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U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson, incoming commander of Southern Command, is joined with family in her pinning to four star at Conmy Hall, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Arlington, Va., Oct. 18, 2021.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson, incoming commander of Southern Command, is joined with family in her pinning to four star at Conmy Hall, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Arlington, Va., Oct. 18, 2021. (Kevin M. Roy/U.S. Army)

Miami (Tribune News Service) — An emotional Navy admiral bid farewell to the U.S. Southern Command on Friday as he ended his tenure at its helm, and a nearly four-decade military career, in a change-of-command ceremony filled with tributes and accolades — and a history-making moment:

After retiring his colors, Navy Adm. Craig Faller, 60, welcomed four-star Army Gen. Laura Richardson, 57, as his successor at SOUTHCOM, which is headquartered in Doral and has responsibility for the Latin American and Caribbean region. Richardson last commanded the U.S. Army North and became the first woman to head  SOUTHCOM — and only the second woman four-star U.S. military general to head a U.S. geographic combatant command.

“It’s been a rewarding and humbling journey,” said Faller, who is retiring after 38 years in the Navy.

Reflecting on his nearly three years at  SOUTHCOM after being tapped by President Donald Trump, Faller noted that democracies in the Western Hemisphere have been under assault from a vicious circle of threats. They include corruption, climate change, COVID-19, major hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes, and transnational criminal organizations as well as “the corrosive, malign influence of the People’s Republic of China.”

Throughout it all, he said, the focus was for  SOUTHCOM and its partner militaries in the hemisphere to remain professional.

“Under this assault of threats, security forces, represented by the leaders you see here today, remained professional. We remained professional,” he said to applause. “Apolitical, combat ethical forces. That’s the foundation of winning and that’s what we have focused on building.”

SOUTHCOM covers over 16 million square miles, which is five times the size of the contiguous United States, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said at the ceremony. While some might find that daunting, to Faller “it was just another day’s work,” the secretary added.

“Time and again, you stepped up after disasters. You also helped disrupt criminal organizations and you helped keep illicit drugs away from our shores and you’ve never let up even during a global pandemic, and even across a huge region with major security challenges,” Austin said.

As an example of  SOUTHCOM’s commitment and Faller’s leadership, Austin opened by revisiting the response to the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti’s southern peninsula on Aug. 14, leaving over 2,200 dead and some 800,000 people in need. Faller and his team had just returned from a visit to Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados the day before.

“Churches and schools and homes were destroyed. Boulders blocked the roads. One of America’s main neighbors needed help and so you raced to respond,” Austin said. “You sent aircraft to survey the damage; helicopters from Joint- Task Force Bravo and Puerto Rico’s National Guard to deliver food and aid. Working together with USAID, you saved hundreds of lives. What a massive effort.”

The transfer of power took place inside  SOUTHCOM’s transformed gymnasium before representatives of the armed services from across South and Central America, and the Caribbean along with Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both lauded Faller and his wife Martha, who opened by singing “God Bless America.”

They also welcomed Richardson, who along with her husband, Army Lt. Gen. James Richardson, have been a dual military family for more than three decades. Their daughter Lauren is also in the military and serves as an analyst at the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“Laura is exactly the right person at the right time,” Milley said. “I’m certain that she will build upon the work and accomplishments Craig’s entire team here has done.”

The United States, Milley reminded the audience, which included nearly two dozen representatives from the 47 partner nations, is a great power. “But we don’t do anything alone. We are doing it with our friends and partners,” he said.

“Deterrents against our potential adversaries, such as China or Russia, or Iran, or terrorists or drug cartels or human traffickers or any other threat will be met with the unified level of resistance by every single country in this hemisphere.”

Richardson said she was honored to be leading  SOUTHCOM at a time of great change, in which the U.S. is seeing rapid advances in technology that requires it to make decisions and act more quickly in land, sea, air, space and cyberspace during potential conflicts.

“We’re dealing with cross-cutting threats that know no borders, pandemics, corruption and transnational criminal organizations, irregular migration and climate change,” she said. “We’re now in an era of long-term strategic competition and it’s a competition between democracy and authoritarianism.”

Richardson said Friday’s turnout was a sign of the strong relationships and a testament to the strong partnerships the U.S. shares across the hemisphere.

“It is really a special day and we are so honored to have you with us in person. Your presence here reinforces our shared commitment to a secure, free and prosperous Western Hemisphere,” she said, peppering her speech with Spanish and French greetings.

She noted that she was following behind “her fellow shipmate Admiral Faller, who has been an incredible combatant commander.”

“I would like to thank you for your 38 years of loyal and dedicated service to our nation,” she said.

Faller was then presented with a flag to represent the young men and women he had trained and inspired, and his service. To recognize his time at sea, the flag had been flown over the USS John C. Stennis, and in recognition of his time ashore it was flown over the U.S. Naval Academy where he started his military career.

After being presented with it, he asked the secretary of defense for permission to go ashore one last time.

A bell rang eight times before Faller left the room alongside his wife as a retired U.S. Navy Admiral.

©2021 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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