By Eric PilgrimMay 9, 2018
The commander of U.S. Army Cadet Command and Fort Knox, Maj. Gen. Christopher Hughes, has seen a lot of it during his 35-plus years of service to the nation.
While at the helm of commissioned officer leader development for the entire Army the past two years, Hughes said change surfaces regularly in life.
"When I was growing up, we operated a lot under what we used to call a resource-constrained environment," said Hughes.
Hughes said the valuable lessons of a Great Depression sandwiched between two world wars that his grandparents and parents passed along to his generation made a lasting impact.
"My generation took care of what they had. They weren't very keen to seek better things; they just wanted what they had to be the best they could hold onto. They cleaned it. They took care of it. They painted it. They made things last a long time," he said. "As officers in the Army, we made do with what we had, which I think made us a bit more agile and a little bit more innovative in our approach to problem solving."
When he came into the Army in 1983, Hughes and other Soldiers found themselves in an environment where they had very few resources, but a lot of people to do the work.
"The Army I came into had over 800,000. In the '90s, suddenly the Army changed dramatically and was cut by over 50 percent. We dropped down to 485 [thousand] right at the end of the '90s," he said. "I watched the Army purge a large number of officers and Soldiers; I saw a more elite group of people left when the dust settled."
Suddenly, there were very few people to do the same work.
"The people who were left were very grateful to still be around," he said. "[We] didn't have any more resources than we had before, but we had more work. The innovation that we learned in a resource-constrained environment was helping us to survive."
Hughes shared one of the consequences he experienced that highlighted those changes. As a young Soldier working in an operations shop, he had access to a seemingly limitless supply of government pens, so he found himself regularly asking his sergeant for one.
"They were terrible little pens, they were worthless … and I lost a pen every day," he said. "What he did was he took all my pens from me and he gave me one pen. He said, 'I'll not give you another pen. If you lose this pen, you'll not have another pen.'"
Hughes carried that lesson with him as he climbed the ranks as a commissioned officer. He carried that lesson when another big change hit the Army in 2001.
"9/11 kicks in and suddenly for the first time in my military career, which was about my eighteenth, nineteenth year in the Army, we're flush with resources; and, we're flush with people," he said. "What I learned during that period of time was it was great to have everybody I was supposed to have, and it was great to have unlimited resources to get things done, but I slowly learned that [it] didn't teach people to be good leaders.
"That didn't lend itself to putting people through the requisite level of hardship to appreciate what they have, and to take advantage of what they have, and to take care of what they have."
He has carried that same mindset with him at Cadet Command.
Since the idea of throwing money and personnel at a problem doesn't work, according to Hughes, his focus has become more strategic.
"My primary focus is to give this command the diversity that it needs and to go after the key influencers across the nation so that they understand the significance of this command [as well as] to get this command the resources it needs," said Hughes.
His passion has been to instruct young men and women coming into the Army as commissioned officers about how to succeed in a constantly changing environment.
Now at the end of the 9/11 era with drawdowns in personnel and resources becoming mainstream again, Hughes said he is seeing the Army go back to what he experienced at the beginning of his career -- living in a resource-constrained environment.
"What I found [remains] very true: if you only have one pen, you will always have one pen," he said. "If you have 20 pins, you can never find a pen."
Hughes praised his Cadet Command staff for their tireless work in supporting the mission, admitting he could not have accomplished what he has without them. He also praised U.S. Army Garrison.
"I'm blessed with a garrison staff that punches way above its weight class, that does more than anyone could ever expect for them to do, and I don't even know how many overtime hours these guys rack up," he said. "I'm very, very cognizant of their efforts and, if you look at this post, I think it's one of the best posts in the Army, despite the fact it's very eclectic -- despite the fact that there are so many different kinds of units here with so many different demand signals and so many higher headquarters that are outside the scope of even I as a senior commander can influence."
One of his biggest accomplishments as commander of Fort Knox, in his opinion, was changing the narrative spoken to Army leaders. He said he understands how communication comes from the Pentagon and how that affects leaders at lower echelons. Pentagon leaders had suggested that Fort Knox cut its emergency services as part of the budget and personnel drawdown. Hughes directed the garrison leaders to push back against the request with a well thought-out plan to explain why they would be pushing back. The plan worked.
"Now we're driving the conversation," Hughes said. "Fort Knox is a post that tells the truth, that is honest in its assessment, does its homework and lets the Army know no one's making mistakes at this level," Hughes said. "None of that's meant to disparage the Army."
Two months prior to the end of his celebrated military career, Hughes said he and his wife Marguerite were turning their attention toward the next big change -- life outside the Army, at a small farm in Iowa, where they will focus their attention to pursuits not unlike at Cadet Command.
"I'm going to do some consulting work with Northwest Missouri State University and possibly some other companies, and just going to take it slow," he said. "Our goal is to stay around the college environment as much as we can and to help young men and women realize that they can do more than they think they can."
Hughes said there are fond memories for his time at Fort Knox that he will carry with him -- like fly fishing in Otter Creek.
"Who in a million years would have thought that we would stock trout in a little creek in a training area on Fort Knox?" Hughes asked. "I never in a million years would have thought that."
He said he will also remember hunting -- and watching wildlife.
"It's actually a pastime of my wife and I to do a deer count just about every night after work," he said. "Right now our record is 135 deer, just in the cantonment areas on the edges of the training areas."
Another favorite memory will be watching the cadets go through summer training.
"You get to see young people being pushed to their limit and then they stop, they turn around, they look back at a line, and they say, 'I didn't think I could cross that line,'" said Hughes. "You go, 'Sure you can, so draw a new one.' They start realizing, don't draw lines. Just keep pushing forward."
Five years from now, when he's sitting on his front porch, drinking tea and talking about his time in the Army, Hughes said there is one story he'll share with his children and grandchildren -- the opportunity to lead Cadet Command.
"The story I will tell is … walking straight into Cadet Summer Training the 25th of May and then falling flat on my face exhausted at the end of August when it was done, and just realizing the tremendous amount of operational tempo it takes to train that many people in that short of time.
"Every day you get a chance to be around cadets, you want to give them 150 percent. It was physically exhausting, but at the end of the day, it was probably the most rewarding thing I've done so far in my life."