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The Road to Alabama’s Biggest Command Post

Growing up among millworkers in a textile town in western Virginia, Dennis Via didn’t have an inkling of his current command — overseeing 68,000 soldiers and civilian workers from his Army headquarters in Huntsville.

Gen. Dennis Via stands proud in the Huntsville headquarters of the Army Materiel Command.

Gen. Dennis Via stands proud in the Huntsville headquarters of the Army Materiel Command.

In August 2012, Gen. Dennis Via became the commanding general of the U.S. Army Materiel Command, headquartered in Huntsville. The AMC, which is responsible for providing all equipment and materials needed by deployed Army units, was relocated to Huntsville as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) proceedings.

“If a soldier drives it, flies it, shoots it, wears it or eats it, we provide it,” Via says, reciting the mantra of AMC.

The Huntsville-based Army Materiel Command is one of three major army commands (the others are for training and preparing forces for combat). A multi-billion dollar organization positioned in 145 countries and almost all 50 states, the AMC employs 68,000 soldiers and civilian workers.

Before accepting this appointment, Via served as deputy commanding general for the AMC. The week he and his family arrived in Huntsville was the same week in April 2011 when more than 160 tornadoes plowed through the state. Because the AMC provides equipment and readiness for soldiers deployed to natural disasters as well as war zones, Via and his staff saw firsthand how their work to prepare troops could make a difference for people in the midst of crisis. He saw right away how the people of Alabama could come together to rebuild and make a difference, and he has been impressed with the Alabama-based workers under his command ever since.

“I consider it a privilege to command a great workforce,” Via says. “We have some tremendous soldiers and civilians working here that allow us to meet the needs of our service members.”

Career by Chance

Growing up in Martinsville, Va., Gen. Dennis Via didn’t expect to go into the military or even to college. Almost everyone he knew worked in local textile mills, and Via assumed he would follow a similar path. But Edward Fontaine, a Korean War veteran turned teacher who taught Via as a high school junior, had higher expectations for Via.

“Mr. Fontaine asked me about my intentions to go to college,” Via says. “I had not planned to, but he kept encouraging me to apply to Virginia State University.” Eventually, Via complied and was accepted.

Once there, he was recruited for the ROTC program. “Before I knew it, I found myself at Fort Knox in a training program for six weeks,” Via says. “And I thought it was a good deal — I got paid, got to take my first flight and enjoyed the camaraderie and the training.”

When he got back to campus, he enrolled in the ROTC program and never looked back. Upon graduation, Via decided to try active duty and “three years turned into 33 years,” he says.

A Memorable Career

At the age of 22, Via started out as a second lieutenant. Through the course of about four years, he then became a headquarters company commander, battalion logistics operator, battalion maintenance operator and company commander. “Those first four and a half years provided me with tremendous experience,” Via says. “I was able to experience leadership in many different assignments.”

Through the years, Via has served as a commander seven different times, from the grade of captain up to four-star general. He has served at the Pentagon three times and has been stationed in Italy, Germany and a number of states.

“It has been a very blessed and rewarding career,” Via says. “I’ve had the opportunity to serve throughout the United States and overseas, and the most memorable part of each assignment has always been the people. Many have become lifelong friends, and many communities have come to feel like home.”

Memorable Moments

While Via says all of his military assignments have been powerful learning experiences, some stand out as more poignant, memorable or proud. For instance, right after 9/11, Via was a colonel commanding a brigade that “we knew would most likely deploy to war,” he says. He spent most of a year preparing that group of soldiers for war, ensuring they were trained well and had the proper equipment. Because brigade command is usually a two-year assignment, “I realized I would not be in command when the unit was called to deploy,” he says.

And he was right. He was assigned to another command before his brigade was assigned to leave for Afghanistan. “When we left in July 2002, that was very difficult for my wife and me, because we became very close to the soldiers and their families,” Via says. “It was hard to hand them off to someone else when I knew they would potentially be deployed.” 

In another instance, when the Vias were based in Germany, they found out on Christmas Eve that a unit would be returning from Iraq that night, and they went to welcome the soldiers back to base. “We were in a gymnasium full of families and children running around with American flags,” he says. “I will always remember the joy that was in that room when the soldiers arrived — the uproar and the tears. I will never experience another Christmas Eve like that again.”

When BRAC decisions moved the AMC to Huntsville, several other Army installations were closed around the country. Via was stationed in Fort Monmouth, N.J., with the responsibility of closing an installation that had been in operation for 90 years and would be moved south to Maryland. His ability to overcome the challenges involved in his job at Fort Monmouth is one of Via’s proudest accomplishments.

“I underestimated how challenging (the closure) would be for employees,” Via says. “Some of their grandparents had worked there. I had to build trust and help workers make the best decisions for their families, but ensure that we could continue to supply troops fighting two wars.” When he arrived at Fort Monmouth, 13 percent of workers were willing to move to the new location. But by the time Via left, 69 percent were willing to make the move.

Goals for the AMC

As the commanding general of the AMC, Via wants “to ensure that we continue to be the premier provider of readiness for the Army,” he says. As the federal government and the Armed Forces face budget changes in the coming years, Via is optimistic that his command will continue to perform its present duties and prepare to remain competitive in the future.

“We know we’ll see a decline in budget over the next few years, and we will probably have to make some tough decisions, but whatever decisions have to be made, we want to continue to take care of our workforce,” Via says. “After every war in our nation’s history, there has been a decrease in budget and a decrease in the number of soldiers and civilians. We want to make sure we plan accordingly and conduct those reductions in a responsible way. We want to look ahead and be sure we are fostering conditions of the command for 2020 and beyond.”

For instance, Via plans to encourage and enhance the Army’s “organic industrial base,” which includes sites like the Anniston Army Depot, where tanks and other equipment are refurbished.

In addition, research and development are high on Via’s list of priorities. He wants to maintain and increase current R&D so the Army can “develop leap-ahead technologies to spiral in new technologies as we refurbish and rebuild,” he says.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

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