FORT BLISS — Maj. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, the commanding general for Fort Bliss and the 1st Armored Division, is heading off to a new assignment triggered by a promotion and is saying goodbye to his "Army home" about 10 months earlier than he or almost anyone else expected.
MacFarland will relinquish command Tuesday.
He has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate for promotion to lieutenant general, or a three-star general, and will become commander of III Corps and Fort Hood on Friday.
"Surprised" is how MacFarland describes his promotion and new duties.
When MacFarland and his wife, Lynda, a native El Pasoan, arrived back here in May 2013 for their fourth tour at Fort Bliss, they viewed this as a homecoming.
Now, they are preparing to move for the 20th time in their 30 years of marriage.
"We are sorry to be leaving," said MacFarland, a 55-year-old from Canajoharie, N.Y. "We love El Paso, we love Fort Bliss and we love the 1st Armored Division."
The quick promotion and transfer was prompted by a series of moves across the top levels of the Army spurred by Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell becoming the new commander for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
The usual command-level assignment lasts two years, but MacFarland will be leaving after just 14 months at the helm at Fort Bliss. He will be succeeded by Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty, a former brigade commander and deputy commanding general at Fort Bliss.
MacFarland has strong ties to both Fort Bliss and El Paso.
He met his wife here when he was a young lieutenant serving in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment during the 1980s. Just prior to the Gulf War, he found his way back to Fort Bliss for a second stint. He did research and development for the Air Defense Artillery Center and School before returning to the 3rd ACR and deploying with them. When he was a brigadier general, he was the commanding general for Joint Task Force North, which is headquartered here.
During the past 14 months, MacFarland has gotten the ball rolling on a number of initiatives but won't be around to see them all become reality, he said.
"That's one of the things that makes it tough to leave," he said. "We had the opportunity to put things in motion but haven't had the opportunity to see a lot of those things come to fruition."
In particular, MacFarland has placed an emphasis on training and re-orienting the 1st Armored Division to be an organization that fights as a division. During the past decade-plus of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has emphasized small-team counterinsurgency efforts.
The 1st Armored Division under MacFarland's leadership has been emphasizing training to regain what are called decisive action skills — large-scale army-on-army warfare — while not forgetting how to do counterinsurgency. An example of that is the recently completed Iron Focus exercise that brought more than 4,000 soldiers — mostly from 4th Brigade — out into the Fort Bliss training areas for three weeks.
"We've made some big strides in that direction" of being able to fight as a division, MacFarland said. "There was more we were going to do and will do even though I'm gone. The die is cast for much of next year's training. I believe the division will achieve the goals we set out for ourselves. Unfortunately, I won't be there to witness it."
Regaining those large-scale army-on-army fighting skills is important because younger officers and noncommissioned officers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have "never had the opportunity to do that" type of fighting, MacFarland said.
"Before the last of the old-timers exit the force and (we lose) how we used to do these things (decisive action) back in the 1990s, we have been working hard to bring that institutional memory to bear on those problems and get the Army back to where it was," he said.
Of course, the Army will not forget the hard lessons of the most recent wars, he added.
"We are certainly a product of that," he said. "Those lessons have been burned into our consciousness by hard experience. I can't image we will walk away from that."
MacFarland is considered a legend in Army circles for his role in helping to turn around the Iraq War when he was a brigade commander there in the mid-2000s.
Chaplain Lt. Col. Karen Meeker, the 1st Armored Division chaplain, called MacFarland a "living American hero" for his role in Iraq and particularly during the Battle of Ramadi. MacFarland continues to have a big influence on how the Army will fight in the future, she said.
The 1st Armored Division, headquartered at Fort Bliss, falls under III Corps, so MacFarland can still have a hand in what happens here at Fort Bliss, but he promised that he would give his successor, Maj. Gen. Twitty, great latitude in running things.
"I had my turn at the wheel; now, it will be General Twitty's turn," MacFarland said.
MacFarland pointed to a couple of concrete examples of how the 1st Armored Division has shifted its focus and training more toward fighting large-scale battles or operations. On July 23, the 212th Fires Brigade was reflagged and renamed the 1st Armored Division Division Artillery, in a move that is seen as a return to the previous Army structure and one that gives the division greater flexibility and efficiency in using its fires capability.
"We have the only DIVARTY (division artillery) in the Army," MacFarland said. "Others will follow. We have sort of blazed the trail for other units to follow."
Fort Bliss has also developed standard operating procedures for things like indirect artillery fires and tank gunnery and those are being shared with other units across the Army, he said.
Last spring, the 1st Armored Division participated in a large-scale joint training exercise after the end of the twice-a-year Network Integration Evaluation, which tests new Army equipment in the Fort Bliss training areas. This large culminating exercise placed about 10,000 troops in the field in a joint and combined operation that brought in British troops, U.S. Marines and units from the 1st Armored Division.
That exercise was made possible by the unique combination of having the vast training areas that stretch from Fort Bliss to White Sands Missile Range and having the Brigade Modernization Command headquartered at Fort Bliss, MacFarland said. The Brigade Modernization plans and runs the NIE and helps spearhead Army modernization efforts.
MacFarland said these type of exercises show that Fort Bliss is already one of the premier training areas in the Army.
"My vision was to help the Army recognize that," MacFarland said.
Retired Brig. Gen. Richard Behrenhausen, who lives in El Paso, said MacFarland is one of the best trainers in the U.S. Army and initiatives like the move to having a division artillery again have brought positive attention across the Army to Fort Bliss.
"It's important because a division at Fort Bliss is taking the lead on this," Behrenhausen said. "He's a great soldier."
Richard Dayoub, the president and chief executive officer of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, said that MacFarland and his wife, Lynda, have been greatly involved with the El Paso community during their time here.
MacFarland will be remembered for his commitment to soldiers and their families and for highlighting and bringing greater awareness across the Army and Pentagon to just how important Fort Bliss and White Sands are as a training area, Dayoub said.
MacFarland said he never dreamed of becoming a three-star general or even a general officer when he was a young cadet at the U.S. Military Academy or even when he was a field-grade officer.
When he was at West Point, N.Y., his goal "was just to make it to the second year," he said.
When he was an officer, he hoped to become a battalion commander when he was a lieutenant colonel and maybe even become a full colonel one day.
Now, he is saying goodbye to Fort Bliss at the end of what is sure to be his final tour here.
"We will always look back fondly on our time here and come back and visit as often as my duties allow in my new capacity," he said. "El Paso is probably the closest place we have to a home in the Army."