, fight with the Soldiers, go through what they're going through, hear what they've got to say and hear their ideas, and implement those ideas in a way where we can improve the battalion together -- the team concept."
Chasteen said he appreciates the tradition of Army ceremonies, but after his change of command he made it clear he's just ready to start work with his new battalion.
"Ceremonies are great, but it's great to get ceremonies over with and just get to work, and that's what I'm really looking forward to."
"Fourth Battalion is not just special, it is superior," he said.
Chasteen said he plans to continue the widespread combat and training support that evolved during Niemi's time commanding the battalion and to further develop and build his combat crews.