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The new U.S. Army Europe commander, Gen. David D. McKiernan, talks about USAREUR and Operation Iraqi Freedom with Stars and Stripes in his office on Campbell Barracks in Heidelberg, Germany.

The new U.S. Army Europe commander, Gen. David D. McKiernan, talks about USAREUR and Operation Iraqi Freedom with Stars and Stripes in his office on Campbell Barracks in Heidelberg, Germany. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

HEIDELBERG, Germany — How often is it that one of the Army’s top generals has anything in common with one of the nation’s top comedians?

But Gen. David McKiernan, U.S. Army Europe commander, shares at least two things with Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show.” Both are graduates of the College of William & Mary, the second-oldest university in the United States — the institution where George Washington got his surveyor’s certificate and Glenn Close graduated Phi Beta Kappa — both received honorary doctorates years later in recognition of their adult accomplishments.

“I was on the 4½ year plan,” McKiernan said of his undergraduate college experience, sounding self-deprecatingly like Jon Stewart. “I wasn’t a particularly great student.”

So it’s unclear whether he learned the word “azimuth” — McKiernan said: “I don’t see an azimuthal shift” — in college, military service or elsewhere. (The word means an angular measurement used to locate an object, like a star.) McKiernan meant that, after just a few weeks into his assessment of U.S. Army Europe, he doesn’t expect there’ll be huge changes in the offing.

“The work B.B. Bell did is very, very exceptional,” McKiernan said of his predecessor during an interview Wednesday in McKiernan’s Campbell Barracks office. “There’s a good vision here, there’s a good plan. Morale is good. There’s a sense of purpose and a sense of focus. I’m not thinking anything’s broken.”

McKiernan became U.S. Army Europe commander last month, his latest appointment in what’s been not only a highly successful career, but also at times a highly visible one. In 2003, McKiernan commanded the ground troops invading Iraq and made it to Baghdad in 16 days. After he got there, McKiernan was the first U.S. commander to work to stabilize and pacify Iraq, and was the subject of scores of media interviews.

“I’m a big fan of embedded media,” he said. “It’s the best way for the military to tell its story. I think it’s far better than trying to keep the media at a distance.”

By disposition, it seems, McKiernan is apt to give most people the benefit of the doubt. “I’m a ‘glass is half full’ kind of guy,” he said. “I believe 99-point-something percent of soldiers come in, and they want to be soldiers and they want to do the right thing.

“I’m a ‘we, our, us’ kind of person,” McKiernan said. “The strength of the U.S. Army anywhere is in building and developing and sustaining teams. If the people are strong, then there is no mission or no set of circumstances too difficult.”

In the next month or two, McKiernan will be traveling throughout the realm of U.S. Army Europe, meeting with commanders, troops and officials from a variety of European countries to assess how things stand and where they should go.

“I need to see, first and foremost, do we have the right capabilities to do the mission; do we have the right troops to do the task we’ve been given,” he said. “Second, we need to see how we’re taking care of people.”

Europe has some of the best of the military’s programs for soldiers and families, McKiernan said. “I want to make sure we build on that. The schools are going to be good. The housing is going to be good.”

Transformation efforts will continue apace, he said, as will deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. “The U.S. is at war. … Is the Army stretched and stressed? Yes. That, in my mind, is what the global war on terror does.”

His new job marks the fifth time McKiernan, who, as the son of an Army officer, spent years in Germany and chose his wife from among its citizens, has been posted to Europe.

His experiences have also made him a big fan of joint, inter-military, multicountry, cooperative actions. “There’s a lot of synergy in joint work,” he said.

He said when he was in Bosnia in 1996 with 34 nations doing their bit, “it was high adventure. You have 34 ways of doing business.”

“We do things in coalitions,” he said. “To me, that’s an investment in the next coalition.”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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