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As he retires, Army Signal Command’s Sutten shares thoughts

by SFC Jim Ward

Vietnam was front-page news in 1967. More and more soldiers poured into that tiny country on the eastern edge of the Asian continent, as military and political leaders looked for ways to combat communist forces eager to seize South Vietnam. America was watching as reporters and anchormen struggled to get a handle on the story.

Still, for young lieutenants like Charles Sutten Jr., the issues were clear. He and his fellow U.S. Military Academy graduates knew their role meant at least a year in the combat zone, followed (hopefully) by a career in the Army.

As MG Charles Sutten, commander of Army Signal Command, looks back, he knows many of the operating principles he employs today were distilled during the year he spent in Vietnam.

Following a stint with 82d Airborne Division, Sutten went to Vietnam and served as a communications platoon leader in 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, at Quan Loi. Later, he served in 121st Signal Battalion, 1st Infantry Division, as a platoon leader and radio officer at Di An and Lai Khe.

"When you’re a junior Signal officer, you really feel your job is critical to the mission. When the senior officers are out of the area, you’re in charge. You have to make the right decisions and make things happen. That’s pretty heady stuff for a guy fresh out of the academy," Sutten said.

It was in these first few experiences that Sutten began to understand the role Signal plays on the combined-arms team. He discovered the lash-up between Signal and the rest of the tactical Army was critical to the fight.

But it was at the White House Communications Agency that he developed the style many see in him today. That style, one of empowerment and delegation, was born out of necessity.

As Sutten puts it, "The president wasn’t a training aid, so we had to execute in terms of minutes and seconds to provide instant support whenever he needed it. That meant there was lots of work to do, and I needed to be able to hand off a mission and know it would get done. That’s a little scary, but I think it’s the right approach. I also learned just how high standards really could be," he said.

This concept forms the backbone of what Sutten is all about. He believes that in the waning days of the 20th century, training on the basics and strict adherence to the standards are just as critical today as they were in the years before technology took over.

"If you train to standard, everyone in the unit knows what’s expected and can execute, even in the absence of orders and instructions," Sutten said.

Since the White House, Sutten has commanded a battalion and a brigade, both jobs he enjoyed and found professionally and personally rewarding. He also took 6th Signal Command from Fort Huachuca, Ariz., to Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, where his soldiers provided critical linkages that became standard throughout echelons-above-corps Signal operations.

Through these experiences he’s learned how important people are to the Army. Sutten says that going to the Persian Gulf and leading Signal soldiers was as critical to his success today as anything else he’s done in the Army. He learned that if he wanted to get the mission accomplished, he had to rely on the skills and work ethic of the soldiers he was charged to lead.

He also learned that for the Signal community to be successful, it would have to integrate into the warfighter community. That meant listening to what the Army wanted and learning to speak the language of operators.

"We’re an important part of the Army, and a lot of commanders knew it. We in the Signal Regiment also knew that, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the drawdown, our organizations had to change. We had to become a more operationally focused command. That’s what I faced as I took command (of ASC) in July 1995," Sutten said.

"I knew we had great people here and a real mission, if only we could sell the leadership on our true impact," Sutten said.

To succeed at turning ASC into the vital force it is today, Sutten and his organizational "SWAT" team had to develop a tutorial on what EAC Signal was and why ASC should be the Signal force provider of choice.

"I had some dedicated, smart people working this issue. And, slowly, we turned things around," he said.

Sutten thinks becoming a member of the Forces Command family was the smartest thing ASC ever did.

"We knew the Army wanted to get rid of major commands, but we also felt we had a home among the warfighter community. As it’s turned out, it’s been a perfect fit," he said.

Throughout his four-year command, Sutten has made the needs of the customer his top priority. He knows that as a Signal Regiment commander, his staff is here to provide the kinds of support soldiers and their leaders need.

"They have to view what we do as essential to their mission accomplishment, and we have to be there to make sure they get what they need and they know where to go if they need more help," Sutten said.

Besides guiding ASC through its transition from major-command status to a major subordinate command under FORSCOM, Sutten has also worked to ensure the Signal force structure is aligned and equipped to prepare it to deploy on contingency missions or conduct meaningful, realistic training.

Again, drawing on his White House lessons, he knows that today’s Signal Regiment has precious little response time to support the needs of a task force or Army headquarters. He also knows that it’s his job to create a climate where great, hard-working people can succeed.

"In my visits around ASC, I’m convinced the vast majority of soldiers and civilians want to do a great job. My mission has been to give them the assignments, provide the resources and watch them execute, knowing that if they get to the 80-percent solution, that’s pretty darn good," Sutten said.

And what of the future?

The one area Sutten feels needs considerable attention is the imperative of using commercial information technology to tie together power-projection platforms in the continental United States, Europe and the Pacific to tactical forces engaged in operations. "We haven’t got it right yet. We also get into trouble when our focus is too narrow," he said.

Another area of concern to Sutten is the whole information-assurance arena. He likens the current battle to the armor-antiarmor struggles of the past, where soldiers first confronted the need for improved protection against spears, javelins and the long bow by creating armor. With each succeeding advance in technology, a new round of improvements were needed.

He sees the same thing happening in the area of network defense. As a command, ASC has the mission to monitor Army computer networks and identify threats to their security. According to Sutten, ASC was ordered into this fight because high-level officials in the Defense Department knew ASC could tackle the job and wrestle it to the ground. Unfortunately, Sutten says, "The Army has a long way to go in this area. While we have received resources, the resources received don’t match the threat. Adjustments are definitely indicated and required."

Overall, Sutten remains optimistic about the Army. He knows the Army as an institution has been through a lot of change since the Cold War ended. He also knows the Army will remain true to its historic role as the nation’s chief defender.

He feels strongly that the Army will eventually have to create a permanent presence in the Balkans, and feels the Army should own up to that fact and provide this force.

"That’s the kind of thing we’re going to have to work on in the future. The missions the country has for the Army will continue to expand, and as they do, we’ll have to be ready to grow with them. But I think the Army is up to the challenge," Sutten said.

With the days dwindling down to a handful before he retires, Sutten can look back on a career that spanned two distinct eras. One born out of Vietnam, when the country still carried the World War II feeling of invincibility. The other one experienced around the sands of the Persian Gulf, where much of what the young Sutten felt was right about the Army bore successful, rewarding fruit.

This much can also be said of his personal life.

"I will also tell you that none of the good qualities that have made me successful would have come about without my wife, Sharon. She has always loved soldiers and has made me a better person," the general said.

SFC Ward, who is also retiring from the Army, is assigned to ASC’s public-affairs office.

Acronym QuickScan
ASC – Army Signal Command
EAC – echelons above corps
FORSCOM – Forces Command

Last modified on:
April 04, 2012

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