The summer after Thomas A. Horlander graduated from high school, his father signed him up to attend a vocational school. Despite his father’s insistence on a career in carpentry, Horlander wanted to attend college instead.
As the son of a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force who was also a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, Horlander had grown up on military installations and was familiar with the lifestyle. At the time, with nearly shoulder-length hair and an affinity for the fashion of the era, he did not quite look the part of a future military officer – nor did he have any aspirations of becoming one.
Yet, soon after graduating college, he changed his mind.
“My father said to me, ‘Son, it’s not a hard decision to join the Army, or any service. It’s a hard decision whether to stay or get out,’” Horlander said.
In 1983, Horlander enlisted in the Army. He went on to receive his commission as a field artillery officer through Officer Candidate School, and even earned a spot in the OCS Hall of Fame as one of its top graduates.
According to Horlander though, that young officer had much to learn.
“I didn’t think I’d stay in the Army long,” he said. “But I fell in love with it.”
Thirty-nine years later, and after serving in the top budget post in the Army, Lt. Gen. Horlander will officially hang up his uniform this week, leaving behind a unique and transformative legacy. Newly promoted Lt. Gen. Paul A. Chamberlain will succeed Horlander as the Military Deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Financial Management & Comptroller.
On June 23, Horlander was honored during a retirement ceremony held at Fort Lesley McNair, complete with a photo slideshow of his life and career highlights.
Hosted by Gen. James C. McConville, Chief of Staff of the Army, the event was attended by distinguished guests, including Ms. Christine Wormuth, Secretary of the Army; Mr. Christopher Lowman, acting Under Secretary of the Army; former secretary Ryan McCarthy, and former acting secretaries Dr. John Whitley and Mr. Robert Speer. Other special guests included Adm. William K. Lescher, vice chief of naval operations, and – as Horlander described, the most beautiful part of his life – his daughter Valentina.
Another guest in attendance who received special mention was retired Sgt. Maj. Ronald Friday, who served with Horlander when he was a newly minted second lieutenant.
“I’ve had a great run with NCOs since the day I was born,” Horlander joked.
During his speech, McConville shared with the audience that Horlander did not want to make the ceremony about him, but instead about the people around him – a testament to the type of person he is.
“It’s incredibly impressive, the people who have come out [to this ceremony], and the difference Thomas has made for our Army over 39 years,” said McConville. “He has helped transform the Army, and helped transform his profession.”
A distinguished path
Horlander spent the early days of his career training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and was then stationed in South Korea.
Although he thought he would only serve three years and move on, Horlander described his next assignment as a turning point.
The Army sent him to Monterey, California, to the Defense Language Institute, where he learned to speak Italian. He was stationed in Italy next, serving as a staff officer, a battery commander, and later an aide-de-camp. Soon after, he picked up his next language: French. Horlander said that he learned French through an Italian teacher who spoke no English, a challenge but an opportunity he embraced. Today, a talented linguist, Horlander speaks Italian, Spanish and French.
After returning stateside from his overseas assignments, he went on to serve at the Finance and Comptroller School in South Carolina, and then on to Fort Rucker, Alabama. While stationed there, a temporary duty order brought him to the Pentagon during 9/11.
Horlander has given his account of that day, describing the initial impact, the setting up of a makeshift tactical operations center at a nearby bookstore, and sharing a sobering van ride all the way back to Alabama the next morning.
“As soon as I could, I located a telephone and called to let my four-year-old daughter at the time know that daddy was okay.”
Eventually, Horlander returned to the Pentagon, and served 12 years in the building, directing business and financial operations through challenging times, including sequestration. He was the 30th Director of the Army Budget, and most recently, the Military Deputy to the ASA for FM&C.
As the MILDEP, Horlander advised the ASA for FM&C and the Army's senior leadership on all financial matters. His role as the most senior finance and comptroller military official for the total Army led to significant changes to the way the field trains for and employs finance operations.
In 2018, through his vision, the finance and comptroller career field added four new core competencies – big-data analytics, counter-threat finance, auditability and fiscal stewardship – in addition to the existing competencies of fund the force, payment support, disbursing and accounting.
In June 2021, at his direction, the first finance battalion was reactivated at the 82nd Airborne Division after a 12-year hiatus. Several more battalion activations are planned for the next two years, which will enable the FC field to better support commanders during large-scale combat operations.
Horlander’s forward thinking brought data analytics to the forefront of the financial management strategy. Beyond instituting it as a core competency, he served as the architect of the Command Accountability and Execution Review program. Now in its third year, CAER has enabled leaders at every echelon in the Army to have greater oversight and accountability of funds. According to Horlander, with proper implementation across the force, CAER saves the Army billions of dollars of lost purchasing power every year.
With a desire to address any gaps in critical focus areas, and ensure that programs and policies were well-integrated across the finance and comptroller profession, Horlander also assembled a strategic initiatives group within the OASA (FM&C) comprised of data experts, strategic communicators and action officers for implementing CAER enterprise-wide.
Army headquarters staff who work closely with Horlander are familiar with his direct professional development style, and down-to-earth sense of humor. It was not an uncommon occurrence for him to fix a cup of espresso at his desk, pepper in some Italian phrases and ask Soldiers and civilians everything from weekend plans to football team picks. A fan of classic rock and a musician himself, Horlander sometimes quizzed staff on lyrics and artists.
Often, Horlander scheduled office calls with both Soldiers and civilians, offering mentorship and encouragement. Unlike the seemingly conventional process of mentees seeking mentors, Horlander actively sought coaching opportunities and ways to promote talent management.
During a recent professional development luncheon with the American Society of Military Comptrollers, Horlander encouraged on-the-spot development and for others to witness decision making firsthand. He said that inviting outside perspectives into briefings provided an important learning opportunity.
“Every briefing room is a classroom, and every briefing is a lesson plan,” he said.
Leaving a legacy
Horlander’s next job is an important one: helping move his daughter to the Midwest as she begins graduate school.
During his retirement ceremony, as the slideshow displayed photos throughout his career, one photo in particular seemed to foreshadow future events. The photo shows then-Lt. Col. Horlander smiling ear to ear while holding his young daughter, who is sporting a mini-beret with the three-star general insignia. While he did not know it then, he would go on to earn those stars and leave behind a legacy of transformation for the finance and comptroller field, the Army and its people.
And just as his father had told him before he even joined, leaving the Army would be the most difficult part.
“I’m blessed because I get to serve the greatest country in the world … and serve in the greatest Army in the world,” he said. “So when you hear people say, ‘Thirty-nine years! Wow!’ – I gotta tell you, I wish it was another thirty-nine years. That’s how much I loved being with all of you and being a part of this.”