Brig. Gen. John Sterling Jr.

Brig. Gen. John Sterling Jr. ()

Brig. Gen. John Sterling Jr.

Brig. Gen. John Sterling Jr. ()

Brig. Gen. James “Greg” Champion

Brig. Gen. James “Greg” Champion ()

VICENZA, Italy — At small Caserma Ederle, there are usually not a lot of people for colonels to salute.

Brig. Gen. Jason Kamiya, in line for his second star, is the Southern European Task Force (Airborne) commander. But other than that, it’s only when other general officers visit the isolated Army outpost that there’s any more star power on base.

That’s changed recently, with Brig. Gen. James “Greg” Champion and Brig. Gen. John Sterling Jr. now calling the base home — at least until they deploy along with much of the base population to Afghanistan.

Both admit to getting a few second looks while walking around base. By comparison, Sterling — a deputy commander for U.S. Army Europe — is one of about a dozen American general officers in Heidelberg, Germany. He says his USAREUR connection means he’s not a total stranger to Vicenza.

“Although a lot of the soldiers in the 173rd Airborne Brigade might see me as somebody new coming in, I’d like to think that — at least for those on the SETAF staff — I’m someone they know,” he said Wednesday during an interview in his office.

If not, they’ll get plenty of opportunities to get to know their two new leaders. SETAF is set to lead Combined Joint Task Force-76 in Afghanistan early next year. Much of the SETAF contingent is going for the yearlong tour, but so are a host of elements from Germany and the States.

Champion, director and information and management for the Alabama National Guard, is no stranger to Afghanistan. He commanded a group of special operations forces for six months starting in September 2002.

“It’s not a new thing for me and that’s probably why I was picked for this position,” he said.

In some ways, he said, the environment in the country has changed. U.S. forces aren’t constantly battling insurgent elements today like they are in Iraq.

“Clearly, we are moving toward predominantly stability operations and moving toward helping the Afghan government continue their progress,” he said.

In another way, though, some aspects of Afghanistan haven’t changed. The country is one of the poorest in the world and — unlike Iraq — never had much in the way of infrastructure outside the large cities.

That’s where Sterling’s unit, the 18th Theater Army Engineer Brigade, comes in. Although he’ll be giving up command of the brigade to assume his post as deputy commander, much of Sterling’s time will be focused on the rebuilding effort the United States, its NATO allies and international aid organizations have been conducting.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in Afghanistan,” he said. “You feel pretty good when you’re able to see every day the changes you’re making to make things better.”

The 18th normally consists only of a headquarters element. So battalions from the States will be attached to it during the rotation. That’s true for the task force across the board.

SETAF, smaller in size than many traditional brigades in the Army, will be joined by the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade and a handful of smaller units based in Germany.

“Most divisions don’t have as much experience operating joint commands as SETAF has,” Sterling said. “But what most divisions have is a lot more people than SETAF has.”

Getting all those people on the same page has been a priority in recent months.

“There is a challenge to get everyone together,” Champion said. But both generals say that a recent exercise in Grafenwöhr, Germany, helped to do that. Another one set in January will further the process.

“It will be a good, well-functioning team by the time we deploy to Afghanistan,” Sterling said.

“And we’re well along that way right now.”

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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