20Q: F. Anthony Keating, special assistant to the Secretary of the Army

A voice for soldiers: Civilian aide to Secretary of the Army inspired by those who serve

F. Anthony Keating, special assistant to the Secretary of the Army — New York (North), at the offices of NNY Business magazine late last month. Mr. Keating has held the civilian aide post for the past 20 years. Photo by Norm Johnston / NNY Business

F. Anthony Keating, special assistant to the Secretary of the Army — New York (North), at the offices of NNY Business magazine late last month. Mr. Keating has held the civilian aide post for the past 20 years. Photo by Norm Johnston / NNY Business

Fort Drum and the 10th Mountain Division have a special place in the heart of F. Anthony Keating, the incumbent special assistant to the Secretary of the Army. Mr. Keating, himself an Army veteran, has held the civilian advisory post for the past 20 years. He sat down with us to talk about the early days of the post and division and its future on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.

NNYB: We know that Fort Drum has contributed billions to the north country, helping to drive its economy. What has the post contributed that is perhaps less tangible?

KEATING: Those billions amount to about $4 billion and that’s in addition to the billions spent to establish the post in the first place. To me the significant benefit is that the community has really become a military community. The community itself has become a fully-found military community. Fort Drum’s presence here has been an influencer in every aspect of north country life. It’s been for the better, in my opinion, in every instance.

NNYB: The integration of diversity has happened without much turmoil, does that serve as an example of the lessons we have learned along the way and to whom do we owe our thanks?

KEATING: One of the concerns that many people had, myself included, was how we, as a community, were going to assimilate the influence of increased diversity. Would it be positive or is it not going to be as seamless as you would want? I am immensely proud of this community. I grew up here and graduated from high school here and was away with the Army and schooling and came back and was in business here at the time Fort Drum was announced. I wondered if we were going to be able to accomplish this assimilation that would be necessary. It has been seamless. I think we should thank the people of the north country. I was president of the Watertown Chamber of Commerce in 1976 and one of the projects we undertook was commissioning a study to see how many identified minorities we had in Jefferson County. We thought probably 1 to 2 percent and it turned out we got the study back faster than we thought. The number was 206 minority people identified out of 75,000 give or take. When Fort Drum arrived as home post of the 10th Mountain Division I think there was a real concern this could be a real challenge. The north country is used to treating people well and they extended that to soldiers and soldier families. Soldiers have noticed this and appreciate it.

NNYB: Fort Drum is one of the largest posts without its own hospital or DoD school and has grown organically, why was a good decision?

KEATING: It was a somewhat forced decision as I remember. Part of the reason Fort Drum didn’t get a hospital or consideration for on post schools was there was not enough money to accommodate them. There wasn’t enough money to put up the necessary housing. That’s why the 801 housing was here for 20 years. It was necessary for the Army and the community to work together on that. In the early rounds of BRAC we were concerned about developing our ‘excuses’ as to why we didn’t have a hospital or school. We wanted to make sure we could address those issues because we thought it would be perceived as a weakness. It’s been the opposite. It’s been a huge asset for the Army and the community.

NNYB: In 2012 the Army Community Covenant was renewed, signaling a continued commitment between the post and the north country. The first covenant was signed in 2008, making the Watertown area only the second community to sign such an agreement with its nearby military post. How significant is that?

KEATING: [The Covenant] was a brainchild of Secretary of the Army Pete Geren. He believed if a covenant was existent, both the community and the Army would work harder to work with one another. It was a great idea and he put a lot of emphasis on getting them implemented. It’s significant that this community did a renewal without being prompted. In my opinion it’s significant because the people of this community live up to the covenant before they formalized it. They kept on keeping on and stepped it up a notch or two. It’s been a commitment that this community has had with the Army to provide for soldiers and soldier families.

NNYB: Late last month (Monday) more than 9,000 letters of support and petition signatures were sent to the Department of the Army. How important is it that we continue large-scale efforts that demonstrate support?

KEATING: I think it’s always important to frame your story in the way that you believe most accurately represents what you’re doing. The fact that 9,000 people went online and did this, there was no button holding them on the street but it was very much a volunteer action. They were asked to do it, yet there were 9,000 indications that they saw Fort Drum as being important enough.

NNYB: How vulnerable is Fort Drum and the 10th Mountain Division in 2014?

KEATING: I don’t think you ever get to the point where you can declare you’re out of the woods. It’s important to be vigilant and do the things that have brought us to where we are and continue to do those things. When we look at the political side of things and have vulnerabilities there because of the structure. We are well situated within the military. The new FORSCOM commander is General Milly, who commanded here. Gen. Allyn is the new vice chief. He is going to be essentially running the Army. He knows Fort Drum well. He’s been here a number of times. He’s supportive of agility and that’s one of the keystones for him. We have some powerful friends in high places who know Fort Drum. We have some weaknesses in some areas and strengths in others.

NNYB: How feasible is a major round of BRAC closures and drawdowns?

KEATING: The idea that we’ll take a division and whack it and cut this, I don’t think that’s politically feasible. I don’t think it’s militarily feasible to do. Ground forces need space to train. If we think that for the rest of our existence as a country we’re going to have an Army no larger than 440,000-450,000, then yeah. Get rid of a few installations. But that’s not what history has shown us. All wars are expensive and difficult to fight and win. But winning the peace is even more difficult and expensive. There are no technics, no robotics or equipment that can do that. The American soldier is the best peacemaker we have. You can fight wars with a technical overmatch but you’re not going to win the peace with that.

NNYB: Last fall you told the Watertown Daily Times that another round of BRAC would be “short sighted.” How do we convince lawmakers of the same?

KEATING: We harp on the point that ground forces are needed. You can’t condemn half of Wyoming anymore and make it a military installation. We don’t have that kind of land. If they give us installations that have significant training advantages, we will never get those back. I believe all the chiefs have recognized that. It sounds as though you’re hiding your cards beneath the table but I think the chief of staff of the Army would agree. You can’t assume the Army and the Marine Corps are going to the the same size as they are now when you have a national emergency. And it’s critical to have training grounds when a national emergency arises.

NNYB: The 10th Mountain Division is always lauded as one of the most deployed divisions in the Army, post-9/11. Does that help our case?

KEATING: Elements of the 10th Mountain Division have been deployed almost consistently since 1993. There may have been a month or two where everyone was home. Although for the most part a third to half of the division has been down range somewhere in our world since that time. That speaks volumes for us in the way the chief can look at a division he can call on to pick up and go places as quickly as the 10th can.

NNYB: What’s the most important thing that north county residents should understand when it comes to sustaining the post and division?

KEATING: I don’t know if there’s one thing they need to understand it’s more about doing what they’ve been doing. When you think of this installation and this unit, this unit was brand spanking new and there were questions about if it should be an Alpine division or not. Originally everyone from New York City who trained here hated it here. The reputation was as close to the floor as you could get. Now we have a storied installation that compares extremely well with any around the country. Our community is figured measurably in that process.

NNYB: Is it more the nature of Fort Drum being a light infantry division as to why you don’t see a burgeoning defense industry surrounding the base. With light infantry is there less of those independent defense contractors?

KEATING: Other areas are bigger and more industrial than we are. Hiring is easier. Any hit to the area would be felt heavier because of the size of this area. The ease to which you can hire people to come and live in other locations, as well as the population size, are factors in that. My overall reaction to that is to be careful what you wish for. We are who we are in the eyes of the soldiers and families because of the schools and hospital and those things, not because we’re a big industrial hub. To the soldiers, particularly the married soldiers, this is where you want your children to grow up.

NNYB: How competitive is the site selection process for a missile defense operation?

KEATING: I think we are very well positioned in that. We have full up military community here that is used to advocating for their installation. The other three areas under consideration have no such capabilities. What the community can do, they’re already doing it. If it comes here, we are well situated. I’m reluctant to rack up the bats in the eighth inning of the game but I don’t know what more we could do. The resources have been identified as available to get that.

NNYB: The Army’s active duty strength hit a post-World War II low of roughly 480,000 in 2001. Some reports have said the Defense Department wants to draw the force down to as low as 440,000 to 450,000. Should history tell us that’s a bad idea?

KEATING: I don’t think the DOD wants to do that. The requirement to first of all contemplate what we hope, though it looks increasingly difficult, is a post-war time footing suggests that the amount of money spent to maintain forces should not continue. I’m not sure it would continue even if we would maintain a sizable force. For the Army, the most expensive part of their operation is the human resource. The Army has a lot of technics and hardware but not to the extent the Navy and Air Force have. Cutting [technics] won’t reduce us to the numbers Congress is looking for.

NNYB: It seems cuts are always cyclical, is that true?

KEATING: History has demonstrated that these cuts will come home to roost. We will ultimately have to restore the force based on what happens in the world. The larger effort is keeping the nation’s force intact. That is reason to consider even though it won’t assist us in getting us to the numbers, or look at the numbers over a period of time instead of in each fiscal year. Every time we take a reduction, this is my second one, a lot gets lost. We have to remember that unlike any period prior to the ‘90s there were a significant number of people in the Army who were interested in getting out. We now have a volunteer Army and people are thinking about a career in the Army and we promised them guarantees if they maintain a career in the Army. Then we backslide in those guarantees. We forget people served the country in war time and we made promises to them.

NNYB: With so much going on in the world, between the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East, it doesn’t seem that now would be the best time to draw down the troops?

KEATING: The phenomena of refocusing on the Pacific is one thing. But how can we when the Middle East and Central Command is on fire. How can we unilaterally declare where we are going to position our resources. We’re not the only country in the world with a vote. There are other peoples in the world who have ideas and they’re not always benign. That may in fact require involvement we might not be planning for.

NNYB: In terms of deepening the pool of leadership in the north country, what should people appreciate most about Drum?

KEATING: It’s like everything else that has been brought by Fort Drum. When you have a community influence that affects prosperity it lifts all boats. If those in our community are in businesses where they don’t necessarily see direct business from soldiers or the Army, there’s always a secondary affect. They have customers or clients who do do business with the Army or do business with military customers. That multiplier effect touches almost everyone in the community.

NNYB: What’s the one thing about Fort Drum you would say stands out as a reason why it is above and beyond other posts?

KEATING: What Fort Drum and the 10th Mountain Division have contributed is that they’ve shown us who we are. In the past we recognized the friendliness and inclusiveness of the community. We believed we were a welcoming community and a community where people enjoyed living. Soldiers and soldier families have proven that. This is a popular installation for soldiers who are married. They don’t have to worry about what school do their children go to. In some installations the schools vary from good to not-so-good, from safe to not-so-safe. Here it happens relatively seamlessly.

NNYB: Who has been most inspiring to you and what have you learned from the people you’ve encountered in terms of leadership?

KEATING: The soldier; the dog-faced soldier who goes out every day and stands in formation and does everything we expect soldiers to do. They’re still doing it. I can’t think of anyone more inspirational to me than that. They’re magnificent people. The job doesn’t have any quantitative compensation but the qualitative compensation is priceless. I couldn’t think of anything that would be more enlightening or inspiring than interacting with soldiers and their families every day.

NNYB: What are the day-to-day tasks required of your position?

KEATING: Our job [as civilian aides] is to advise the Secretary of the Army of civilian and military relationships in our area. When the armed services were unbundled, the Army kept the aide program. The other two services don’t have civilian aide programs. Our function is the secretary’s personal spokesperson and advise on civilian issues. Our job is to advise on how things are playing on Main Street in the civilian community and act as guides to assist people in accessing the Army. We meet with the secretary at least annually but the secretary is out straight as a human could be and there are about 90-95 of us. He gathers us once a year and spends a morning with us. We have regional conferences and he does teleconferences with us all.

NNYB: Has it made difference that the secretary is from the north country?

KEATING: I would tell you his heart is still here. His head has to be everywhere. He has done what I believe, and I am a bit biased, a magnificent job in assuring the rest of the Army that there are other places that are important, too. He hasn’t lost his focus on Fort Drum but he was in Congress as a shameless advocate for Fort Drum. He has done a great job as the Army’s secretary and each installation is given equal attention. I think every secretary has to go through that.

The F. Anthony Keating file

AGE: 72

JOB: Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army — New York (North)

FAMILY: Wife, Jacqueline; daughter, Katherine; son, John

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree, University of Notre Dame; MBA from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

EXPERIENCE: Served nine years in the Army; 40 years in the insurance industry; 20 years as civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army

LAST BOOK READ: “Generals in Blue and Grey” by Wilmer L. Jones

— Interview by Ken Eysaman. Edited for length and clarity to fit this space.