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Naval Air Station Whiting Field’s largest venue nearly wasn’t big enough as every seat was seemingly filled to observe Capt. Matthew Coughlin turn command of the air station over to Capt. Todd Bahlau.
The change of command ceremony is a long-standing Navy tradition which is focused around ensuring an orderly transition of duties from one officer to another in front of the assembled crew, and Rear Adm. Mary Jackson, Commander Navy Region Southeast, alluded to the tradition in her opening remarks.
“The ceremony is intended to make a permanent mark on your memory and soul about this command, its mission, and what our service members, staff, and family members do to serve our country every day, every moment,” she said. “By the simple, yet profound words, ‘I relieve you,’ you will see it today. The minute those words are uttered, the team knows their leader. This is an imperative in our business.
In addition to helping establish the authority of the incoming commanding officer, the change of command ceremony also helps to highlight the successes of the outgoing “Skipper” and praise the capabilities of the new base commander. As the guest speaker for the event, Jackson lauded Bahlau’s selection to become NAS Whiting Field’s commanding officer.
“I know you will be up to every challenge you will face at this command,” she said to Bahlau. “You have a wonderful opportunity ahead of you, and I look forward to cheering your successes from Jacksonville.”
He certainly has an impressive track record to follow as NAS Whiting Field was named the region’s nominee to compete in the Navy’s Installation Excellence Award competition. It was the first time Navy Region Southeast selected NAS Whiting Field and follow’s two consecutive second place finishes within the region.
The recognition was due in part to Coughlin’s professional management of a sprawling military complex valued at over one billion dollars. His leadership directly enhanced the ability for Training Air Wing FIVE to meet their aviation training mission. Jackson commended his achievements, expressing the difficulties involved in commanding a Naval installation.
“Matt, I cannot overstate the impact your leadership has had. You’ve guided your team through many changes and significant challenges. The Navy and the local community are better because of your drive and determination,” she stated. “Thank you for your service to our Navy and nation at a critical time, and congratulations on a job very well done.”
Under his guidance, NAS Whiting Field provided air traffic control, emergency fire and rescue services, and runway and grounds maintenance to more than 13,000 acres of property and 4,500 nautical square miles of airspace, supporting the safe execution of 377,000 aircraft flight hours, and four million flight evolutions, as well as classroom and simulator training/support for 3,600 student naval aviators. Productivity at the fifteen airfields under Coughlin’s direct control supported Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and allied forces operations, equating to 65 percent of the entire Chief of Naval Aviation Training (CNATRA) annual flight curriculum and accounted for 11 percent of the Department of Defense’s annual flight hours
Coughlin retired following the ceremony, so his most tangible form of praise came in the form of his final military award, the Legion of Merit. The citation praised Coughlin’s leadership and effective community outreach efforts.
“A champion of regional alliances and partnership with local communities, he spearheaded initiatives to prevent encroachment at aviation training facilities and preserved the Navy’s ability to meet future training requirements, all while bolstering economic development in the local community,” stated an excerpt from the citation.
Although he repeatedly refused to get “misty-eyed,” Coughlin was emotional as he deferred credit for the installation’s successes to the Sailors.
“I never, ever, worried about these fine Sailors operating independently either here at NAS Whiting Field or over the horizon. They are well trained professionals that epitomize everything that is right with America,” he stated emphatically. “I can only say – I am most honored to have served with them.”
Following the end of his speech, Coughlin read his orders, detaching him from duties as commanding officer of NAS Whiting Field. Bahlau then took center stage and read his orders assigning him to the air station as commanding officer. The two officers exchanged salutes, with Bahlau reciting the words “I relieve you,” before requesting permission to exchange duties from Jackson.
Bahlau then stepped up to the podium as the 41st commanding officer of NAS Whiting Field. His wide array of experiences underscore Jackson’s confidence in his ability to navigate the challenges of installation management.
His first operational assignment was with the “Grandmasters” of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light FOUR SIX (HSL-46) in Mayport, Florida, flying the SH-60B Seahawk helicopter. Follow on assignments included: the “Airwolves” of HSL-40 (two tours), the Staff of Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Group 12 (CCDG-12), the Chief of Naval Personnel in Washington, DC, as the Head Officer Promotion Planner, another tour with the Grandmasters, the 33d Flying Training Squadron (33d FTS) at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma, and a tour as Chief of the Strategic Engagement Cell and Chief of the Joint Visitor Bureau at Headquarters International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, Afghanistan. Bahlau also earned a second Master’s degree from the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. His most recent assignment was with the United States Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.
He emphasized during his remarks that the Navy was never a job to him, it was a calling. Bahlau’s family history is replete with military veterans. His great-grandfather served in both the Army and Navy during WWI. Both grandfathers served in WWI – one in the Army and one in the Navy. Two uncles served in the Navy – one of whom was a former commanding officer of NAS Jacksonville, and his father served during Vietnam in the Navy.
Given his family history, Bahlau’s interest in NAS Whiting Field’s past is understandable, and he emphasized how the past reflects the present with a quote from Capt. Harrington, the commanding officer of NAS Whiting Field in 1958.
“Whiting is presently known as a key station in the Naval Air Basic Training Command and as time goes by its value will become even greater…the station’s success is primarily due to the knowledge, experience and faithful service of its personnel past and present,” Harrington wrote in the 1958 yearbook for the base.
The words from 56 years ago have proven to be prophetic, and NAS Whiting Field is no longer an auxiliary air station as it was then, but a Naval Air Station that has become the busiest aviation complex in the world. The installation infrastructure included 13 Navy outlying landing fields comprising 61 percent of all Navy’s OLF’s and supports more than a million flight operations per year. The scale of operations is impressive, and Bahlau recognizes the challenges ahead.
“To the men and women of NAS Whiting Field, I am truly honored to stand here today as your commanding officer, and I pledge to you that I will work tirelessly to ensure that we not only maintain, but improve our track record of installation excellence,” he said. “I promise you that I will cherish every day that I am in command.”