FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- 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 Aug. 10 at its headquarters on Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Maj. Gen. K.K. Chinn, the 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," said Chinn.
In attendance were:
• Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Lawson W. MacGruder, the Army South commanding general from March 1995 -- May 1997.
• Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Gary Speer, the Army South deputy commander from 1996-1998.
• Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Alfred A. Valenzuela, the Army South commanding general from July 2000 -- October 2003.
• Lt. Gen. (Ret.) P. K. Keen, the Army South commanding general from October 2005 -- August 2007.
• Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Keith M. Huber, the Army South commanding general from August 2007 -- November 2009.
• Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Simeon G. Trombitas, the Army South commanding general from November 2009 -- September 2012.
The former commanders were invited to the command to share their lessons learned while at Army South and to also 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, and 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."
The majority of current, 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, known as 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 area of operations includes Central and South America and the Caribbean.
As much of the conversation centered on strengthening current relationships with other countries in the region, one former commander 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 1/6th of the world's landmass.
"Sometimes, the people that were our enemies yesterday, are our friends today," said Trombitas. "I think the transition of our command from Panama, to Puerto Rico and finally to the United States and maintaining our relationships we created with our Latin American partners live on to this day. What we do is about relationships with our partners and I think it's important that we share with the current command what we have done as former commanders in establishing those relationships."
One way to ensure those relationships endure, is to maximize U.S. military involvement in the Western Hemisphere in an effort to synch all engagements and initiatives to support the current mission. 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 engagement 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 Valenzula, a San Antonio native with a Master of Arts 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," said Chinn.
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 and we were a JTF, 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," said Valenzuela.