Gen. William “Kip” Ward, commander of the United States Africa Command or AFRICOM, passed the position to U.S. Army Gen. Carter F. Ham during a ceremony on March 9, in Sindelfingen, Germany.

Ward, a four-star general, is stepping down nearly three and a half years after the inception of the command, which is based in Stuttgart, Germany. He was a key planner of the command and oversaw its operations from 2007 to 2011.

AFRICOM is one of 10 U.S. combatant commands and coordinates U.S. military relations with more than 50 nations in Africa. At the ceremony, Ward was recognized with a Defense Distinguished Service Award for his leadership and accomplishments as a U.S. AFRICOM commander.

During his final words as the command’s leader, Ward thanked the many people who contributed to its creation, and spotlighted those who were there during the command’s rudimentary phases.

“The story of U.S. Africa Command’s establishment is filled with unsung heroes who dedicated themselves to an idea—that in recognition of Africa’s strategic importance to the United States, the Department of Defense needed a new construct that better aligned the Department’s programs and activities to meet our African partners’ needs,” Ward said at the ceremony. “It fell upon these unsung heroes to turn that idea into a reality, through good solid hard staff work.”

Ham previously served as the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, performing peacekeeping operations in Macedonia and commanding troops in Iraq. He later served as the commanding general of the U.S. Army of Europe.

“Those of us who are privileged to serve today often say that we have the great honor in walking in the footsteps of giants,” Ham said at the ceremony. “I know we’ll face many challenges, some of those we can see very clearly today, while others will emerge in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.”

Ward was commissioned into the infantry in June 1971, according to AFRICOM’s Web site. He holds a masters of arts degree in political science from Pennsylvania State University and has a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Morgan State University.

He served as a deputy of the U.S. European Command in August 2006 when he was directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to begin planning for a new command overseeing Africa. After assuming leadership of the command, he traveled to more than 40 African countries and met with many of the nations’ leaders and military officers, amid widespread concern and skepticism upon the command’s creation.

According to the U.S. Army’s Web site, he was also honored for his achievement at the Black Engineer of the Year Awards in 2010. At the time, he was the only active four-star African-American general and was only the fifth Black in history to achieve that rank.