06.20.2016 -- CAMP FOSTER, OKINAWA, Japan – Col. Christopher J. Papaj celebrated his retirement July 17, at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Japan, where he was awarded the Legion of Merit after 30 years of service in the Corps.
“I joined the Marine Corps to go to flight school," said Papaj, who served as the assistant wing commander of 1st Marine Aircraft Wing from 2012 until 2016. "I only planned on staying in for five and a half years, but it was too fun. Thirty years later, and I am still having fun.”
Brig. Gen. Russell Sanborn, the commanding general of 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, spoke of the proficiency that Papaj brought to the command and the trust placed in him to run the Wing in his absence.
“If I ever had to leave … I didn’t lose any sleep knowing that ‘PanPan’ was in charge,” said Sanborn, using Papaj's aviation call sign.
Papaj, a San Diego State University graduate, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1986. He was designated a Naval Aviator in 1988 and subsequently assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Training Squadron 301 for operational training in the CH-46E Sea Knight. Papaj went on to deploy with the 11th, 13th, and 15th Marine Expeditionary Units. He also deployed three times to Iraq.
Papaj's personal awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star with Gold Star, Meritorious Service Medal with Gold Star, Air Medal with the Numeral 12 Strike Device, Navy Commendation Medal and the Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medal.
Sanborn also said a large part of his success at Exercise Cobra Gold 2015 could be attributed to Papaj’s ability to naturally foster relationships with everyone he meets.
“He is relationship-oriented; that’s just the way he is,” said Sanborn. “He took the time early to create meaningful relationships with our counterparts.”
According to Col. David Krebs, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing’s chief of staff, Papaj proved to be a strategic enabler when the Marines were called on to provide relief support to Nepal after the April 2015 earthquake.
“He understood the cultural and political sensitivities and was able to tie those in to ensure the mission was always accomplished,” said Krebs, who also stressed the value of Papaj because of his ability to “speak truth to power” when acting as an advisor to commanders.
“More than anything, I will miss the Marines I’ve worked for and with,” said Papaj. “People say the Marine Corps may be getting soft. That isn’t true. It still is, and will always be, the most premier fighting force in the world.”
Papaj plans on attending school to become a gunsmith when he returns to Colorado Springs, Colorado.