When United States Army Major General (Retired) William F. Garrison was a student-athlete at then Pan American University in 1966, he said he wasn't the best basketball player but he would "kill anyone who tried to take his slot."
Garrison went on to show this tenacity and exemplary leadership qualities as the youngest U.S. Army officer ever to hold the ranks of colonel, brigadier general and major general. He returned to Edinburg April 9 to speak to the current cadets at The University of Texas-Pan American and The University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) during their annual "dining-in" event held at the Museum of South Texas History.
"I didn't choose the military, it chose me. I was drafted," said Garrison, a 1966 alumnus in business administration and accounting, who first served in Vietnam and spent most of his military career in special operations units including Army intelligence and Delta Force.
"I have been many places in the world. I have dealt with presidents, prime ministers, kings, and queens but I have never felt more honored than right now to be with you," Garrison said to the cadets and special guests present. Garrison, who retired in 1996 and has been on an assignment in Africa since then, was unable to attend a 2007 ceremony to honor distinguished alumni chosen as UTPA Pillars of Success, a biennial exhibit still on display in the UTPA Visitors Center.
Garrison told the cadets that they will find themselves in charge much quicker than they now realize and offered some key words of advice.
"The first unit you walk into as a second lieutenant you will be the least experienced person there but you will be responsible," Garrison said, adding they will need to demonstrate both physical and moral courage, competency at what they do and at the duties of the person above them, and candor.
"Candor is much more important than integrity. Candor is telling the whole truth. Not only has our society gotten away from that but also sometimes our military," he said.
Lieutenant Colonel André Dean, professor of military science and commanding officer of the UTPA battalion, said when they learned that Garrison had never seen "Black Hawk Down," they chose to incorporate snippets of the movie into their ceremony and allow Garrison to comment on its historical accuracy and also answer questions from cadets regarding decisions he made during the battle.
In response to a question about the difficulty involved in coordinating all the numbers of units and people from different countries in the Battle of Mogadishu, Garrison said insurgencies similar to this will be frequently faced by the U.S. military in the future.
"It is so critical that you understand cross-cultural communications. And because you are coming from this university, you will have a leg up on many of your contemporaries," he said.
Garrison said today's soldier is more educated and "far superior" than in the past but many aspects of the military have not changed a whole lot. The basic fundamentals never change he told them.
"The first gunfight I was in I was about your age and the last gunfight I was in was in a classified operation after Somalia ... there was a 30-year gulf between them and the United States had spent trillions of dollars since my first gunfight to my last and the bottom line is when you get into combat it does not change," he said.
On making decisions as an officer in battle, he said it does not have to do with right and wrong as much as preparing one's self to make a decision, which may or may not be a popular one.
"We as human beings spend our lives going from hero to zero and as human beings we always want to be a hero. The problem with that is that that is your comfort level. If you are not careful you will talk yourself into mediocrity. The only way for you to grow is to be uncomfortable and to take risks," Garrison said.
UTPA ROTC Battalion Cadet Captain Othon E. Galindo, from Edinburg, was thrilled to have the opportunity to have Garrison speak to their battalion.
"I wanted to know about the decision-making process as a general, as an officer in the military, that's what I hoped to get out of this. To be able to pick the brain of a general such as Garrison is priceless," said the Edinburg native who is majoring in kinesiology and hopes to one day go into health care administration or obtain a master's in kinesiology leading to a position to teach and coach.
When he is commissioned as a second lieutenant in December 2009, Galindo, a reserves member, will be deployed to Afghanistan as a medical service corps officer in 2010. His military goals include becoming a brigadier (one-star) general.
Cadet Major Josue Munoz, also from Edinburg, oversaw the planning of the dining-in ceremony, a formal dinner held annually to foster spirit and unit pride that incorporates many historically-based, written procedures including posting of the colors, toasts, a punch ceremony and even an empty place setting to honor soldiers who are Missing in Action or Prisoners of War.
Munoz, who is a general studies major and in a National Guard unit, said Garrison's comments made him feel calmer about the decisions he will have to make one day as an officer and was impressed with his willingness to talk at length to the cadets.
"It is rare to have a general do a question and answer session. In your career as a lieutenant you will probably see a general go in and out of his office but you will never get to sit down and talk to one, especially one with a Special Forces background," he said.
Dean said he hopes the cadets were inspired by Garrison who as an alumnus from UTPA went on to a leadership role.
"I want them to believe that their degree at UT Pan Am is just as valid to set them up for general officer leadership in a world-driven, geopolitical multinational command environment and that they can handle those complexities of leadership at that level," Dean said. "They will now know they can go as high as they would like to serve in the nation."
UTPA's ROTC program, which was initiated in 1980, was awarded the General Douglas MacArthur Award in March 2007 as the Best Battalion in the United States in its category, the first time it achieved this award in the program's history. In 2009, the UTPA ROTC will commission approximately 11 officers, exceeding its mission goal by 20 percent and for the second year in a row will have Lieutenant General (three stars) Ric Sanchez to commission its officers.
"The exceptional student-leaders who choose to become Army ROTC cadets and commission as officers in the United States Army upon graduation from UTPA are becoming recognized as some of the nation's best and finest," Dean said.
For more information on the UTPA Army ROTC program, contact Dean at 956/381-3600 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.