GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — When he was fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan or battling al-Qaida in Iraq, Col. Nils "Chris" Sorenson grew a long beard and dressed like a native to blend in.
These days he’s clean-shaven, but the Green Beret perched atop his 6-foot-4-inch frame sticks out like a sore thumb in his new job as commander of what soon will be the U.S. Army’s largest overseas facility — U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwöhr.
Sorenson is one of four former Special Forces soldiers in command of U.S. Army garrisons in Europe. The others are at Hohenfels (a sub-garrison of Grafenwöhr), Bamberg and in Belgium.
The Army attempts to place soldiers with combat arms experience at certain garrisons, said Ken White, spokesman for Installation Management Command-Europe.
"Grafenwöhr is the biggest training facility in Europe, so the garrison commander will always be a combat arms officer," he said.
Grafenwöhr is home to the Iraq-bound 172nd Infantry Brigade and encompasses Vilseck, which welcomes home the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment from Iraq next month.
"Combat veterans certainly bring unique insights and benefits to the Army and the installation management business just as they would any organization," White said.
Sorenson, a 24-year Army veteran with two school-age children, served with Special Forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. He took command at Grafenwöhr last month.
He prefers to emphasize his diplomatic skills ahead of his toughness, but his work downrange must carry a lot of weight with the combat troops assigned to his garrison.
When he talks about caring for soldiers headed to Iraq and Afghanistan, it is from hard-earned experience. He was involved in some of the first operations in Afghanistan, before the U.S. invasion in 2001.
"During the initial ground operations, what we were doing was on the extreme," he said. "We did not have a lot of U.S. forces for backup. We had to go far and deep into enemy territory with very limited combat power backup.
"There were a lot of unknowns. We didn’t know what the terrain was like. We were doing it from bases maybe 600 miles away from the target areas. It is called deep strike operations.
"With no one else around, there were no bases and no one to call for help," said Sorenson, who followed up Afghanistan with Special Forces operations in Iraq.
Skills needed to work and survive in those places are ideal preparation for garrison command, he said.
On his first day at Grafenwöhr, Sorenson made a short speech in German, putting to use skills he gained during Special Forces language training.
"As a garrison commander, you have to work out of your comfort zone," he said. "It is complex. It is not a clear-cut military kind of command.
"There is a diverse work force with German nationals, U.S. civilians and a military command. It is Leadership 101," he said.