FORT BLISS, Texas — In his first meeting with news media since assuming command of Fort Bliss, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland said he would continue the easy-access policies of his predecessor that made the base largely open to the El Paso public.
MacFarland, most recently deputy commanding general for operations of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said he would also maintain a focus on the base's core mission of military readiness, in spite of impending budget cuts.
MacFarland last month replaced Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard as Fort Bliss commander.
"I intend to build on the great work that Gen. Pittard began and continue to train the 1st Armored Division to fight and win our nation's wars," MacFarland said.
A West Point classmate of Pittard's who began his Army career at the base, MacFarland sketched out his thoughts on topics including the military's role in the local community, the coming operations in Jordan and safeguarding military personnel against sexual assault and harassment.
He will depart in a week for the Middle East to take part in joint military operations with the Jordanian military. The deployment of U.S. troops to Jordan, about 5,000 service members from various military branches, has received added attention in light of the ongoing Syrian civil war, but MacFarland said the exercises have taken place in previous years.
While a number of Fort Bliss soldiers remain stationed overseas in Afghanistan and other countries,
he will remain focused on maintaining the installation's position as a center for training for multiple military branches. And he has already begun meetings with civic and business leaders to carry on strong local relationships.
El Paso Mayor John Cook said he worked well with MacFarland during his time as commander of Joint Task Force North from 2008 to 2010 in a previous stint in El Paso. Last month the two met along with Pittard and City Manager Joyce Wilson to talk about the changes that took place recently in how the two entities interact and about continuing improvements in cooperation.
"I think we'll have a really good rapport with him," said Cook, who will leave office himself after this month.
The meeting also included discussions of joint use of parks and soccer fields and the possibility of allowing soldiers to travel to Juárez, if only during the day.
MacFarland said that though the State Department will probably make a final decision soon, he did not know whether that policy change is possible even though the level of violence in Juárez has declined recently.
Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Dayoub praised Pittard for his openness as commander at the installation as well as for his work bringing military personnel both out-of-state and out of the country to the area for training and demonstrations.
He said he expected MacFarland to continue many of those policies, noting that the new commander's first private meeting with local business leaders took place with Pittard.
"What they wanted to convey was this is a relationship that is extended and they take it seriously enough that their commitment is to transition as smoothly possible" he said.
Furloughs of the civilian employees on the base set to begin June 8 could create a drag on the local economy but MacFarland said the military readiness of the base will not be affected.
If additional budget cuts occur in future years, he said, Fort Bliss would continue to develop leadership of young soldiers while working to maintain equipment already installed on the base.
MacFarland on Friday also acknowledged the increasing public scrutiny of sexual assaults in the military and the lack of accountability for perpetrators.
President Barack Obama spoke about the problem last week at the U.S. Naval Academy. MacFarland, who also worked as deputy chief of staff for operations of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, compared such assaults within the military to "insider attacks" in Afghanistan, in which insurgents targeted the bond between U.S. and Afghan security forces.
"It's the same corrosive effect within our own force," he said.
"We have to ensure those bonds of trust remain intact if we're going to remain a cohesive and effective fighting force."
Though he said the Army has a better grasp on sexual assaults than any other organization, he said the branch is reviewing the personnel in place as victims' advocates to make sure they are right for the job.