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NEWS | Aug. 27, 2015

Former commanders return to Army South to discuss lessons learned, future of command

U.S. Army South

It’s not unusual for a military command to draw inspiration from its history. U.S. Army South recently had the opportunity and privilege to draw from more than 250 years of collective military service when it hosted its first former commanders’ conference at its headquarters on Fort Sam Houston Aug. 10.

Maj. Gen. K.K. Chinn, current Army South commanding general, hosted five former Army South commanding generals and one former deputy commander dating back to 1995, when the unit was based in Panama.

“When looking at our current mission, it’s important to look to the past to ensure we have our priorities right,” Chinn said.

In attendance were retired Lt. Gen. Lawson W. MacGruder, Army South commanding general from March 1995 to May 1997; retired Lt. Gen. Gary Speer, deputy commander from 1996-1998; retired Maj. Gen. Alfred A. Valenzuela, ARSOUTH CG from July 2000 to October 2003; retired Lt. Gen. P. K. Keen, ARSOUTH CG from October 2005 to August 2007; retired Lt. Gen. Keith M. Huber, ARSOUTH CG from August 2007 to November 2009; and retired Maj. Gen. Simeon G. Trombitas, ARSOUTH CG from November 2009 to September 2012.

The former commanders were invited to share lessons learned while at Army South and receive updates on the current mission and the command’s downsizing.

“This conference allows us to speak freely about our successes and the mistakes we made in the past and those challenges we faced,” said Trombitas, who retired last month following 37 years of service, with his last duty as deputy commanding general for U.S. Army North (Fifth Army). “Sharing how we overcame those challenges allows us to apply those lessons learned to current situations in our region.”

Numerous key staff leaders joined the former commanders to listen in as Chinn led the group in detailed discussions focusing on maintaining a deployable joint task force command post, the importance of regionally aligned U.S. forces, the role of partner nation militaries in supporting civil organizations to maintain security in the region and countering transnational organized crime, or CTOC.

“As we transition to today’s CTOC mission and how we defend our southern boundaries, we must look to what we need to do to assist our partner nations in becoming valued exporters of regional security,” said Chinn, whose unit’s areas of operation include Central and South America and the Caribbean.

As much of the conversation centered on strengthening current relationships with other countries in the region, Trombitas praised Army South and its ability to establish and build upon friendships that may not have been there 30 years ago. He stressed the difficulty of that task in an often volatile hemisphere that is home to 31 countries and 15 areas of special sovereignty in a region which covers roughly 15.6 million square miles and represents about one-sixth of the world’s landmass. 

“Sometimes, the people that were our enemies yesterday are our friends today,”                         Trombitas said. “I think the transition of our command from Panama to Puerto Rico, and finally to the United States, and maintaining the relationships we created with our Latin American partners live on to this day. I think it’s important that we share with the current command what we have done as former commanders in establishing those relationships.”

A portion of the day’s discussion focused on regionally aligned forces and the state partnership program – two programs that allow Army South to sustain engagements with partner nations within a budget-constrained atmosphere.

“You have a lot of constraints put upon you and I don’t envy that at all,” said Valenzuela, a San Antonio native with a master of arts degree in political science with an emphasis on Latin American studies and national security affairs.

“It’s important to identify our partner nations’ needs, and then to marry them with the strengths of our regionally aligned forces to maximize our Soldiers’ capabilities and training that they already possess,” Chinn said.

When asked for their greatest challenges, achievements and frustrations while in command, Keen, who was commander of Joint Task Force Unified Response which formed following a 2010 earthquake in Haiti, reflected during the discussion on something he would have done differently. 

“I don’t think in hindsight that I engaged enough with my fellow component commanders to understand what they were doing,” Keen said. “Then when Haiti hit, I wish I had spent more time with them because I leaned on them really heavily in different aspects.” The Army South response was key to the efforts on the ground as both Keen and Trombitas provided command control of the task force.

While commanders disclosed different examples and challenges they experienced during their combined 15-year Army South tenure, a common theme from commander to commander throughout the years has been establishing, maintaining and strengthening relationships. As Army South shapes the direction of its future, all participants agreed building and maintaining relationships between partner nations should continue as a priority.

“Every commander that takes charge of a unit should have a strong grasp of the history, and I think us sharing our experiences today provides that,” Valenzuela said.