Garrisons are the most complex colonel-level commands in the Army.
Garrison commanders solve wicked problems and punch way above their weight class. Their work also generates readiness disproportionate to the size of their command.
Every day, garrison commanders and their teams work in a dynamic environment that directly links tactical actions to strategic outcomes. Each one is responsible for the security, housing and welfare of soldiers, civilians and families living on their installation. They deploy forces, host unaccompanied children and Afghan refugees, lead through a pandemic, respond to extreme weather, manage training areas and support the local community.
Garrison commanders and their staffs also are directly linked to facility conservation and are charged with prioritizing a decade of investments into future infrastructure.
They do this under the ever-watchful eye of social media and, by necessity, have become masters of strategic communication.
Garrison command produces strategic leaders who are well-versed in resource management and budgets, and who routinely solve complex problems without formal authorities. These are the skills and abilities required at the strategic level.
Garrison commanders also are marketable to private industry and often separate after command to serve in high-paying management careers. The Army must fight to retain these highly talented officers and place them in positions of greater responsibility.
Cols. Scott Pence and Nathan Springer, two of the 79 officers currently leading garrisons, describe their job as the best in the Army.
Springer has led Fort Carson, Colorado, since July 2020. An armor officer who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, he arrived at Fort Carson after serving as a military professor at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
“My life as an Army officer has been a fascinating, engaging one that has called on me to collaborate, lead and learn at each turn,” Springer said.
In the past two decades, “I have lived in all corners of the world, deployed multiple times and have maintained a fast operational pace. Like many of my peers, I had no idea of what to expect after being selected to command a garrison,” he said.
After two years in the job, “it has colored my backward glances and brought a truth to the surface,” Springer said. “My interactions with soldiers and families have been the most valuable and meaningful aspect of my long military career.”
Some of his most vivid memories include the soldiers he deployed with to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the families he’s helped along the way, Springer said. “Those close personal relationships and making positive impacts on the lives of Army families represent my greatest source of job satisfaction,” he said. “As garrison commanders, we impact the lives of soldiers and families at scale. It is important, and it is enormously rewarding work.”
Pence, garrison commander of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, since August 2020, agreed. “There is no better position for a servant leader who wants to give back to the profession,” he said.
A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who previously served in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, Pence said he has depended on installation resources throughout his career. “Now I have the opportunity to steward them,” he said.
Additionally, garrison command has helped him develop the ability to view the installation through a unique lens, Pence said.
Because of his job, he knows the renovation plans for each building on-post and whether its occupants are satisfied with the building’s condition. He knows the improvement priorities for each road and when the work will be done. At the new park on-post, Liberty Park, one of the Army’s largest, “I appreciate the designers who conceived it, the challenges we worked through, the countless briefings to approve the build and attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony to open it,” he said.
“The families picnicking there remind me that spaces like this define community and enhance collective mental health,” he said. “Most importantly, I have learned that garrison commanders represent the Army to their surrounding community and are empowered to strengthen that relationship.”
Being a garrison commander means having a job that encompasses a diverse portfolio of disciplines, Springer said. It also enables commanders to play to their strengths to bring the most value to their installations.
“It took me awhile to understand that big change on installations is a multiyear proposition,” he said. “Garrison commanders inherit their predecessors’ programs and initiatives. We watch their vision come to life during our command time—it is a passing of the baton from one to the next.”
Garrison commanders have a steep learning curve. Within the first 90 days on the job, they receive an education from their deputy commander, directors and division chiefs, Springer said.
“We have to quickly learn the past, present and future initiatives and advocate for those that will make a significant positive impact on the installation,” he said. “It is rare that commanders will see the benefit of their initiatives during their watch. The most common scenario involves passing that victory on to the next team. We are in the business of making the Army and our installations better for future generations.”
Knowing some initiatives won’t be finished during their tenure—or even their career—is a bittersweet part of the job, Pence said.
“Years ago, the impression was that garrison command was fielded by the junior varsity squad—if you wanted a relevant position, you led a tactical brigade,” he said. “Now, considering the importance of strategic support areas to large-scale combat operations, garrison positions are more relevant than ever.”
There also is an “intellectual benefit” to overseeing a garrison, he said. “Garrison command exposes colonels to a completely new organization and responsibilities that they have never seen in their career,” Pence said.
Every new garrison commander quickly learns they are not an expert in their new job, Springer said.
“The garrison commander is surrounded by professionals who have advanced certifications and qualifications unfamiliar to most active-duty military officers,” he said.
Garrison commanders’ experience leading soldiers is a valuable addition to the team, Springer said.
“We bring the operational experience that connects garrison programs and services to the needs of our soldiers and families,” he said. “Leading a team of experts was a whole new experience for me. I worked hard and listened even harder to get up to speed. My goal was to learn and to represent them well, while preserving leadership tone and continuity for the installation.”
Being a garrison commander has been satisfying, Pence said. “A good job is one that provides fulfillment,” he said. “All officers are paid roughly the same, but the level of fulfillment varies. In garrison command, the ability to do the greatest amount of good for the largest number of people provides purpose and meaning. In addition to supporting the warfighter, you support families with routine and emergency resources, transitioning soldiers as they enter a new phase in their lives, retirees who live nearby because they love the installation, and the Army civilians who deserve leadership and development.”
To achieve success in the job, garrison commanders rely on strong teammates, Pence and Springer said.
“We have seen cautionary tales of bad experiences in garrison command,” Pence said. “Leaders who depend upon positional power to get results could find garrison command a frustrating two years.”
Beyond the Gate
Garrison commanders find success through collaboration on- and off-post, Springer said. “There is a disproportionate level of influence and impact you will make as a garrison commander compared to your peers as brigade combat team commanders with community, city, regional, state and national leaders when it comes to strategic communication,” he said.
As the “primary integrator” between the installation and community partners, Springer said he has been given the opportunity to represent the Army and the installation at events with state and city leaders and to speak at community events or with local reporters to raise support for the Army’s mission, soldiers and families. “The impact we make as the face of our installations is commensurate with more senior levels of Army leaders,” he said.
As they complete their service as garrison commanders, Springer and Pence said garrison command is exciting and rewarding.
“At its core, this role is about serving people well and affording them safe communities that we are all proud to call home,” they said in a joint statement. “While experiences may vary, the two of us believe we have emerged as stronger, more resilient officers. Maybe this process of learning, leading and negotiating has seasoned us into more humble officers.”
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Lt. Gen. Douglas Gabram assumed command of the U.S. Army Installation Management Command, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, on Jan. 22, 2020. He has commanded formations at every echelon up to his current three-star assignment. His combat deployments include two to Afghanistan, four to Iraq and one to Bosnia. He earned his commission from Bowling Green State University, Ohio, in 1984 and entered service as an aviator in 1985.