VICENZA, Italy -- Brig. Gen. Eric Folkestad has served as the U.S. Army Africa deputy commanding general since Feb. 13, 2019. During his time with USARAF, Folkestad has traveled frequently to the African continent, representing USARAF in many of the 53 countries in the U.S. Africa Command area of responsibility. He represented USARAF at the African Land Forces Summit 19 and 20 events, performing key leader engagements with African general officers and facilitating discussions between African partners and defense security cooperation agency senior leaders. He served as the deputy commander of Combined Joint Task Force African Lion Headquarters in North Africa during African Lion 19, providing guidance during planning and leadership over a combined U.S. and multi-national staff during the event’s inaugural year as a U.S. Army Africa-conducted event.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in Italy, Folkestad has served as a key advisor and driving leadership force in formulating the U.S. Army response and countermeasures to the emergency, which the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of Defense have publicly commended and recognized as the model to emulate for the entire Army and Department of Defense.
Folkestad, who will assume command of the NATO headquarters in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, recently agreed to participate in a question and answer session about his time as USARAF deputy commanding general.
Q: You’ve served as the deputy commanding general for nearly two years. How would you describe your role in the command? How do your duties as AREC director fit in to that role?
A: The role of the deputy commanding general is to enable the command, from up front, but also, at the same time, from the background. I’ve always looked at ways that I could make things better for the command, to enable to command to accomplish the commander’s objectives. My other role was leading the Army Reserve engagement cell in leveraging the key capabilities the Army Reserve provides to better harmonize operations in Africa.
One of the things that a DCG does is allow (Maj. Gen. Andrew M. Rohling) the USARAF commanding general to really maximize his engagement effects. There is always one more thing that pops up on the calendar where you need a general officer in attendance, and that’s within the enabling the command part of things, being in those places where presence is required, whether it’s a VTC with the Department of the Army or AFRICOM. The boss is at the tip of the spear and we’ve got to keep him there. So, whatever I can do to take some of those engagements off of his plate, I’m happy to do it.
(Editor’s note: While Folkestad served as the Army Reserve Engagement Cell director for several months, the Army Reserve has recently separated the roles and AREC director positions will now be occupied colonels, rather than by general officers.)
Q: What impact do you feel Army Reserve Soldiers have on the command and its objectives in Africa?
A: One fifth of this command is Army Reserve and National Guard Soldiers. They bring tremendous capability into the command, they bring a different perspective, and they brink links back to their respective Reserve and Guard organizations. They’re highly specialized when it comes to capability in Africa. We’ve got civil affairs, engineers, medical and military intelligence and these are enablers that are focused on Africa for USARAF. I think it’s definitely a sustain, because it’s a total Army construct. We have three components in the Army, and it’s a privilege to be here and to help synchronize all three components for a greater effect in Africa.
Q: Is there a USARAF experience that was particularly memorable that you would like to share?
A: There are many things that I’m honored and humbled by having been a part of. Enabling the command in Africa during exercises and engagements and meeting African leaders is right there at the top.
I was able to do quite a bit of traveling to some of our major events in Africa. It was extremely rewarding to establish a relationship with an African senior leader and then see that person at the next event; you instantly have this rapport that you go back to and draw upon to further the relationship and to further the goals of USARAF and the goals of AFRICOM in whatever country we’re involved in. That was a lot of fun. I got close to a few different African leaders from different countries based on going back for return visits. Being able to get to know Gen. (Belkhir El) Farouk (the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces Southern Zone commander) in Morocco for example, we have been able to be very successful with African Lion because of the partnership with general officers like General Farouk. And then in Tunisia, I’ve gotten to know Gen. Mohamed El Ghoul (the army chief of staff for the Tunisian Land Forces). With General Ghoul, it’s the same thing: we’re able to continue that relationship over time, and now the (security force assistance brigade) is doing great things in Tunisia. I don’t claim any success for that, but it’s just an example of having relationships that matter in Africa. You can’t surge trust; you can’t create it on the spur of the moment. Doing it ahead of time is the key to our success in Africa.
Q: You mentioned African Lion. USARAF still had a lot of success with African Lion, despite AL20 being canceled. What potential do you see in African Lion? What has been your favorite part about that exercise in particular?
A: African Lion is extremely important because not only does it build readiness for USARAF, it also establishes theater access for AFRICOM in three different countries: Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal. We are in all of these places at the same time during African Lion, which is key because theater access enables future operations, it addresses great power competition – because our adversaries are there too and African Lion is strategically the most important and complex exercise in AFRICOM’s portfolio. In my opinion, the readiness values we get out of being able to project equipment and organizations into North Africa is significant. We did that in AL19 and again, even though AL20 was canceled because of COVID-19, we already had major shipments of Army equipment going in, including a whole battery of (M109A6 155mm) Paladin howitzers, plus all the ammunition that went with it. We were actually able to accomplish an amazing amount of logistical activity when it comes to projecting combat power into North Africa.
Willing and the capable partners are the ones that really enable our operations and Morocco is a willing and capable partner that is very open to American presence, so exercising with Morocco is a huge opportunity because you can’t do that in just any place in Africa. The training venues are outstanding, we’ve got all of the real estate that we could ever want close to the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea, and so African Lion is the place to exercise multi-domain joint operations with very few restrictions.
USARAF established control of African Lion with AL20, when we took it over from the Marine Corps. I think we just blew it out to the next level. It was a great thing to see. We had all of the major directorates from USARAF on the ground for African Lion 19, and AL20 was going to be even bigger. We had a great U.S. joint force lined up along with major contributions from numerous European and African partners. The U.S. Army contribution included USARAF, part of the 173d Airborne Brigade, and over 600 Reserve and Guard Soldiers lined up for AL20. It was going to be great.
Q: You were very involved in the Vicenza military community’s unprecedented response to COVID-19. What about that experience stands out for you?
A: I’m incredibly proud of the Vicenza military community. All of the organizations did a tremendous job pulling it together. We were hit with COVID-19 in the very early days and it was completely unknown what the impacts were going to be. It’s a cliché, but we built the airplane in flight, without a doubt. It turned out to be a pretty good design. We were able to put a reinforced bubble over the top of the Vicenza military community while we had COVID-19 all around us, throughout northern Italy. We’re not very far from Bergamo, where the Italian army was called in to help out, and in downtown Vicenza, we were watching the San Bortolo hospital’s ICU bed occupancy get almost to 100 percent. Inside the Vicenza military community, we had 0 positive (cases) within the first 100 days. Zero.
This is the safest place, in my opinion, in the entire United States Army for Soldiers, families and civilians to work and live. This is the safest place you can be right now. I think we should be really proud of everything that we’ve accomplished, as far as that goes. We’re still at it. There is nothing about this that is even close to being over. Nothing. So everyone continues to be on their toes. It’s almost like a boxer’s stance: you’ve got to be up on your toes to react to the next punch, and I’m really comfortable with where we’re at. In the beginning, we did what we thought was the common sense approach to solving problems, and they came in waves, one after the other, and everybody stayed in the fight. I don’t think the key leaders involved had a day off in those first 100 days. It was every weekend, we were dealing with the next host nation decree, working to match up (our policies) with the Italians’ so they would know we’re not the weak links over here. I think we ended up being one of the strongest.
Q: Speaking of Italy, part of role as DCG included attending and participating in community events with the Italian community and military. What was that like?
A: We have an incredible host nation in Italy. Italy is a fantastic partner. When I got here, I wanted to experience everything that Italy had to offer and I thought the best way to do that would be to get involved locally and meet people. The first thing I asked HHBn when I got here was about the service projects within the communities. I wanted to get involved. They called my bluff, and I did show up. We had a great day doing some cleanup work in the local community, and that was very satisfying because we were doing it alongside local Italians – U.S. Army Soldiers and local Italians were all breaking a sweat at the same time together. That was a good day and there have been a few more days like that.
Local leadership, (Italian army) Cols. Umberto D'Andria and Michele Biasutti have been great friends. Going back to the COVID-19 experiences, we were shoulder to shoulder with them throughout all of that. We were an integrated formation in dealing with all of the countermeasures that we needed to come up with and Col. Biasutti was a great partner, especially because he was able to interface with the local city of Vicenza leadership to let them know how it was going on the Caserma. People understood that we were matching up on all of the local decrees; they understood that we wanted to absolutely conform with everything that city of Vicenza Mayor Francesco Rucco and his team were doing. There was no daylight at any point between the American response and the Italian response, and it was because of people like Col. Biasutti and many, many more Italian nationals that are a part of our team here on the base.
Q: Do you have any advice for Army Reserve members who aspire to leadership opportunities and roles within the Army?
A: I think leadership is universal, no matter what component you serve in within our Army, and the principles are the same. For me, success means doing your best in whatever task you’ve been given, and taking that task, owning it, and making sure that you’re doing the very best job you can every single day. That is the key to success long term. No matter what you do, as a military member, as a civilian member, or in any walk of life, it’s one day at a time and the opportunities will follow.
Q: What is next for you?
A: My next assignment is going to be as commander of NATO headquarters in Sarajevo. It will be a one year assignment and it’s considered a deployment. I’m very excited to have been selected; I’m humbled and honored most of all. I’m looking forward to working with the ministry of defense in Bosnia-Herzegovina in that role, and I’m going to take all of the lessons that I’ve learned here in U.S. Army Africa, and by working with the great people of Italy, and I’m looking forward to doing some of the same kind of work in Sarajevo. I think it’s going to be exciting to continue to professionalize their defense forces in support of the Dayton Peace Accords, which is, ultimately, why we’re there.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?
A: I do want to say for the future, I’m extremely impressed with the leadership team in USARAF We’ve got a great commander, chief of staff and command sergeant major, and I’ve been very impressed with the all of the leaders, military and civilian, throughout the organization. This is a team that is going to continue doing great things in Africa, for the Army and for AFRICOM, and I’m looking forward to all the great things that lie ahead for this organization.
I think what I will always remember coming out of this assignment is just the sheer professionalism of the USARAF organization and the expertise resident in this ASCC. The expertise that is resident here in dealing with the hugely complex issues in Africa is so impressive. There are 53 countries and being able to keep all those balls in the air, USARAF does that every day. That’s what we do, and it’s been an honor to be a part of it.