Secretary of Defense Ash Carter installed Adm. Kurt Tidd as commander of the U.S. Southern Command on Thursday, saying the man now responsible for U.S. military operations from land to sea in Latin America and the Caribbean comes to the job with “one of the most distinguished pedigrees in the Navy.”
Carter declared the region “a zone of peace and rising prosperity” in ceremonies held inside the gym on the campus of the Pentagon subsidiary in Doral because of rain. So Southcom’s core mission, he said, will continue to be responding to natural disasters, confronting criminal networks and disrupting drug and human trafficking while promoting democracy and human rights.
But he added, in lengthy remarks that celebrated the overnight downsizing by 10 percent of the detainees in the Pentagon’s war on terror prison in Cuba, that Tidd’s duties will also include “pursuing our efforts to bring the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to a responsible close.” Some more captives can be sent to other countries, Carter said. But others cannot and would require working with Congress to bring them “to an appropriate secure location in the United States.” Congress has so far forbidden it.
Tidd, 59, was brief in his remarks. His first public words as Southcom commander were “Buenos días,” followed by good morning in Portuguese and French, in a nod to his new region’s languages. He declared himself and his wife, a former Navy doctor, delighted to be living in Miami and tackling the new job.
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We look forward to ... beginning the next chapter of U.S. Southcom’s partnership for the Americas.
Adm. Kurt Tidd, commander, U.S. Southern Command
“We look forward to strengthening the bonds of friendship and fellowship in this vibrant part of the world,” he said, “and to beginning the next chapter of U.S. Southcom’s partnership for the Americas.”
He replaced Gen. John F. Kelly, 65, who enlisted during the Vietnam War, got a college degree and returned to service as an officer — making him a much beloved commander among some enlisted troops who celebrated that crossover. During a forum at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., in November, Kelly declared himself the oldest, longest continuous serving member of the U.S. armed forces.
At Southcom, where he was commander for three years, Kelly handled the position differently than his predecessors.
He shunned South Florida media — even the Miami Herald, whose headquarters is next door — in favor of speaking at the Pentagon press room to Defense Department reporters he knew from earlier jobs. He made frequent day trips to lunch with troops at Guantánamo, one of Southcom’s largest concentration of troops and, by his own admission in October exerted influence beyond the typical four-star officer.
“My lane is the military lane, so it’s very narrow. But I don’t stay in that lane at all, because I see so many things going on that no one is really addressing,” he said in a question-and-answer format interview with the California-based Pacific Council, a think-tank. “I have very close relationships with these countries: the militaries, civilian leaders, even their presidents. I can call a president and he will take my call faster than he’ll take a call from just about anyone else.
“I can advise them,” he added. “I once advised a president to step down.”
Southcom’s chief of public affairs, Army Col. Lisa Garcia, could not say which president Kelly advised to quit — and whether he or she heeded the advice.
In his final days, Kelly also publicly broke with the orthodoxy of the Bush and Obama administrations that Guantánamo’s aim was to hold and interrogate detainees, not punish prisoners.
“I think we can all quibble on whether 13 or 12 or 8 years detention is enough to have them — having paid for whatever they did,” he told the Pentagon press corps a week before retiring. “But they’re bad guys.”
In keeping with his unorthodox approach to the job, his daughter represented the family. Karen Kelly, the general’s wife, had gone ahead to unpack at their next home, in private life, Carter said.
Carter, Tidd and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, all offered tributes to Kelly’s decades of service. Tidd called the Marine general “the gold standard of integrity, humility, and heart” and “one of the finest officers I know.”
Carter affectionately described Kelly’s talents as typical of the “best traditions of the Boston Irish,” noting he could captivate an audience with specially tailored stories, “Many of which are actually true.”
About the new Southcom commander, Adm. Kurt Tidd:
▪ His father and brother were Navy admirals, too. His father had three stars and his brother, a now retired Navy chaplain, had two.
▪ A 1978 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he ran U.S. Navy forces in the Southcom region from Jacksonville 2011-12.
▪ He comes to the job from two years of traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry, as Pentagon representative, which Defense Secretary Ash Carter estimated covered 600,000 miles.
▪ He has served at sea as a Carrier Strike Group commander and on land in an anti-terror planning group after the 9/11 attacks.
▪ He’s married to a former U.S. military doctor; they have two daughters.