After nearly three years of overseeing Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort's preparations to receive new F-35B fighter jets, Col. Brian Murtha relinquished command of the base to Col. Peter Buck in a ceremony Thursday.
Murtha had been the air station's commanding officer since succeeding Col. John Snider in May 2011. The ceremony doubled as Murtha's retirement party. He officially departs the Marine Corps on June 1, after 30 years of service.
The ceremony, attended by about 200 people, was inside a new F-35B hangar, one of several structures completed during Murtha's three-year command. During that time, nearly $260 million in construction projects were completed or started, and more than $300 million in construction projects were planned, according to the ceremony program.
Maj. Gen. Robert Hedelund presented Murtha with the Legion of Merit, given for outstanding service and achievement. Hedelund, general of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing that includes the air station, said Murtha's career was one "filled with highlights."
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Hedelund commended Murtha for the versatility he showed throughout his career, which included command of helicopter squadrons during Operation Iraqi Freedom and a position as a legislative assistant in the Pentagon.
"To have the talent and tenacity to span that kind of range is truly rare," Hedelund said.
Murtha and Hedelund commanded squadrons of CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters during Operation Iraqi Freedom, sometimes training together and sharing pilots, Murtha said. They worked together again when Hedelund was overseeing Marine family programs and Murtha was commanding the air station.
"Brian and (Murtha's wife) Karen were made to do this," he said. "They got it. They knew the mission, and they went forward with it. They were head and shoulders above others."
In an emotional speech, Murtha thanked several people, addressing Hedelund, his family, local leaders and other Marines in attendance.
"They were long times, trying times, but rewarding times," he said.
Buck, formerly Hedelund's chief of staff, will take over command of the air station. Buck had served as chief of staff for the 2nd Aircraft Wing since January 2013.
Buck spoke briefly at the ceremony, thanking his family and Hedelund for their support, and Murtha and his wife for "their warm welcome to the Lowcountry."
A Wisconsin native, Buck and his family -- wife, Pam, and three children -- will move to Beaufort from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., where the 2nd Aircraft Wing is based.
Murtha didn't speak much about his post-military plans, joking to his daughter during the ceremony that he had "let her down" by not having a job like she did when she walked off the stage at her college graduation.
Murtha, however, does have plans for one trip.
"I'm going to Disney World," he said. "It's going to be a great time."
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.