MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A pair of ornate brass door knobs with an American Eagle etched on each side seemed out of place as they have held a spot of honor on the glass-topped desk in Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast’s office for the last three years.
They were perhaps two of the smallest mementos Kwast, the commander and president of Air University, had displayed in his office at Maxwell Air Force Base, where gifts from his various duty stations lined the tables, bookshelves and walls.
Soon, Kwast may receive yet another gift to add to his collection as he prepares to leave Montgomery and Air University to assume his new position as commander of Air Education and Training Command in San Antonio, Texas, in November. He will be responsible for recruiting, training and educating the entire Air Force.
“I’m so excited I have to pinch myself that I’ve been lucky enough to get this kind of opportunity,” Kwast said in an interview this week.
Over the last three years, he has made the River Region his home. His office reflects the importance he places on friendships he’s made over the years since he was a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1986 and earned his pilot wings in 1989.
He held the pair of door knobs in his hands has he shared their unique story — one that embodies Kwast’s character, love for people and his life-long desire to defend them.
“While I was stationed in Washington, D.C., I struck up a friendship with a janitor at the White House,” Kwast said. “The protocol is to replace a door knob when one becomes too worn. They are to be taken off, replaced with new ones and discarded. Before I left for my next assignment, this janitor gave me two old door knobs as a parting gift.”
A change of command ceremony is scheduled for Nov. 16 in San Antonio, when Kwast will officially leave his current position and assume command of ATEC. A replacement for Kwast at Maxwell has not been announced.
His first words when asked the highlight of his stay here? The people.
“The venture here has been joyful, because of the people who love this country and who are fighters for a better America, so that’s been fun for me,” Kwast said.
One of those people who he made a close friendship with is Mayor Todd Strange, who made Kwast, his wife and his children promise to return regularly. He said that should not be a problem since Air University is the “crown jewel” of AETC.
Leader in cyber
Since arriving, Kwast along with his team at Air University have not only built long lasting friendships, city relationships and community partnerships, but one of his most major contributions has been to help move the city into the “21st century and the digital age.”
He said it is about defending American values, economy and government and educating airmen “more deeply” through digital advances.
“Steve Kwast has really come in here and in a relatively short time made a significant impact,” Strange said. “He’s one of those catalysts for change.”
Strange remembers the first time he heard Kwast speak. It was at an event at Auburn Montgomery in 2015 and Kwast spoke on his passion of cyber security.
“He challenged us to move beyond where we had been thinking about Gunter and really challenged us to embrace cyber and technology and really helped us on our path to becoming a ‘smart city, smart base,’“ Strange said.
One of Kwast’s first initiatives after coming to Air University was to set up the first Cyber College of the Air Force. It opened in 2015 as a mainly virtual institution using cyber curriculum from Air Force colleges across the country to identify and find solutions to security threats and hacks.
It was also the first major step in moving Montgomery toward becoming the next “Gig City.” Since then, the city has unveiled the new Internet Exchange, a digital data hub known as MGMix with a 100GB capacity internet exchange.
Internet service providers, businesses, government entities and others can connect to the hub as a central point for global data transmission. In less than a year MGMix passed similar hubs in Miami, Florida, Nashville, Tennessee and Jacksonville, Florida, to become the second busiest exchange in the Southeast in terms of data volume.
Because of Kwast and the area’s already large military presence in Montgomery, the city offers unique military capabilities when it comes to IT and cyber that acts as a draw for manufactures and companies looking for military contracts. Maxwell’s Gunter annex houses at least five different organizations that deal with information systems and cyber on a daily basis, said Joe Greene, vice president at Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Our military capabilities here are really not present anywhere else with the types of capabilities that we have in a number of areas,” Greene said. “We have big data and mass data storage capabilities and gives us a broad contractor base in all those areas.”
“Kwast has put his shoulder to the wheel and that of the Air Force and Gunter to move us in this direction,” Strange said. “If it had not been for him and his vision, Montgomery would not be where it is. We wouldn’t have the internet exchange, we wouldn’t have an innovation district and we wouldn’t have open data.
“He has been relentless and has offered his people to help us strategize and plan all this with the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce.”
Diversity prompts defense career
Kwast’s love for people and their protection as an F-16 fighter pilot to now a proponent of cyber security, stemmed from a diverse childhood background.
The son of two missionaries, his father was a preacher in Cameroon in West Africa, where he grew up alongside a local tribe for the first 10 years of his life. That “laid the foundation” for his outlook on life.
“Seeing things on a global level, not just a local level and moving to Los Angeles gave me an appreciation for the importance of community and defending these values that we have,” Kwast said.
“It gives me a deep well of motivation and incentive to work hard and be aggressive to make sure America stays safe and we can create the freedom for people to create beauty in their communities. It starts by loving your neighbor.”
While living in L.A., Kwast witnessed how “broken neighborhoods” caused those living there to suffer. He also saw at the same time, how unique America was in respecting and valuing everyone no matter their background, he said.
“There is a respect that exists and is embodied in our Constitution that all men are created equal,” Kwast said. “That’s unique to the history of mankind and I had a passion to defend that.”
He recognized that cyber was one way to do that as the digital age unfolded over the last several decades and issues of privacy and national security arose. That includes Montgomery.
“I can’t tell you the depth of my admiration and respect for this community and all the friends and friendships that has developed over the last three years,” he said. “My promise is that those will never go away. I will always be here for this community.”
According to Kwast
5 things Montgomery is doing well
- Knows how to grow the economy
- Tackles tough problems of crime, education and services of health care and mental illness
- Invests in activities that are uplifting to the communities, neighborhoods and families
- Revitalizes downtown with carriage rides, ball games, the Riverfront and Harriet II
Develops areas for children to play sports
4 areas Montgomery could do better in
- Education: “If we are able to turn the corner on education so as we try to attract businesses, as I try to hire professors to the university, when they ask where their 12-year-old daughter go to school, I can say you are coming to a public school system that is one of the best in the country. There is work to be done to get there.”
- Crime: “People want to feel protected so crime must be low and you can go anywhere in the city and feel like you are safe.”
- Economy: “People want to be a part of a vibrant economy.”
- Connectivity: “Connect Montgomery with the rest of the world so it is in the leading edge of innovation and economic growth.”