REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.-- The Army's longest serving colonel - and possibly its longest serving Soldier - said his "goodbyes" to a career of challenges and opportunities at a retirement ceremony Dec. 4 in Bob Jones Auditorium.

Col. Richard Hatch, who completed 40 years, eight months and 22 days of service with nearly nine years as a colonel, said retirement was a fleeting thought during the latter years of a career that included stints as an enlisted Soldier, a chief warrant officer and an officer with five command assignments. Since July 2008, Hatch has served as the director of aviation maintenance transformation for the Aviation and Missile Command.

"I've thoroughly enjoyed this career," said the 57-year-old Soldier. "Every time an opportunity has come up it has been a challenge, it has been interesting. The leadership obviously had confidence that I could do the job. The Army had a way of giving me challenges and extremely self-fulfilling assignments. This is a very unique culture. It is a profession of arms, a special group of people who serve in the U.S. military."

It's now family opportunities - including a wife who wants to travel and four grandchildren who he wants to spend time with - that are leading to Hatch's retirement.

Hatch spoke at his retirement ceremony much like he speaks at various military events, including Officer Candidate School graduations and college ROTC graduations, where he is often asked to be the guest speaker, touching on the Army's code of ethics, high set of standards, mission and Soldier's creed. He is a highly decorated Soldier, with awards including the Defense Superior Service Medal, three Legion of Merit awards, a Bronze Star and 10 air medals. He is the only Soldier to receive two AAAA (Army Aviation Association of America) national awards - the Aviation Soldier of the Year in 1971 and the Army Aviator of the Year in 1982.

A Phoenix, Ariz., native, Hatch enlisted in the Army at age 16 with his mom's help, although he had to wait until the day after his 17th birthday to actually begin his service.

"My uncle was stationed at Fort Huachuca (Ariz.) and I visited him a lot," Hatch recalled. "Back then, everything was spit and polish. I was fascinated with the military lifestyle, the discipline, the drill and ceremony. It was just kind of a natural thing for me."

In April 1969, Hatch officially entered service, one of only a handful on that day to report to the military entry processing station. The other 100 or so future servicemembers at the station were drafted.

"We were clearly in the minority. The others thought we were nuts," Hatch recalled. "But we had a choice of what we were going to do in the Army. The draftees did not."

It was that choice, that opportunity that defined Hatch's entire career.

"The Army gave me opportunities to serve and advance based on my own desire, my own potential and my own capability," he said.

As an enlisted Soldier, he served as a flight engineer, mechanic, technical inspector and flight platoon sergeant. Opportunity came to Hatch when he received his Aviation Soldier of the Year award, an occasion that took the notice of then chief of staff of the Army Gen. Creighton Abrams, who asked the young Soldier what his aspirations were.

"I told him I wanted to go to warrant officers school and fly," Hatch said. "Ten days later, my battalion commander at Fort Hood (Texas) called me while I was on the flight line. I thought it was a joke. But he said the word from the Pentagon was that my request for officers school was approved."

Hatch actually was given the choice of a direct commission or going to warrant officers school. But he wasn't fully informed of his choices and, with a desire to fly, chose the warrant officer path.

After warrant officers school, Hatch served as a pilot for nine years, flying in combat in Vietnam during the all-out offensive of 1971 and again in 1972 during the evacuation process. He has flight time in 12 different rotary wing aircraft, including the OH-6, OH-13, UH-1, Cobras and - his favorite - CH-47s.

"I've had every aviation job in a Chinook unit," he said. "I've been a mechanic, flight engineer, crew chief, technical inspector, maintenance NCO, maintenance officer, flight platoon sergeant, company executive officer. I've even commanded a Chinook unit. The only job I haven't had is the first sergeant job.

"I enjoyed the Chinook because of the mission, versatility and capability of that platform. You can sit it down in places that a single aircraft can't go. It's a very stable platform."

But, while serving as an instructor pilot at Fort Rucker, Hatch became convinced that he wanted to command. He completed his college education at age 29 and applied for a direct commission. He was one of 14 Soldiers selected for the honor in 1982. He served two commands as a captain and then went on to three commands as a field grade officer, commanding a Chinook unit as a major, a battalion as a lieutenant colonel and a brigade with the 25th Infantry Division as a colonel.

"I really enjoyed the opportunity to make a difference, to lead, to provide resources and to set conditions for a unit to be successful," he said.

He has been deployed five times, with assignments in Vietnam, Central America, South America, Thailand and Afghanistan. He has also traveled throughout the Middle East and in Korea on various assignments.

His deployment as a brigade commander with the 25th Infantry Division out of Hawaii to Afghanistan remains one of Hatch's career highlights. He led his brigade through 18 months of training prior to the deployment, and all three of his sons deployed with the unit. In addition, his son-in-law was deployed at the time to Iraq.

"I wanted to go to war with Soldiers we had trained," he said.

In his current position with AMCOM, Hatch has used his experience to serve in the field of aviation maintenance transformation.

"This job is not about the promotion. It's about the mission," he said. "I've been here to bring field experience into the AMCOM staff."

During his retirement ceremony, AMCOM commander Maj. Gen. Jim Myles referred to Hatch as "Mr. Chinook."

Although Hatch is retiring, Myles said "the Hatch era continues because of those he taught and mentored. He taught what right looks like. There is a trail behind him that's going to continue to go on. Thank you for all that you've done for Army aviation."

Hatch is proud of the legacy he leaves within the Army aviation community.

"I hope I am remembered as a leader, as a Soldier who helped transition the Army through five decades of challenges," Hatch said. "And as someone who provided opportunities to others as I have been provided opportunities to do my best and to achieve my desires. I hope I am remembered as setting conditions for success for Soldiers."

Besides his own honors, Hatch and his wife Victoria have three sons who continue to serve the Army. Chief Warrant Officer 2 Robert Hatch is a Black Hawk pilot stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., with the 101st Airborne; Christopher Hatch, who served in the Army as a lieutenant, is now a DA civilian with the Army Materiel Command in Korea; and Sgt. Russell Hatch is in the Army Reserves in Alabama. Hatch's daughter, Teresa, is married to Maj. Brady Traum, who recently returned from his second deployment in Iraq and is now assigned to the Space and Missile Defense Command.

"I've been very blessed with a wife who was a partner in this. It's a real team effort," he said of Victoria, who grew up in a military family. "In our 38 years of marriage, we have moved 32 times. One of our children attended four different high schools while the other three attended three different high schools. They've lived all around the world."

Hatch leaves behind a job that was both fulfilling and difficult.

"Anyone who wants to serve in the military should go in with their eyes wide open," he said. "They should make sure they understand this is a significantly different culture than the one they were raised in. There are standards and expectations and professionalism. Nothing is easy about this job. But it is the most rewarding thing you can ever do."