FORT BENNING, Ga. -- When the top U.S. general in Europe - a 33-year Army veteran with longtime ties to Fort Benning - first heard the Infantry and Armor schools would merge here into the Maneuver Center of Excellence, he said his reaction was mixed.

"Culturally, I wasn't ready to accept that because this has always been the home of the infantry," said Gen. Carter Ham. "Then you start thinking about it logically and it makes perfect sense to do this. We bring together the two principal maneuver arms of our Army...It's a very powerful opportunity."

The U.S. Army Europe and 7th Army commanding general spoke Monday during the Combat Leader Speaker Program, a quarterly event in which military dignitaries are invited to address Fort Benning commanders, students and trainees. He spoke to about 530 people at the National Infantry Museum.

Ham was commissioned in the Infantry in 1976, served as executive officer of the U.S. Army Infantry School from 1990-93 and was the 29th Infantry Regiment commander from 1999-2001. He has a daughter at Fort Benning who's married to a Soldier.

"This is home for us," he told the audience.

Ham recalled how he sat as a young Soldier at Fort Benning years ago and listened to renowned Army leaders such as Hal Moore - whose heroics in Vietnam are chronicled in the movie, "We Were Soldiers" - and David E. Grange Jr., who was commandant of the Infantry School from June 1979 to August 1981 and whom the Best Ranger Competition is named after.

"We'd hear these legends of our Army," he said, "and I'd find myself mesmerized."

Ham talked about the CLSP's relevance and how lessons learned within the venue can help young officers and noncommissioned officers in combat, but said the roles are reversed today.

During the Cold War, he said, very few Soldiers had been to war. The earliest experiences came during the Grenada invasion in 1983 and Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 1990s.

"That caused us to rely on the older officers from Vietnam, even Korea, to share their experiences in combat," Ham said prior to his speech. "We listened to them and gained their insights on small-unit combat."

At the height of the Cold War, he said U.S. Army Europe was made up of a quarter-million Soldiers. That number has shrunk to about 42,000 today, with only four brigade combat teams stationed on the continent. The decline has been steady since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.

While peace has existed in Europe over the last two decades, the two nuclear-armed forces came close to blows on a few occasions during the Cold War, Ham said.

"Thank God the big war never came," he said. "It was a very dangerous time, but also simple. We knew who the good guys and bad guys were. It was stable and predictable."

But the Soldiers he addressed Monday are already part of "a combat-seasoned force," he said, and most have deployed at least twice to Iraq or Afghanistan.

"Those guys in that room today don't think they've done anything extraordinary or special," Ham said. "Us old guys think just the opposite. What they have done is very extraordinary."

Ham said courage, perseverance and offensive spirit are the traits of good leaders and Soldiers and have served the Army well for 234 years. He praised the recruits, one station unit training Soldiers, NCOs, new lieutenants and captains emerging from Fort Benning on the Army's front lines.

"They're better than they've ever been," he said. "The Army wants to produce agile and adaptive leaders. Fort Benning has done that for generations, and they do it better than anyone else. The nation is well-served by what Fort Benning is doing today."

The general said he's inspired by the dedication and "selfless service" of today's all-volunteer force.

"There's not a Soldier, NCO or officer who has to be here. Nobody has to serve," Ham said. "And they've extended service beyond their initial obligation knowing we are a nation at war ... To me, that's inspirational."

He said the U.S. presence in Europe remains vital as his command faces evolving missions, which include forging partnerships with former Eastern Bloc countries. He encouraged Soldiers in the crowd to seek an assignment with U.S. Army Europe.

"It's a great place to continue to Soldier and serve," Ham said. "We are the guardians of freedom and the American way of life. You represent the very best of our nation, and the future of our nation."