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Colombian General Alberto Mejía, Commander of the Army, Works to Transform his Country’s Army

Colombian General Alberto Mejía, Commander of the Army, Works to Transform his Country’s Army

By Dialogo
March 29, 2016




Eight months after taking over as Commander of the Colombian National Army, three months after his promotion to General, and just weeks after handing over the responsibilities of the Permanent Executive Secretariat of the Conference of American Armies to the United States, General Alberto Mejía is a busy leader working to transform the Army.

Diálogo
had the opportunity to talk with him about the Colombian Army of the future, as well as more personal stories, such as the influence of his father, who 30 years earlier also commanded the Colombian Army and received the Legion of Merit Award, the U.S. Army’s highest non-combat Military decoration.

Diálogo:
What is the purpose and importance of the Conference of American Armies (CAA)?

General Alberto Mejía, Commander of the Colombian Army:
Let's break it down into parts. First, it’s important to remember that the CAA is an international organization composed and directed by 25 armies of American nations, five of which act as observers, along with two international organizations. The purpose of the CAA is to discuss and exchange experiences in security and defense. We [Colombia] were chosen in the previous cycle [2014-15] to host the conference, which is why we assumed leadership of the Permanent Executive Secretariat – called the PESCAA – and during the years 2014-15, after 34 years, we had the distinguished honor of leading the conference. This designation filled us with pride and satisfaction at the confidence shown in Colombia, and this event puts Colombia in an important point of leadership. This designation was clearly parallel to our strategic intent to strengthen ourselves at the international level, to project ourselves into the future as a multi-mission Army able to participate in scenarios within the country, in the region, and around the world, which is why strengthening ourselves through mechanisms for bilateral and multilateral cooperation is so important. During these two years, we not only had an opportunity to interact with all the Armies of the hemisphere but we also grew professionally. Our Army truly enjoyed this great responsibility and this exchange through shared doctrine, meetings, special projects, through issues such as peacekeeping operations, through issues such as the environment, etc. They fully converge with our agenda for the future, and it was a great experience for us.

It was an equal privilege to transfer that responsibility to the U.S. Army. We have a very close relationship with the United States. They are more than just a strategic partner; we have shed blood together. Our Army, as is public knowledge, participated with the United States as an integral part of one of its divisions in the Korean War, and since that time, there has been a great brotherhood and a union that is reflected today through a system of exchange that is very strong in many areas of the military spectrum, which makes us feel very proud of this relationship.

Diálogo:
What were some of the most important achievements/lessons learned in your two years at the helm of the CAA?

Gen. Mejía:
There were many. I would call some tangible and others intangible. And obviously, the CAA outlines a whole agenda that formulates a number of meetings based on the different topics proposed; seminars to achieve greater interoperability; to improve the whole issue of command, control and communication; to show the problems of the war against [land] mines and explosives, in short, a whole host of tangible elements that are represented in documents, books, and products that are at the service of all of these Armies. But there are also a number of intangibles that I want to highlight: For the first time we have been put in a very special context. I was fortunate to have bilateral meetings with large numbers of Army commanders, about 20, and the truth is that in these meetings, bilateral exchanges between armies, the requests that we received, the invitations to participate, to share lessons learned, to learn more about each other on a variety of issues, make us feel very proud. Given that we have been at war for 52 years, we do not realize our own progress, our own improvements. Given that we have people killed and wounded every day, we are very critical of the progress that we have achieved, and here you realize that outsiders see us in a different way.

Diálogo:
What legacy are you leaving your successor, U.S. Army General Mark Milley, upon transferring the leadership of the CAA to him?

Gen. Mejía:
The truth is that after having been in the Army more than 35 years, my feeling is that there is a very cordial environment, an environment of cooperation. You think that suddenly some people from some countries will arrive with one or another political position because their governments think this or that way. But at the end of the day, you discover what we already know: we are all Soldiers. And that, as Soldiers – regardless of the Army, regardless of the capabilities, where some, like the U.S. Army are more powerful and have the latest generation of capabilities and others have much less – we all come with a very patriotic mentality, very democratic, very focused on integration, very focused on interoperability, very focused on understanding transnational crime. Then you are touched in some way because you realize that we are not alone in the effort to confront and combat the threats that our hemisphere may have.

Diálogo:
What was the significance of the fact that Colombia – and you, specifically – handed over the mandate of the CAA to the United States?

Gen. Mejía:
Going to Washington to transfer responsibility for the CAA to the United States exceeded all my expectations. Actually, I did not imagine that with all the problems that the United States has at the global level, they were going to endow it with such a special and generous importance. That is, the treatment that I received, the honors I received on behalf of my Soldiers and the brotherhood that was demonstrated exceeded all expectations. I, as an officer that has had the opportunity to graduate from almost all of the courses you can as a general officer in the United States, I was simply heartened to see how all these programs and all these ties achieve unity and friendship – friendship that we also share with the other Army commanders of Ecuador, of Peru, of Chile, of Argentina, of Brazil, of Bolivia, in short, every single country in the region. It’s spectacular. It is now normal for us to call each other, to exchange experiences, to extend invitations to each other, and all of this could not be achieved without a CAA to generate such meetings.

Diálogo:
And personally, as a Special Forces officer, as well as the Commander of the Colombian National Army, how important was it for you to lead the CAA almost at the same time as your promotion to General and Commander of the Army, as happened with your father more than 30 years ago? Do you believe that this exchange signifies yet another bond in the special relationship that Colombia has with the United States?

Gen. Mejía:
On a personal level, it was very special; at the ceremony for the Legion of Merit Award – which I receive with absolute humility because it was given in honor of our 240,000 Army Soldiers and not to Alberto Mejía as an individual – I recalled that over 30 years ago my father was also honored in a similar ceremony. At that time, his close friend was also the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, General John R. Galvin [SOUTHCOM commander from March 1985 to June 1987], and let’s just say that it was a very special event for my family. I have a lot of memories of my family attending that special event. Gen. Galvin founded the Army Ranger School and later was commander of U.S. Southern Command and NATO. When they founded the Ranger School he was my father's close friend, and later, when my father was commander of the Colombian Army, it worked out that he was commander of the U.S. Southern Command. So, in some way, I have repeated a little of that history and the relationship that we have, both with [former SOUTHCOM commander] General [John F.] Kelly and now with Admiral [Kurt W.] Tidd [current SOUTHCOM commander], and the excellent relationship with [Major] General [Clarence K.K.] Chinn [Commanding General of the U.S. Army South], and the good fortune to be able to exchange views with General [Mark A.] Milley on two occasions make us very close. I receive support from the United States every day.

Precisely today, which is International Women's Day, I welcomed U.S. Army Lieutenant General Mary A. Legere (G-2, U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence) in Colombia to participate in a conference. That's just [an example for] a single day, and there are 365 days and decades of relationships in which there is this ongoing exchange that makes us feel very proud.

Diálogo:
What is the significance of the Legion of Merit Award and of having received it when you turned over the mandate of the CAA to the United States?

Gen. Mejía:
You know that we, Soldiers, live for this type of thing, right? Receiving an honor means a lot to us. In my knowledge of the Armed Forces of the United States, I believe the Legion of Merit is perhaps the Army’s first or second most important non-combat award. So it is very similar to our Antonio Nariño and José María Córdova Military Orders, which are awarded for military virtues. To receive it is an honor, a privilege. And as I have mentioned before, and I will continue to mention today, I receive it with total humility as a recognition of all of the Soldiers and all the people over these 52 years of war who have worked hand-in-hand with extraordinary Americans – some in uniform and others without uniforms – who have helped us in the conquest for peace and the strengthening of our democracy.

Diálogo:
What legacy of leadership from your father have you implemented during your leadership of the CAA and now as commander of the Army?

Gen. Mejía:
My father’s influence is very strong. For example, my whole life, since I was little, he always encouraged me to learn English. It was one of his obsessions, and he always told me that being bilingual was very important. He was instrumental in helping me dream of being a Ranger and helping me dream of studying and going to the best schools, like the CGSC [Command and General Staff College] in Leavenworth, Kansas, and the Army War College in Pennsylvania, or the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, because he always told me that a good leader had to have the best education possible, so he impacted me a lot in that sense. Today, I thank God because you have to face major problems, you have to face a very difficult environment with great uncertainty, and even though you don’t have all the answers to all the problems, at least you have a background that in some way allows you to deal with those challenges.

Diálogo:
To conclude, what awaits the Colombian Army with you in charge?

Gen. Mejía:
Right now, we are in a moment of many plans, a lot of work... We are working based on a system of roads or pathways, and we have defined three clear roads. One is called the Sword of Honor (Espada de Honor) road: this is our campaign plan, and it is what allows us to fight against the overall terrorist threat system. It attacks the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), drug trafficking, criminal gangs, all of these factors of instability and great insecurity in Colombia. The day that the peace agreements are signed, this road will transition to a different campaign plan of stabilization and consolidation. The second road is the transition towards peace and it is focused on issues of DDR – disarmament, demobilization and reintegration – which also has its own development and a whole different campaign plan from Sword of Honor. The third road, in which we are very involved, is the road of transformation.

Coincidentally, today we're at the COTEF – the Transformation Command for the Army of the Future – which is where the Army's architecture company is located and where we are designing what the Army will be like in 2018, 2022, 2026, and 2030. We have over 100 books written on the subject. For four years I was the head of Army Transformation Plan, and we have been working on it tirelessly, instituting a number of changes that have already begun. In some way, we are in the process of a great revolution that is occurring in difficult conditions because it’s in an environment of uncertainty, a complex and ambiguous environment.

Right now, we have just finished re-engineering the entire staff of the Army, then we will begin re-engineering all units, while at the same time there are extraordinary changes underway in key capabilities, such as a 180-degree change in the organization and developmental capacity of Army intelligence, Integrated Action, training, a 180-degree change in such fundamental aspects as doctrinal revision and development. So we have an Army that is at war, still struggling to achieve peace, but at the same time has the ability to transform itself, a transformation that is not based solely on modernization and resources, but a transformation based on culture, a transformation of the mind that is supported by military education. The Army of the future is, necessarily, going to have to have better educated men and women.
Good article I’d like to keep reading more about what happens with these institutions… MY COMMENT IS SIMPLE CONGRATULATE ALL THE MILITARY FORCES BECAUSE THEY ARE THE ONLY ONES WHO TRIED TO RESCUE OUR COLOMBIAN HOMELAND AND GOD BLESS THEM AND I ASK THE OPPORTUNITY OF THE BOYS WHO WANT TO BELONG TO THE RANKS OF DEFENDING OUR COUNTRY THE OPPORTUNITY I SAY THIS BECAUSE OF MY SON BECAUSE I FIND IT IMPOSSIBLE TO TAKE ALL THE MONEY THEY ASK FOR OUT OF TOTASO HE SERVED IN THE TOLEMAIDA SCHOOL AS A LANCER THANKS SO MUCH IF YOU LOOK AT THIS REQUEST
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