Fort Bragg soldiers and community members welcomed a new commander Friday who will help oversee the day-to-day operations of the largest populated military installation in the world.
Col. Scott Pence, Fort Bragg’s outgoing commander who is headed to the Pentagon, handed the garrison’s colors to incoming commander Col. John Wilcox at the ceremony held on the post’s main parade field.
“The command is one of the highest honors that one can experience both for its awesome responsibility (and) the trust to lead and care for our nation’s greatest assets and our treasures — the soldiers, civilians, and their families,” said Brenda McCullough, who reviewed the ceremony on behalf of the Installation Management Command.
Quoting Pence, McCullough said leading the garrison means “the garrison fence line is the new global frontline,” as Fort Bragg is home to the 82nd Airborne Division, Special Forces, and the nation’s Immediate Response Force that rapidly deploys worldwide within hours.
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During Pence’s time at Fort Bragg, he coordinated with leaders, and the Immediate Response Force rapidly deployed to help with the drawdown of American troops marking the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan and as they again deployed in February to support NATO as Russia attacked Ukraine.
McCullough said he helped manage an annual budget of more than $516 million; provided leadership and support to more than 121,000 service members, families and civilians with more than 172,000 acres of land and 24,000 housing units.
Pence arrived at Fort Bragg in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in August 2020.
McCullough said he worked with leaders to implement safety protocols and coordinated ensuring more than 40,000 servicemembers, families and civilians received vaccines.
“Throughout it all, Col. Pence was a patient, professional leader who handled considerable pressures with a level of grace,” she said.
Quoting the movie “Rocky,” she said the garrison command exemplifies someone taking as much as they can and “keep moving forward … always the underdog, always undermanned, always under-resourced, and always required to perform at the world-champion level.”
Maj. Gen. Brian Mennes, deputy commander of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, said Pence also helped coordinate community input after Congress mandated all Army installations named after Confederate leaders be changed.
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Pence said community leaders who recommended the name Fort Liberty included retired Gen. Dan McNeill, and retired Command Sgt. Maj. Steven England, elected leaders in Fayetteville and Cumberland County, the chairman of the Lumbee drive, a senior pastor, and a Gold Star mother.
“They developed liberty as the name that unites the Special Forces, 82nd (Airborne Division), 18th Airborne Corps, and Cumberland County itself,” he said.
Pence said any of the accomplishments during the past two years are because of the visions of others.
He thanked deputy garrison commander Kevin Griess for helping update processes and systems to manage the post, garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Loehr for building up the Better Opportunities for Single Soldier Programs and promoting the Army Emergency Relief Fund to ensure Fort Bragg soldiers and families receive more than $2 million.
He said the opening of Liberty Park and 14.1-mile Liberty Trail was “the brainchild” of Fort Bragg architect Brian Vesley and that renovations to the Smith Lake Outdoor Recreation Center involved the Directorate of Family Morale, Welfare and Recreation.
“For me, this has come to be the highlight of my career — the very best job of my life," Pence said. "If you can come home at night and feel fulfilled, knowing you’re part of something bigger than yourself — that's a great job,” Pence said.
He recognized the installations partners, Army & Airforce Exchange for ensuring fuel was at Fort Bragg when Colonial Pipelines briefly suspended operations in May 2021 because of a ransomware attack on its East Coast system; the Department of Defense Education Activity for precautions it took during the COVID-19 pandemic; and said that the installation’s housing provider, Corvias, now provides records of how they focus on housing on post after investigations revealed deficiencies like mold and delays in work order requests in 2019.
Pence told Wilcox upcoming projects he can look forward to include a new Candlewood Suites building being constructed within the next couple of years through InterContinental Hotels Group Army Hotels partners; and road repairs are being made possible through a partnership with the North Carolina Department of Transporation, which means $400,000 in annual savings for the Army because of an initiative that started with former garrison commander Brett Funk.
Wilcox, whose last assignment was as the deputy chief of staff of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, said he’s spent about the past 15 years at Fort Bragg and benefited from Pence’s leadership.
“We’ve come to know it to be a special place of special people — special soldiers, civilians, and just the people who want to show up and support the military and the Army,” Wilcox said.
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McCullough told Wilcox that she is confident he’ll “invest the same passion, professionalism, pride and expertise into the soldiers, civilians and family members of Fort Bragg” as Pence did “because they deserve no less.”
According to Wilcox’s biography, his other Army experience includes serving as chief of plans for the 95th Civil Affairs brigade, serving as a civil affairs advisor for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and assistant chief of staff for the 2nd Infantry Division.
During operation enduring Freedom, he deployed to the Philippines and worked with the Philippines Civil-Military Operations School to standardize their doctrine and units.
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: Fort Bragg gets new commander to lead installation operations