Deputy commander reflects on tenure with Cadet Command
August 22, 2012
Every time Col. Peggy Combs finished talking to a group of students, she'd gather them together and snap a photo with her iPhone.
The images, destined someday for scrapbooks, were shot as much for sentimental reasons as they were to be a window to the future.
"I always told them, 'I'm taking this picture for my scrapbook of greatness because in here there is the chief of staff of the Army in 2050. I know one of you is going to be,' " Combs said. "I told them that when this little old lady, all shriveled up, comes and says, 'Honey, I've got a picture of you on my old iPhone,' I'm going to ask you to sign my picture.
"With the caliber of officers we are producing, I'm confident the chief of staff in 2050 is in our formation."
Combs, Cadet Command's deputy commanding general for the last 13 months and the first female deputy in the organization's 26-year history, ends her tenure today. She will be succeeded by Col. Erik Peterson, who most recently served as chief of staff for the 10th Mountain Division in Fort Drum, N.Y.
Combs is moving on to become commandant of the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. She will be promoted to the rank of brigadier general shortly before her Sept. 7 change of command ceremony.
As she leaves ROTC, the organization that laid the military leadership foundation for the Syracuse University commissionee, her one regret is that she didn't have more time to spend with America's future leaders. Because Cadet Command's reach is so widespread, stretching from coast to coast and as far away as Japan with senior and junior programs, there was just no way to visit more schools.
"I wish there were five of me," Combs said.
But the programs she saw, and the cadets with whom she interacted, left her energized and optimistic about the future of the Army and the nation.
"We got to see the strength of ROTC, which is the diversity of thought that comes from producing officers from over 1,300 (host and partner) campuses that are all influenced by 1,300 faculties -- not just in the military science programs, but in their majors," Combs said.
Combs' high school, and none of the high schools in the area where she grew up in upstate New York, had Junior ROTC programs. So her assignment at Cadet Command was her first real exposure to the citizen development effort.
Combs said she was taken aback by the drive and focus of Junior ROTC cadets, many of whom already knew what they wanted to do in life.
"I think America's treasure is in them; it's their potential to achieve greatness in the future," Combs said. "They're in high school setting their path about how they're going to be great. I never thought about that in high school."
A chemical officer, Combs is no stranger to Fort Leonard Wood, home to the Chemical Corps. She has spent so much time there during her career, she refers to the Missouri post as her "Army home." As commandant of the school, Combs will continue to focus on education and Soldier development, much as she did with Cadet Command.
Perhaps the greatest challenge she faces is changing the general mindset those in the Army have about the chemical branch, which has evolved in recent years to include an increased homeland mission of emergency management and hazardous response.
"Everyone still thinks of us as a portable car wash and the gas chamber," Combs said. "We have to get beyond that."
That's where her Cadet Command experience -- specifically marketing the program and communicating the mission -- will prove beneficial.
"My challenge as chief of the branch is to bring better understanding through strategic communication and relationship building of what the capabilities are now and what they (the Chemical Corps) bring to the fight," Combs said. "There are people who will tell you that you don't have to market anything within the Army. But there is a need for furthering understanding and communicating. You have to communicate, as much as change has come in the last 10 years to our Army. Just about every branch has changed. Are we doing a good job informing each other, so we get rid of some of our old stereotypes?"
While she is out spreading the message, Combs plans to occasionally stop by ROTC units at colleges and high schools as a champion for the program.
"If you don't come out of here enthused about the future … I don't know where you can get that glimpse into a crystal ball to see how bright the future of our Army and America's communities looks," she said. "That personally and professionally has given me this renewed sense of service and motivation. America is in great hands."