The Army’s Growing Role In The Pacific

North Korea. China. Philippines. Indonesia. Myanmar. Not to mention natural disasters. Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski, Commander U.S. Army Pacific, doesn’t have to look hard to see potential trouble spots. As the Army celebrates its 237th birthday, this proud Ranger is as focused on keeping his troops trained and ready as he is on making friends in the region

Hawaii’s importance to the U.S. Army is greater than ever, says Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski

Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski

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Lt. Gen. Wiercinski receives the colors from Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, to take command of U.S. Army Pacific in the Change of Command ceremony March 21 on historic Palm Circle, Fort Shafter, Honolulu. Photoo sourtesy U.S. Army Pacific

Lt. Gen. Francis J. Wiercinski, the commanding general U.S. Army Pacific, seems straight out of central casting. Square-jawed, thick-chested and possessing a grip any blacksmith would admire, he exudes old school toughness. Those who work with him on a daily basis say he’s the complete opposite: humorous, passionate and someone who loves hanging out talking story. While that may be true, when you’re responsible for the health and safety of 70,000 soldiers and their families, untold billions of dollars in equipment, and half the world’s surface, not to mention being a diplomat who must deal with rogue nations, drug trafficking, terrorism, environmental threats, territorial disputes, and being called to action with little or no warning, toughness is a necessary and admirable quality. And like most in his position, nothing breaks down the stoic walls of strength faster than discussions of the young men and women who time and again go back into the fight without question or complaint.

“I’ve seen acts of bravery and courage that would bring you to your knees, and these are young kids,” said Wiercinski. “It is amazing. When I jumped into Panama as a young company commander as a Ranger, nobody had been in combat for years. Today, just look at the right shoulder of every uniform out there and everyone is wearing a combat patch. It’s amazing.”

The Pennsylvania native says that while military operations are winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, very little will change for Hawaii-based troops. After a decade of missed birthdays, graduations and anniversaries and more than 140,000 deployed troops, Hawaii’s soldiers will finally be able to make long-term plans. But because the mission can change without warning and because personnel, tactics and technology are constantly changing, training will continue unabated.

“We will continue to drive hard. We don’t have the luxury to wait. What we will be able to do more of is engage with our other partners in the Pacific which we’ve not had the opportunity to do very much over the last 10 or 11 years.”

In a 2011 article, a Rand Corporation study put the economic impact of the military in Hawaii at $12.2 billion in 2009. A quick military records search shows that the Department of Defense has 75,473 personnel in the state, of which 47,677 were active-duty personnel and 9,427 National Guard or reservists. While some have argued over the necessity of having so many military personnel in such a small area, Wiercinski says Hawaii’s location makes it of critical importance to keep an eye on the bad guys while helping friends and building relationships.

“This is a 9,000-miles-across AOR (area of responsibility). If something happens, you are not going to get there (in time from a Mainland base), it’s just physically impossible. If you’re not engaged, if you’re not working together, if you don’t understand the culture, if you’re not building relationships its very easy for someone to tell you no. It is easy for someone to make friends somewhere else. We have to settle conflicts long before they get to a level before you can’t turn them around anymore. Bullets downrange, that is expensive. Blood, life, equipment. You don’t want to get into phase three, let’s keep it in phase zero. Are there threats? Yep, a lot of them.

They range from pandemic, to transnational terroristic threats to nuclear threats like in North Korea. But we are talking.”

The general points to Operation Tomodachi, the combined effort between the U.S. and Japan to provide relief following last year’s earthquake and tsunami as another example of the importance of location and familiarity.

“I think we saved lives, I think we were able to save property, I think we were able to start the healing process a heck of a lot faster thn if, say, we sent someone from South Carolina who has never been there,” he says. “We know it because we live there, we train there.”

Wiercinski says our nation’s greatest resource is the men and women who volunteer to go into harm’s way, and that it is his obligation to take care of the people who take care of us.

“People ask, ‘Why do you have to train so hard?’ It’s because I find it morally and ethically irresponsible to look a spouse in the face or a child or a mom and dad, and say I sent your son or daughter, mom or dad, downrange in combat and I didn’t train them properly to do it. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror. I won’t do it,” says Wiercinski as his eyes turn slightly red and his voice cracks as he explains the enormity of the responsibility. “It’s very hard. I see a husband having to say goodbye to his wife who is eight months pregnant, that’s really hard. You don’t walk away from something like that.”

Wiercinski and his high school sweetheart, Jeannine, have given 33 years to the Army and aren’t yet ready to call it a career. Like any good military family, they’ll go where they are told, and when the president finally decides it’s time for them to retire, they’ll do so reluctantly but without complaint give up his dream job. (Officers of his rank are nominated by the president and confirmed by Congress.) Just as they have done for their entire career, they’ve prepared for whatever comes next. The former high school quarterback and cheerleader have purchased a retirement home in Hawaii and are already UH football season ticket holders, and perhaps will get on that honey-do list that has been decades in the making. She deserves it, says the suddenly soft and teary-eyed commanding officer.

“She’s a great Army wife. I couldn’t have done it without her. I wouldn’t have been any good at it. I would have had the Army part down, the tactical part down, but everything else I couldn’t do it. Going off to training for 30 or 40 days, being deployed to combat for 12 or 15 months, holding down the fort. She made every house a home, and when you move 16 times in 33 years, it’s not easy to do.”

June 14 is the Army’s 237th birthday, and U.S. Army Pacific is celebrating all week. From June 10 to 16, the Army will hold a variety of events both public and private. Among the activities is the Warrior Challenge, a skills competition to find the best noncommissioned officer and Soldier of the Year. On June 12, it’s the Army Golf Tournament to celebrate the reopening of the Leilehua Golf Course. Friday June 15, it’s the Army Birthday Ball where the Mana O Ke Koa Award will be given to the community member who contributes outstanding support to the U.S. Army. On June 16, historic Fort Shafter will be open to the public for displays, music, dancing, games, rides and an Army/Navy polo match, just as it was played in 1925.