FORT DRUM, N.Y. (March 26, 2015) -- When Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend took command of Fort Drum and 10th Mountain Division (LI), it was the "highlight" of his career, but it didn't start off that way.
Just a couple of years after being commissioned an infantry lieutenant from the prestigious Reserve Officer Training Corps of North Georgia College, he parachuted into three feet of snow within Fort Drum's training area as a part of the 82nd Airborne Division's winter training in February 1984.
At that time, the Department of Defense was considering the possibility of bringing the light infantry division to the North Country. It was that short training trip some 30 years ago that would prove that first impressions aren't always the lasting one.
"There was nothing but World War II wooden buildings here and forest and snow," he recalled. "Then, we had one mid-winter thaw and it got to about 40 degrees and all the snow melted and our snowshoes and skis and sleds were worthless."
Then, rapid construction to bring the 10th Mountain Division (LI) to life the following year would change everything. Fifteen years later, when he served as a joint operations officer in the U.S. Pacific Command Headquarters in Hawaii, his friends urged him to consider Fort Drum. By then, the 10th Mountain Division had begun adding to its legacy with deployments to the Middle East, Somalia and Haiti.
"I just had this vision of 1984 Fort Drum, and I said 'why in the heck would I want to go there?'" he said with a chuckle. "And they said, 'trust me … just trust me.' I think they used the motto at that time 'The Army's best kept secret.'"
He, his wife Melissa and their two sons, Tyler and Evan, trusted their friends and left the Pacific tropical island for the harsh, North Country winters, but none of them has ever "regretted" the decision to choose Fort Drum.
Townsend started as operations officer of 2nd Brigade, 78th Division (Training Support), and he later commanded the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment "Polar Bears."
He led that outfit as the events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded. He recalled coming into his battalion headquarters after morning physical fitness and seeing his Soldiers gathered around a TV watching the news. He knew exactly what that day would mean for him and his infantrymen. Within months, he and his battalion traveled to eastern Afghanistan and fought in Operation Anaconda.
For the Townsends, 9/11 would send them on a path of tough deployments and separations. For the battle-tested commander, it would spring him into a series of successful combat commands that would follow.
In all, he and his Family have served with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum three times -- each with a deployment to Afghanistan. After War College, Townsend served his second tour at Fort Drum as division operations officer, and with it came another deployment to eastern Afghanistan. When the U.S. Army introduced Strykers during the Iraq war, Townsend was selected as commander of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, at Fort Lewis, Wash. He led his brigade through intense fighting throughout Iraq in 2007.
Warrant Officer Stanley Jones, who was a young intelligence analyst and an Army specialist in Iraq with 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd SBCT, 2nd Infantry Division, remembered Townsend as inspirational.
"He and Command Sgt. Maj. (Jeffrey) Du were both leaders that as a young specialist, I felt that I would want to follow into battle," Jones recalled. "When (Townsend) spoke, he just made you feel proud to be part of the Arrowhead team, and after that rotation was done, for the remainder of my time at 3-2, I never lost that sense of pride as an Arrowhead Soldier."
Townsend took good care of all of his troops and ensured they took care of their troops. Although confident with the "boots in the mud" badge he has earned through years of training and in combat, he will still shy away from the notion that he's a "Soldier's commander," but he understands what it takes to be the type of leader he needs to be versus what he wants to be.
In almost every chance he gets, Townsend delivers his philosophy. Through Fort Drum's newcomer's briefings, shared meals, physical fitness, battlefield circulation -- both at Fort Drum and during combat, and in one of the most unusual ways, by offering rides to Soldiers, he works at staying connected.
"I like to pick up hitchhiking Soldiers … my wife does this too, by the way," he said laughing. "That's another way -- to just pick up Soldiers who are beside the road hitchhiking to the (post exchange) and talk to them."
It has become that important to him to stay in touch with young Soldiers and their lives and experiences, because he said he believes that it's "dangerous" if a senior leader doesn't do it. At Fort Drum, Townsend, whose calendar was littered with events from hour to hour, took the time to do PT with his troops. Once a month, he would take his battalion commanders, all 40-something-year-old lieutenant colonels, through different areas around the installation on running shoes and in snowshoes with affixed bayonets, to flipping tires and throwing medicine balls. He passed his love of history to the battalion commanders as they trudged through the older part of post.
It would be through charging those commanders and incoming Soldiers that Townsend took the opportunity to pass along the ideals and shared philosophy of commanders he's studied and from the noncommissioned officer who raised him: his father, who was a retired Army master sergeant.
Although it is not widely known, Townsend was adopted; at the time, his father was a staff sergeant and a tanker stationed in Germany. And, although not widely shared, he is half German and half Afghan. That distinction, during his time in Afghanistan, would bring certain Afghan National Army leaders to affectionately refer to him as "cousin."
Townsend, who grew up an Army brat, draws on the life lessons taught to him by his late father when he speaks to senior officers and noncommissioned officers. He would issue a one-page list of advice from three people most notable to his leadership upbringing: a historian named Douglas Southall Freeman, his father, and lastly, from his own collection of advice.
The advice was always about being ready, being prepared, doing your best, leading by example, knowing your stuff, taking care of your troops and keeping them informed, among other things.
It was his brand of "engaged" leadership that struck a chord among his staff. Revered and generally liked by everyone on his staff, he has continued to lead from the front in a way that is militarily effective and yet disarming -- in a way that may leave most confused about the stars on his chest as he introduces himself simply as "Townsend" when walking up to a gathering of Soldiers.
That style allowed Townsend to achieve the goals he set for the division upon his taking command from then-Maj. Gen. Mark Milley in 2012. Those high standards, he believes, are the cornerstones of a light infantry unit: exceptional physical fitness, toughness and skill with weapons.
"I wanted this division to be the toughest, most resilient division in the Army. … (It's) kinda hard to measure that … but we've measured it ourselves and our fitness levels have gone up -- considerably," he said. "Similarly, I wanted the division to be the best shooting division in our Army."
It also was important for him to oversee the improvement of Fort Drum with new facilities for the future, and he hopes they will be completed for Soldiers and their Families as the new commander takes over.
A few days before his change of command ceremony, commanders, sergeants major, their spouses, community leaders, and friends attended an intimate farewell dinner to thank him and Melissa for their leadership and friendship during, not only their last time, but their entire time in the North Country.
It's those friendships made by the Townsends and the strong sense of community that Townsend said makes Fort Drum "unique" that they will miss the most.
Pending Senate confirmation, Townsend will take command of XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, N.C. He and his wife Melissa hope they can come back one day to the community they have both adored and where they have made great memories.
"At the risk of offending folks where I've served at other communities and installations I've served at or might serve at in the future," he said, "of all the places we've been assigned over the years, I think this is my favorite. The mission here, the type of unit that's here, is second to none. I've been at other bases … where those units and missions are kind of the same, but also here is the community, and I've been at (only) one other place where sense of community support was as strong as it is here."