By Megan CottonSeptember 26, 2016
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- For the Army Materiel Command's top leader, Gen. Dennis L. Via, a 36-year career in the military started with a challenge.
A newly pinned second lieutenant from Virginia State University, Via joined the Signal Corps and was assigned as the platoon leader of what was considered the worst platoon in the worst company -- A Company, 3rd Platoon, 25th Signal Battalion at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
"The majority of my platoon had been given the choice of join the Army or go to jail. I was a little apprehensive, but I said this is the job the Army has designated for me, and I'm going to do it well," Via said. "It was probably the best leadership devolving assignment that I've had."
As Via moved his way through the ranks of the 25th Signal Battalion, he recognized the importance of wearing the wings. He avidly pursued jump school and earned his jump wings after negotiating with his new battalion commander.
"He asked me to command D Company, and I said I was honored, but I had to go to Airborne School. He said he couldn't afford three weeks to send me to school. I told him I would take three weeks leave to go ... That is what it means to me," Via said. "Here I was, negotiating with the new battalion commander, not even a captain yet, but I got to go to Special Forces Airborne school which was accelerated at two weeks."
Reflecting on his many assignments, Via credits the Army with giving him opportunities he would have never had, including traveling the world. One of his early assignments was to Naples, Italy, and he was later stationed in Mannheim, Germany.
"For someone who had never traveled out of the country, being able to live abroad in Naples, Italy, was unbelievable," he said. "The experiences, travel and opportunities I had were nothing I ever could have dreamed of as a young boy in Martinsville, Virginia."
A member of the 82nd Airborne, Via said he wanted to spend his life jumping out of airplanes until his mentor Lt. Gen. Robert Gray told him that he needed to go to Fort Hood, Texas, and learn about tanks.
"I was so grateful for my experience at Fort Hood. There, I met people and learned things I never would have experienced anywhere else," he said about his time with III Corps. "I learned so much about program management, the program executive offices, and the business of fielding systems and capabilities."
During his assignment at Fort Hood, the attacks on September 11th changed the country, and Via knew his brigade would be going to war. He faced one of the toughest challenges of his career in changing command before the unit's deployment.
"I wanted to ensure that they had everything they needed to deploy, and I did all the things I could do to get them at their peak level of training, not knowing if I would be extended in command or not," said Via. "Leaving Fort Hood was probably the saddest day for Linda and me. We knew they would be going to war. I was confident that they would be able to do what they needed to do, but at the end of the day, I wasn't able to stay there."
A few years later, Via was once again challenged as he took the reins of the Communications-Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. CECOM was in the initial planning for relocation to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, under Base Realignment and Closure.
"I went in not understanding the impact of BRAC on the command. I was in the Army; I thought let's line up the trucks and get going, but only 13 percent of employees said they were going to move," he said. "I knew I had to win the trust of the people in order to move forward."
Via set out to make sure the command took care of every employee, whether they were moving or not. To embrace the entire community, the command planned bus tours to Maryland, a celebration of Fort Monmouth's 90th anniversary, and transition offices for those who didn't want to move.
"It was the toughest job I had in the Army because it involved people and their lives," Via said about the move, where ultimately, 69 percent of the command transitioned to Maryland. "How you treat people and how you gain their respect and confidence is how you get things done."
Following CECOM, Via was promoted to three-star general and moved back to Washington for his third assignment in the Pentagon as the Director for Command, Control, Communications and Computer Systems, J-6.
One year into the assignment it was announced that the J-6 would be stood down, eliminating Via's position.
"With the announcement, I was often asked, 'What's going to happen to you?' At the time, we were happy to go back to the rank of Major General and finish what had been an amazing career. What I cared about is what was going to happen to my people, taking care of my staff through this difficult time," he said.
Focused on finding positions for all of his personnel, it was towards the end of his time at the J-6 that Via received a call from Gen. Ann Dunwoody, then the commander of AMC, asking if he would like to become her deputy.
"As one door closes, another one opens. Had that decision not been made, I wouldn't have been the deputy at AMC and certainly wouldn't have had the opportunity to become the commanding general," he said.
After nearly four decades in uniform, Via said he was most proud of watching those under his command develop personally and professionally and achieve their goals.
"It really is all about people," he said. "It has always been about the people I've served with, and that's what I'll miss most."