Less than a year after its establishment as an Army Service Component Command, U.S. Army Africa organized a historic gathering of military leaders from nations across the African continent.

The African Land Forces Summit, held May 10 - 14, was a seminal event for an organization that over the past 18 months made a dynamic shift from a tactical contingency headquarters to a service component command headquarters.

The summit drew more than 30 delegations - senior commanders and staff officers representing African land forces.

The successful organization of the summit was in the eyes of many a powerful indicator that U.S. Army Africa is rapidly maturing in its new role as the Army Service Component Command for U.S. Africa Command.

"This has been, by all measures, an absolutely fantastic occasion," said Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward, commander, U.S. Africa Command.

To Ward, the size and scope of the summit is tangible evidence of America's commitment to supporting nations on the continent as they build security capacity.

In addition to Ward, delegates heard from top American leaders such as Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., U.S. Army Chief of Staff, as well as three senior African military leaders with vast experience in some of the continent's most complicated peacekeeping missions: Gen. Martin L. Agwai, the former commander of the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping forces in Darfur, as well as their current commander, Lt. Gen. Patrick Nyanvumba and Maj. General Francis Okello, who led the African Union Mission in Somalia.

Gen. William E. Aca,!A"KipAca,!A? Ward, commander of U.S. Africa Command, speaks to delegates at the African Land Forces Summit

But Ward, in his address to the delegates, made clear the summit was not a one-way conversation.

"We want to listen. We want to learn from your perspectives we want to support regional cooperation, and we want to be a partner in collaborating to address the challenges you face," he said. "You have seen over the past few years how we do business. Not dictating to you. Not directing you. But listening to you and then doing our best to do those things you have asked us to do. What you say matters. I hope this summit is proving that to you."

U.S. Army Africa Commander, Maj. Gen. William B. Garrett III, said the goal of the summit was consistent with all other endeavors in his command's area of operations: fostering partnerships that help nations improve interoperability and mutual capabilities.

To illustrate the point, he often uses an old Swahili proverb, "umoja ni nguvu" which means unity is strength.

"Relationships are everything and for us - the ability to take cooperative relationships and over time grow them into enduring partnerships is the ultimate goal of our entire engagement strategy in Africa," Garrett said.

He emphasized the importance of the African Land Forces Summit couldn't be overstated.

"It's the first time we've taken leaders from across the entire continent and brought them together in one place to discuss how we can adapt to security challenges of the future," Garrett said.

The summit is actually one of several major initiatives undertaken by U.S. Army Africa since its inception in December 2008.

The first took place in October in Uganda, when U.S. Army Africa co-hosted a 10-day humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise with five African partner militaries.

It paid dividends almost immediately. Most of those same forces deployed a short time later to a real humanitarian relief mission in the region and were able to respond without the need for international assistance.

As part of the week-long summit, delegates traveled to the Pentagon and U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga.

U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence - "Rangers in Action"

Lt. Gen. Edward Katumba Wamala of Uganda, said the visit to the maneuver center of excellence was a good demonstration of how the United States is preparing to address threats of the 21st Century.

"We must all be willing to adapt," Wamala, a 2000 graduate of the U.S. Army War College, said.

During the Pentagon visit, delegates met with Lt. Gen. David H. Huntoon Jr., director of the U.S Army staff, who told the leaders their decision to attend the summit will help their American military counterparts better understand the 21st century security challenges African military leaders face.

"You give us a wonderful perspective. We can learn what matters to people across the continent, from Senegal to Sierra Leone," Huntoon said.

He added that relationships they build at the summit with fellow African leaders and members of the American military will prove invaluable when they return to their home countries.

"There will be a time of conflict and your ability to call or email someone you have spent time with in the past will make a huge difference," Huntoon said.

The delegates widely agreed that some of the most productive time spent at the summit was in small, closed discussion groups that allowed an open dialogue and free exchange of ideas among the military leaders from the continent.

Col. Henry Odillo, the delegate from Malawi, said the discussion groups introduced him to other leaders who had similar concerns even though they command forces on opposite ends of the continent.

"It was a valuable eye-opener because Africa is a vast continent with different beliefs and backgrounds," Odillo said. "Much of how we respond to security threats is dictated by those factors as well as how we were colonized. To work together as partners, we must understand each other."

Odillo found himself in agreement with many of the American speakers at the summit, who emphasized the benefits of having a military subordinate to civil authorities.

"We in uniform must support our legitimate governments," Odillo said. "I would add that I would prefer to support a democratically elected government, as I do."

The colonel, who commands a brigade in Malawi's defense forces, said the conference also reminded him that military might alone is never enough for a country to satisfy its security objectives.

"Economic growth is important for meeting security objectives" he said.

Finally, Odillo lauded one of the major summit objectives, which was to help countries form alliances for peacekeeping operations.

"The world gets a little smaller for all of us when we deploy together for a peacekeeping," Odillo said.

Participation in peacekeeping operations, Odillo believes, can help military organizations prepare for their own security imperatives, such as defending their borders and protecting their people.

"Nobody wishes to have a conflict, but they do occur," Odillo said. "If we have a force that is well prepared, you have a chance to manage and respond in an appropriate way."

"This conference is playing a very important role in helping some leaders understand that if we struggle, there are people prepared to assist us, and we should be receptive to their willingness to help us," he added.

VIDEO: Gen. (R) Martin L. Agwai of Nigeria

During the summit, the delegates said they were able to strengthen bonds with leaders even by having informal conversations.

Maj. Gen. Gaolathe Galebotswe of Botswana and Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Tshalala of Swaziland sat on a couch at one point in the conference discussing the merits of organizing militaries under the American or British systems.

"These interactions are fruitful because we can learn a lot from each other and our different traditions," Tshalala said.

The summit also allowed delegates to renew old friendships.

Col. Saliou Ndiaye of Senegal met an officer from another nation he had not seen since both participated in a training exercise more than 20 years ago.

"It was wonderful to see him and to renew our partnership," he said. "This summit is invaluable because it's an opportunity to meet other officers; we share our experiences, and we look for ways we can work together."

He said he had fruitful conversations with other officers about ways to best orchestrate communications, logistics and medical support during humanitarian relief operations.

To Maj. Gen. Alfrea Claude Nelson-Williams of Sierra Leone, the conference demonstrated U.S. Army Africa's commitment to continue building land force capacity on the continent.

"The United States Army has shown openness, frankness and integrity in addressing the problems and challenges we face in Africa," he said. "Everything about this conference was well-thought out, well-researched and I think, well received by myself and my fellow delegates. I found much of what I heard inspiring."

He was looking forward to the next summit in 2012.

"I feel as if we have taken that step on a long journey to growing and working as a team," he said.

SLIDESHOW: African Land Forces Summit