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General Carter Ham visits JCU

May 5th, 2011

Last Thursday, four stars shone at John Carroll, when alumnus General Carter Ham came to JCU to speak on a number of topics. Ham is a four-star general in the United States Army, and he is currently serving as the commander of the United States Africa Command.

U.S. Africa Command, based out of Stuttgart, Germany, was established as a fully functional command in October of 2008. The command works with 53 African nations to conduct “sustained security engagement through military-to-military programs, military-sponsored activities, and other military operations as directed to promote a stable and secure African environment in support of U.S. foreign policy,” according to its website.

In his position as commander, Ham has been in charge of the recent mission in Libya and oversees all other military operations in Africa. Ham said, “It’s obviously a huge and diverse continent [with] lots of different engagements. Our primary purpose is to help strengthen African militaries so that they become increasingly capable.”

Although the United States military has played a major role in the Libyan conflict, Ham explained that “our focus is much more on preventing conflict than it is being engaged in military operations.”

Before he was named commander in Africa, Ham was stationed in numerous states and countries such as Italy, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Macedonia and Iraq. He also worked to review the impacts of repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and investigated the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood in Texas.

“I think when tough things come up … the folks who know him put him in there to go ahead [and] bring him to some positive conclusion,” retired Lt. Gen. John Sattler told National Public Radio in March. Sattler served with Ham in Iraq and at the Pentagon.

A “foundational experience”

Ham has been enlisted in the Army since he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1976. However, it was at John Carroll that he recognized his true calling as an officer. He said he is a proud alumnus, as JCU was a “foundational experience” for him.

“It was here that I found the three things that are most important in my life,” Ham said. “I found my wife here; she was the head resident of Murphy hall. I found my faith here; I was not raised Catholic, but found that the Catholic faith was right for me. I found, while I knew I liked being a solider, it was really at John Carroll that I learned that serving as an officer was my calling.”

Ham’s experience at JCU was largely influenced by the faculty and staff who are engaged with every student. “You’re not a number here; you’re not just another student. And I think that endures over the many changes that the University goes through.”

He was very happy to return to JCU, and always enjoys seeing how it has grown. “It is a place that has largely shaped who I am today, and so I have appreciated the opportunity to come back over the years and see how it changes and evolves.”

Despite the many changes that the University has gone through, Ham feels that it is still the foundational place where he discovered his three important things in life.

“At its core, John Carroll remains committed to the individual self development of each and every one of its students, and I think that’s what makes John Carroll special and different than many other places.”

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’

Ham has also been an active advocate for the elimination of the Army’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which was repealed in December 2010.  In partnership with the Department of Defense’s general counsel, Ham served as the military’s co-chair. According to Ham, this required full-time duty for about 10 months.

“[It was] about a 10-month effort to review the impacts of what repeal of DADT might mean for the military and then to make recommendations to the secretary of defense on the way forward,” said Ham.

According to Ham, this was a practical move for the armed forces more than anything. “I think what we found in large part is that most service members recognize that they are already serving alongside gay and lesbian service members. And in most cases, serving in a unit that has a gay or lesbian service member has no real significant effect on the ability of that organization to accomplish its mission.”

For Ham, the most difficult part of changing this policy was compromising with the people who believed that homosexuality is immoral. They had the task of balancing the religious beliefs of these people with the practicality of allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the army.

“We already accommodate a very wide variety of faiths and beliefs and practices, not all of which everyone agrees with. But what we do agree on is the centrality of accomplishing the mission, which is to protect and defend the nation. And we’re able to do that even while serving alongside people whose beliefs and practices may be different than our own,” said Ham.

Ultimately, Ham feels that this is a positive policy change for the United States’ armed forces, and will prove to be a much more realistic way to allow people of all sexualities to serve their country.

Freedom is not free

In his 35 years of service, he clearly recalls his worst memory. “[In] December of 2004, when I was in Mosul, Iraq, we had a horrific suicide bombing that killed 22. That will always stand out as the single most dreadful day in experience that I have had in uniform.”

But the most rewarding part of his service career has been watching young soldiers develop into mature officers. “Now [I] have the opportunity to see younger officers, younger sergeants that [I] serve with, grow and mature into positions of increasing responsibility and authority.”