By Kari Hawkins, USAG Redstone October 18, 2012
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- As a college student, it was the Army's flashy dress uniform that first attracted Gen. Dennis Via to the military.
But it is the Soldier behind the uniform that has kept the attention of Redstone Arsenal's four-star general throughout his 32-year career as a Signal Corps officer.
"A good Soldier encompasses all the Army values," Via said. "To be a good leader of those Soldiers, you have to be a good follower.
"The keys to being a successful Soldier and a successful leader of Soldiers are integrity, trust, selfless service, commitment, being a good team player and leading by example. The first person who jumps out of a plane is the commander. Those are the things that make the difference between a good organization and a great organization, and the Soldiers and leaders who are part of that organization. That goes for leaders from private to general, from the squad level all the way to global command."
Now, as the commander of the Army Materiel Command, Via is focused on the largely civilian work force that provides the Army's Soldiers with the best in equipment, technology and logistical support.
"We have nearly 70,000 employees. Ninety-seven percent are civilians. They have been and always will be the foundation of our success here," Via said. "I have their best interest at heart. I want to set the environment for them to continue to be successful. I will fight for the resources they need as we transition to a sustainment environment.
"We have tough decisions to make. But we will do everything we can to support our civilian work force and their families. I am honored and proud to serve as their commander. I am thrilled to be here and excited about the opportunities to get to know the folks of AMC and the Tennessee Valley."
Via served as deputy commander of AMC before taking the helm as its commander on Aug. 7. With his promotion, he became the Army's seventh African-American four-star general, the highest ranking officer within the Signal Corps and the 18th commander of AMC in its 50-year history.
Wherever he's served in his career, Via has strived to set a command climate that is positive, supportive and caring for Soldiers and civilians, a goal that is particularly important in these days of tightening military budgets. Via hopes that goal is emulated by other commanders and leaders throughout the Army.
"Employees respond to positive leadership and a positive workplace," he said. "You want to set an environment so that people enjoy what they are doing, are respected for what they do, and have the tools and resources to do their job."
Looking over his career, it seems Via's accomplishments led him directly to where he is today as commander. But although the Army is known for building on its Soldiers' leadership experience,Via was not the type of officer who spent his working days planning for the next promotion.
"I've never reached for the next level," he said. "I always focused on the job at hand. I didn't compete against others. I always focused on competing against my own standards.
"It is better to focus on being good at what you do, on setting high standards and a personal example, and on treating everyone with dignity and respect."
Via, a Martinsville, Va., native whose ancestry includes several World War II veterans, was a student at Virginia State University when he caught his first glimpse of what the Army had to offer. During his sophomore year, those Soldiers in their dress uniforms told him the Army would pay for him to attend summer training at Fort Knox, Ky. Even better, the Army would get him there by airplane. That made an impression on a college student who, because of his father's death the year prior, was just able to get by financially.
"I did a double take," Via recalled. "I said, 'You are going to send me to camp, pay me and fly me. Sounds like a great deal to me. Sign me up!'
"I learned that summer that you don't get in the Army until the Army gets into you. It was hard. It was tough. It was really basic training for ROTC cadets. But I loved every bit of it. I liked the challenge. I liked the leadership. I liked when the drill sergeant got in your face."
That was enough for Via to take the Army challenge and continue in the university's ROTC program. Although he was a distinguished military graduate in 1980, Via was still not sure if the Army would be his career. With some doubt, he began to serve a three-year commitment.
At the time, he didn't realize his military occupational specialty -- communications -- would provide the kind of challenge where he could thrive professionally. The 1980s and '90s saw tremendous growth in the Army's communications abilities, and Via was very much part of that growth.
His first assignment with the 82nd Signal Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., gave him a unique perspective on the Army's leadership ranks.
"Even though ROTC certainly prepared me, everything about that first assignment was new to me. I enjoyed being a platoon leader of 40 Soldiers. Taking on that responsibility was something I felt very good about," Via said. "During my 4½ years there, I held five key posts in the unit that afforded me quite a few opportunities.
"That assignment established a great foundation for me. It gave me the opportunity to experience leadership at different levels as a platoon leader, maintenance officer, logistics officer, the battalion S4 and commander of a line company. My assignments allowed me to touch every aspect of that unit. It's pretty amazing even when I think back on it. I think it helped to build my confidence and my abilities to be a leader, and my understanding and appreciation of working with people."
Personally, those early years also introduced his wife, Linda, who he met in college, to the life of an Army officer's wife. The daughter of a World War II quartermaster Soldier, Linda was eager to support her husband's Army career while also pursuing her own Army civilian career. After Fort Bragg, the couple traveled to Naples, Italy, where Via served as the aide-de-camp to the chief of staff of the Allied Forces Southern Europe.
"As a young couple, we really enjoyed that assignment," Via said.
"At Fort Bragg, we were focused primarily on tactical communications with field exercises. Naples was all about NATO and fixed communication facilities that were heavily Navy-based. All the nations were represented there. It was a very rewarding assignment in terms of the work, and the opportunities for Linda and I to travel to places we'd never seen. For us, it was another experience that built on our Fort Bragg experience. It gave me a different view of the Army and joint forces that I hadn't experienced before."
Via was then assigned to Washington, D.C., to serve on the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee for the 1989 inauguration of President George H.W. Bush. He was the communications officer on a staff that began at 400, and then grew to 1,600 and then to about 12,000 on inauguration day.
"I spent eight to 10 months working to ensure there was communications for all the different inaugural events. It was a great experience," he said.
His career took a slight turn with his assignment to the then Personnel Command (now Human Resources Command) as an operations research systems analyst officer charged with managing the career assignments for Soldiers in the rank of captain up to lieutenant colonel in 49 career fields.
"I was a little puzzled by this assignment because I had not served in this area before," he said. "But, again, it built my confidence. Regardless of the assignment I was given, I was encouraged to learn about that assignment. I wanted to be the best at what I was doing. You have to give everything you have and strive to be the best at what you do.
"This assignment forced me to learn about career fields and professional development. I interfaced with 16 branches of the Army -- infantry, armory, signal, engineering, military intelligence, to name a few. I learned a lot about being outside my comfort zone."
He then went on to the Command and General Staff College, and to an assignment at Fort Bragg as the assistant signal officer for the 82nd Airborne Division. As a young major, it was one of his most rewarding and demanding assignments.
"We had to be prepared to deploy within 18 hours to anywhere in the world to conduct combat operations," Via said. "We had to make sure communications were ready from the time we were alerted to the time we departed and were en route to the time we were on ground and in operations.
"It was very challenging and very complex. Whatever you deployed with, that's all you had and it had to work. You had to plan for everything associated with spares, batteries, additional components, and with situations where what would you do if the communications equipment didn't get off the plane."
Via also oversaw the fielding of two new mobile subscriber equipment communication capabilities -- the Joint Network Node system used for remote, satellite-based communication and the SINCGARS (Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System) combat radio network.
"We fielded these two systems while maintaining old systems. We never stood down in the event we were deployed," Via said. "We provided a date when we could go to war with the new systems. They had to work. They had to be fielded at the same time we were doing training, readiness and sustainment. It all had to be done together.
"I gained a great appreciation for what it takes to put a new system in place. That experience shaped me as an officer more than any other I'd had."
The experience served him well in his next assignment -- action officer on the Army staff at the Pentagon, where he worked on Army Battle Command Systems, and helped to usher in the Army's digital age by transforming the 4th Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas, into a digital division. Then, as a lieutenant colonel, he returned to the 82nd Signal Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.
"I was fortunate to be part of the transformation to the digital age. I was able to see it end to end. At the Pentagon, I worked on programs for systems and requirements for systems. With the 82nd, I took that full circle," Via said.
The work continued with an assignment to the 3rd Signal Brigade, III Armored Corps at Fort Hood in 2000-2002, where he worked to field digital communication systems he had worked on at the Pentagon.
"That relationship paid great dividends. I knew the program managers who worked on the systems. I knew them and knew the programs, and now I was working on the operational side, and I had to make them work," Via said.
"We were preparing to go to war, and I knew these were going to be the communication systems that Soldiers would deploy with and fight with."
Yet, another assignment at the Pentagon took him out of the Signal Corps lane, where he worked for the Army's G-8 and was the colonel representative on the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. The assignment allowed him to work on future combat systems and programs in support of the war effort.
As a one-star general, Via went on to serve as the principal director for operations at the Defense Information Systems Agency and as deputy commander of the Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations, U.S. Strategic Command, Arlington, Va. He then oversaw the deployment of troops into Iraq and Afghanistan as the commander of the 5th Signal Command, Europe.
"We were responsible for certifying all signal units that were going into theater and for supporting the restructuring of the Army footprint in Europe for all signal units," Via said.
Then, as commander of the Communications-Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, N.J., Via
was tasked with supporting communication needs for troops in two wars while also moving the command from Fort Monmouth, which closed in September 2011, to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.
"It had been an institution there at Fort Monmouth for 90 years," Via said. "It was an emotional time for the command and one of the greatest challenges I faced as a senior leader."
He helped to set conditions for the move to Aberdeen Proving Ground, increasing the commitment of civilian personnel who would make the move from 18 percent to 69 percent.
"It could not have been done without the great directors and subordinate command commanders. It took all of them to make the move," Via said.
After another assignment at the Pentagon where he served as director of the Command, Control, Communications and Computer Systems for the Joint Staff, Via was nominated to serve as the deputy commander for AMC and later as its commander.
"It's not typical that the deputy becomes the commander. I was very fortunate that it worked out that way. But I certainly didn't plan it," he said.
"The Army set the conditions and gave me the experience to be able to come into that position."
As the deputy, Via deployed for several short stints to Kuwait to oversee the orchestration of the efforts of "all strategic stakeholders in the materiel enterprise to execute the drawdown and retrograde of equipment out of Iraq and then Kuwait."
"That was another powerful experience. I saw the power of AMC at work. I saw the power of the U.S. armed forces at work. There was an enormous amount of equipment that had to be moved. It was a logistical miracle, and one of the largest efforts in history. When we were through, we didn't leave an iron mountain behind."
Throughout his career, Via has worked to balance the professional and personal sides of his life. That's been possible with the support of wife Linda, who gave up her career to support her husband and raise their two sons.
"The moves, the hours, the demands all became very challenging with both of us working," Via said. "Linda put her career on hold so that we could take advantage of the opportunities that kept coming in my career. We had to have balance so that both of us were spending time together and with our sons.
"Those early years set the foundation for us that has helped us through 17 moves. I am constantly working to keep the balance between supporting the mission and raising two boys. Families are important and your own family is the most important to you."
He wants AMC employees to find that balance in their own lives, so they don't sacrifice too much for the mission at the expense of their families. A healthy employee is one that has the right work/family balance for them.
"I value the service of the employees of AMC," Via said. "The twin pillars of the Army profession are its Soldiers and Army civilians. At AMC, we have more civilians than any other Army organization."
The support of the Tennessee Valley community is essential to the continued success of AMC, the general said, as it is now home to many of the organization's employees and the location for many of its industry partners.
"I'm tremendously impressed with this community," Via said. "I saw how this community received AMC with open arms. Our employees feel very welcomed here.
"The interface between the military and the community is very positive and I hope to increase that relationship even more as AMC's commanding general. We want to build on what I consider a tremendous relationship here."