Lone Star Gunfighter soars at Pentagon
Story By: 2nd Lt. Phil Fountain
Posted on: August 23, 2016
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – A former member of the 149th Fighter Wing, Texas Air National Guard was promoted to the rank of general and became the 28th Chief of the National Guard Bureau at the Department of Defense, in Washington, Aug. 3, 2016.
Air Force Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel of Bulverde, Texas, succeeds Army Gen. Frank J. Grass, as the Pentagon’s senior National Guard leader and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Grass, a Missouri National Guardsman, is scheduled to retire later this month after four decades of military service.
Lengyel’s appointment follows his service as the first three-star, NGB vice chief.
“Gen. Lengyel is the right man for this critical position, and the depth and breadth of his experience make him exceptionally well-qualified,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, during Lengyel’s Senate confirmation hearing, on June 22, 2016, in Washington.
“His 34 years of distinguished military service include an array of operational, staff, and command assignments,” Cornyn said, “as well as service in Operations Desert Storm, Provide Comfort, Southern Watch, and Enduring Freedom.”
In his new role, Lengyel will serve as a key military advisor to the president, secretary of defense and the National Security Council, as well as serve as the Pentagon’s official channel of communication to the state’s governors and adjutants general on all matters pertaining to the National Guard.
He is now responsible for ensuring that nearly 470,000 Army and Air National Guard personnel are accessible, capable and ready to protect the homeland and to provide combat resources to the Army and Air Force.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with what I see with the integration of the active force with the reserve components,” Lengyel said. “We have no other choice but to leverage the business model of the reserve components as we go forward.”
While he’s at the peak of National Guard leadership, the general’s military roots run deep through the state of Texas.
Lengyel earned his commission through the Air Force Reserve Officers' Training Corps program at the University of North Texas, in Denton, and earned his pilot’s wings at Laughlin Air Force Base, near Del Rio.
After serving nearly ten years in the Regular Air Force, Lengyel transitioned to the Texas Air National Guard, where he flew with the 182nd Fighter Squadron at San Antonio’s Kelly Field. The 182nd is a subordinate unit of the 149th Fighter Wing, headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, and the members of the unit are known as the Lone Star Gunfighters.
“I’m proud to serve alongside Gen. Lengyel,” said Maj. Gen. John F. Nichols, the 51st Adjutant General of Texas, who served with Lengyel at the 149th Fighter Wing when both were colonels. “He’s been a wingman for me, in the air and in life. He has the character to do what’s right and takes care of his people.”
Lengyel served in numerous roles at the 149th Fighter Wing, culminating as vice wing commander, before he was selected to serve as an expeditionary operations group commander at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.
“He continues to make us proud,” Nichols said. “We stand behind him as he takes on this greater responsibility. Gen. Lengyel’s expertise, experience and dedicated service are a great asset to Texas and the United States.”
“As vice chief, and now chief, his charge is to look many years into the future and help guide and shape a National Guard force that meets our nation’s needs,” Nichols said. “I trust him to do what’s right for America. In addition to making the right decisions, I know he will continue to inspire those who follow him, just as he did here (in Texas).”
Throughout his time in the Lone Star State, Lengyel has touched the lives of those with whom he served.
“He genuinely cares about others,” said retired Lt. Col. Greg Whiting, a former Gunfighter and current chief of air operations for Headquarters, Texas Air National Guard, in Austin. “It’s who he is and it has always shaped everything he has done.”
Even as his military career has taken him away from the 149th Fighter Wing, Lengyel has remained connected with the Gunfighter community, taking time to interact with Gunfighters when their missions overlap.
Whiting said he first met Lengyel in 1990, at Diyarbakir Air Base, Turkey, prior to the start of the Gulf War. Later, they served together for several years at the 149th Fighter Wing.
“He’s always been approachable,” Whiting said. “Even as he moved up the leadership chain, his situational awareness was always there. He knew what was going on around him because he cared about the people around him - and still does.”
Whiting said he next served with Lengyel during the mid-‘90s, when they were both assigned to the 149th Fighter Wing. At the time, there was paradigm shift underway in the Air National Guard, leading to more professional operations.
“We started mirroring and employing active duty tactics,” Whiting said. “He was, without a doubt, the most foundational guy that brought the Gunfighters, and the 149th Fighter Wing, up to where we’re not just a sub for the active duty, but we’re on par with the active duty.”
Whiting said power and position have not changed Lengyel from the man he has known for 25 years.
“My first impression of him hasn’t changed as long as I’ve known him,” Whiting said. “He lived the Air Force Core Values (Integrity First – Service Before Self – Excellence in All We Do) long before they became officially embraced by the Air Force.”
Based on these innate values, Whiting said, Lengyel built trust with his fellow Gunfighters.
“He didn’t just do it, he excelled at it,” Whiting said. “Integrity is what builds trust, and trust is what you have to have in the fighter world. You have to be able to trust your wingman, those in your flight, and that’s what he did.”
Whiting attributes Lengyel’s success to leading by example and setting the standard for others to follow.
“If he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it, and if you say you’re going do something, he expects you to do it,” Whiting said. “It’s a great thing, especially when a leader holds people accountable. It was a professional thing; that’s what makes everyone function at a higher level than they’re used to.”
Whiting also discussed the new chief’s proficiency as an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, including how Lengyel remained a top performer as a traditional, citizen-airman of the National Guard while also working full-time as a commercial airline pilot.
“He could be on airline trips for a month or more, and come back and lead an 8-ship strike package to the tanker, fight his way into the target against red air, and somehow know that six miles behind him, ‘No. 8’ was out of position,” Whiting said. “Everybody wanted to be paired with him, because they trusted him, and well, the guy is one of the most gifted fighter pilots I’ve ever flown with.”
During his first remarks as chief, Lengyel discussed the challenges of balancing a military and civilian career.
“One of the most important partnerships that I want to mention is with our employers,” Lengyel said. “Our business model doesn’t work without them. I have been on extended military leave (from a commercial airline)."
Lengyel said the airline he flies for has more than 200 pilots currently on military leave, allowing them to serve in uniform.
“There are hundreds more that have to manipulate the schedules,” Lengyel said. The airline “has to work around to make their model work so that we’re not late and there’s pilots and aviators there” to serve their customers.
Lengyel thanked the work of civilian employers, like his, who work with their National Guard employees to ensure the employees never have to choose one profession over the other.
Praise for Lengyel’s character was also shared up the military chains of command.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said, at the change of responsibility ceremony, “I know that the men and women of our National Guard, and the families that stand by them, will be well served by General Joe Lengyel who is not only an accomplished pilot and experienced commander, but is also a military son, husband, brother and a father.”
The general’s father, retired Lt. Col. Lauren R. Lengyel, was an RF-4 Phantom II reconnaissance pilot who was shot down over Vietnam and served six years as a prisoner of war. He returned to service and retired from the Air Force in 1990.
Lengyel’s wife, Sally, is an Air Force veteran, and their son, Capt. Michael J. Lengyel is following in his father’s footsteps as an F-16 pilot. Additionally, the new NGB leader’s brother, Maj. Gen. Gregory J. Lengyel, also an Air Force pilot, is the deputy commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command, headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Lengyel is a “proven strategic thinker and citizen warrior,” Carter said. “Gen. Lengyel will lead this force with certainty, clarity, and the full confidence and trust of myself and the president.”
Lengyel, a reserve officer on active duty who retains membership in the Texas Air National Guard, has also been praised by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the state’s commander-in-chief.
“Having defended our nation both at home and abroad, Gen. Lengyel brings a wealth of experience to the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Abbott said. “Gen. Lengyel’s outstanding service at both the state and national levels has prepared him for this important role on our nation’s most critical body of military leaders.”
The new chief has remained humble and forward-looking throughout his transition.
“Although we are proud of our heritage and our past, I am more excited about our future,” Lengyel said after his nomination was announced. “The development of our most important assets, our people, will be our foremost task.”
Lengyel said his focus will be in three areas: supporting the Army and Air Force in any current or future warfight, defending the homeland, and building partnerships.
He also praised the soldiers and airmen of the National Guard in his first letter to the force, the day after he was sworn in.
“You serve with valor in combat,” Lengyel wrote. “Here at home, no matter the cause – natural disaster, crime, terrorism – you bring safety and resiliency to our communities. All the while, you partner with our allies around the world; with our federal, state, and territorial government partners; and with our fellow citizens throughout the country.”
“I look forward to working hard every day to tell your story,” Lengyel wrote.