EUCOM's Sylvester praised at retirement ceremony
By CHARLIE COON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 3, 2004
STUTTGART, Germany — When asked what made him most proud about his career, Army Lt. Gen. John B. Sylvester promptly answered: “I never served a single (permanent duty) day in the Pentagon.”
He served, however, in Vietnam, the Balkans and Iraq and won a slew of medals including a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars. “I’ve always been wherever the soldiers were,” Sylvester said, “because they’re the ones who do our business.”
On Monday, Sylvester, the chief of staff of the U.S. European Command, was honored in a 30-minute ceremony at Patch Barracks to commemorate his retirement. Sylvester was awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal at the event, but mostly he was paid respect for a lifetime of military service.
During his remarks, Sylvester broke down as he recounted acts of military heroism, from the War of 1812’s battle cry of “Don’t give up the ship” to the planting of the American flag at Iwo Jima.
He then pulled a tan hankie out of his pocket, blew his nose and wiped away his tears. “I’m all right now,” Sylvester told well-wishers on his way to the reception tent.
“Our emotions are inside us,” he said later. “This isn’t about machines and technology; it’s about people. We’re leading people.”
Sylvester said his speech, titled “I Am a Soldier,” by an unknown author, was to thank the troops he had worked with in the past and remembered the ones still out on the battlefield.
Then he recalled another war quotation, by a lower-ranking U.S. officer who was asked for his credentials by a surrendering German general. “These are my credentials,” the American replied, motioning to the soldiers behind him.
“They (soldiers) are more than our credentials, they are the embodiment of all we do,” Sylvester said.
Sylvester grew up an Army brat, son of Lt. Col. George Sylvester, a company commander in the 95th Infantry Division, the “Iron Men of Metz,” who captured one of the last German army strongholds in France during World War II.
After spending his teen years in Texas, Sylvester said he joined the Army in 1968 “to beat the draft.”
“They told me I was going to be drafted and I said, ‘No, way, I’m going to enlist first,’” Sylvester said.
Sylvester worked his way up from private to sergeant and through the officer ranks from second lieutenant to lieutenant general. The younger soldiers in Monday’s audience seemed to appreciate Sylvester’s style.
“I didn’t work with him personally but used to see him at the gym; that gave me more inspiration and motivation,” said Sgt. 1st Class James Baker of Chicago and the EUCOM Office of Manpower, Personnel and Administration.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for (Sylvester),” said Spc. Przemyslaw Mazur, also of Chicago, a medic at the Stuttgart health clinic who stood in line for 30 minutes to shake Sylvester’s hand and pose for a picture. “He’s a soldier’s general. He relates to the troops.”
Since becoming EUCOM chief of staff in November 2002, Sylvester helped plan U.S. military efforts in northern Iraq as well as shift EUCOM’s focus south to Africa and east to the Middle East and former Soviet-bloc nations.
Sylvester said he planned to take a civilian job in the Washington area, but not until after he and his wife, Becki, spend a few weeks in Africa on a photographic safari.
“So I can see some of the things I’ve been dreaming about since I was a little kid,” he said.
Army. Lt. Gen. John B. Sylvester gets a smooch from his wife, Becki, during Monday's award and departure ceremony at Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany. Sylvester, chief of staff for the U.S. European Command, was retiring after 37 years in the Army. At left, leading the cheers is Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, the EUCOM deputy commander.
CHARLIE COON / S&S