On June 1, 2019 Col. Jeff “Sled” Smith will step down as the Commander of the 173rd Fighter Wing, and Col. Jeff “Thug” Edwards will take command of the wing. It marks the final chapter in their careers which began when they stepped off the same bus at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1991.
“June 27, 1991…you kind of remember that date,” says Smith with a smile on his face.
An electrical engineering class sat them side-by-side where they grew more familiar. Although, with two different degree paths, Edwards pursuing studies in Aeronautical Engineering and Smith in Operations Research, several years intervened before their next meeting. That happened when both earned coveted flying billets in the F-15 Eagle at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.
“We just high fived…I was just finishing up in ’97 out of the First Fighter Squadron when he rolled in,” said Edwards. After earning their Eagle Driver patches, their paths diverged with Edwards heading to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska and Smith to Kadena Air Base, Japan.
Once again, the Air Force brought them together when Smith received orders to Elmendorf Air Force Base. “As I was leaving Elmendorf we high-fived again as he showed up,” notes Edwards.
“I was out in the snow, I think I was cross-country skiing, and I come across Jeff and Theresa coming the other way and we stopped and talked for a bit,” said Smith. “Everywhere we went, we overlapped for short periods of time.”
Their career paths grew closer in the mid-2000s when both pilots joined the ranks of instructor pilots at a small Air National Guard fighter training unit, the 173rd Fighter Wing. Kingsley Field is located in Klamath Falls, Oregon and consisted of about 1,000 assigned Airmen. Although they had really just met in passing they now worked side-by-side every day and their career paths looked decidedly similar.
They would work together as F-15 instructor pilots and then as commanders, Smith preceding Edwards as the maintenance squadron commander.
In fact, many people thought they were the same person.
“We have been confused our entire lives…at least since we’ve gotten to Kingsley,” Smith laughs. “I have been called Thug a million times, he’s been called Sled a million times; we jokingly call each other Slug.”
They share a car insurance agent who has repeatedly mixed them up and even put Smith’s records in Edwards file.
The two now work more closely than ever after Smith took the reins of the 173rd Fighter Wing in 2016 and Edwards joined him as the vice commander about six months later. Today, as Smith prepares to retire from the service, it’s in keeping with the theme that Edwards will step in behind him. He has been selected to assume command of the 173rd Fighter Wing as Smith relinquishes the position.
“I think there’s going to some people on this base who are going to be like, ‘Isn’t he the same guy that was our commander?’” jokes Smith has he looks towards the upcoming change of command ceremony.
However, they both agree that their shared experiences have helped make them a stronger command team, and they have learned a lot from each other.
“From Thug I have learned, patience,” says Smith. “I admire his ability to listen to people, to hear their perspectives, contemplate, and then in a calm, rationale, unemotional fashion help and guide the discussion.”
“I learned a couple of big things,” adds Edwards. “One is how to care for people, he is very good at making connections with people. Second thing is his energy; and the biggest thing I have learned is follow up.”
Smith will retire in June and pass the guidon of command on to Edwards as he steps in to his new leadership role at the 173rd Fighter Wing.
“I think Kingsley is in good hands,” says Smith. “I will be on the sidelines rooting him on.”