Interview with retired Col. Gilberto Perez, former commandant of WHINSEC

Born in Havana, Cuba, Gilberto R. Perez immigrated to the United States in 1962 when he was 8 years old.

Tuesday, the 54-year-old U.S. Army colonel and commandant of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) on Fort Benning retired, concluding an impressive 31-year military career.

"I came to this country as an 8-year-old with three sets of clothes and a pair of shoes and nothing more to my name," Perez said. "And now I enjoy the great lifestyle and the opportunity that this country has given me and the people have given me."

In a change of command ceremony to be held 8 a.m., Perez relinquished the position he's proudly held since March 11, 2004 to Col. Felix L. Santiago.

Perez sat down with the Ledger-Enquirer Thursday to talk about about his career, his retirement, his love of the Columbus/Fort Benning area and why he thinks the world needs more schools like WHINSEC.

LE:Now that you're retired, where will you and your wife, Isabel, live?

I actually retired last year, but what happened was before General (David) Petraeus left...he asked me if I would stay for another year and a half and I said absolutely. I love the job. I love the community. It's a great place to work, a great institution, great people.

LE:So do you think you'll retire to Columbus?

Well, I'm going to retire to wherever the job...wherever I can land. So, right now most of my applications are going towards Florida. I have some here in Georgia and I'd like to try to stay warm.

LE:What particular jobs are you interested in?

Something related to the area of operations, Southcom (United States Southern Command) area of operations. You know, Latin America. I've spent a great part of my, the majority of my career in Latin America so it's only natural that I try to gravitate to jobs that are associated with some things that I have been involved in in Latin America.

LE:How have you liked living in the Columbus/Fort Benning area?

Let me just begin by saying that Fort Benning is the cradle of my career because in 1977 I reported here for my first assignment for the Infantry Officer Basic Course as a second lieutenant and then I returned three years later to attend what they call now the Captain's Career Course. So, my experience at Fort Benning has been always great.

My family loves the area and I'm going to actually end my career where I started it. Incredibly enough, my first assignment after I graduated from the Infantry Officer Basic Course was to the School of the Americas in Panama. So again, I've turned around full circle. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would have completed my career in the organization that followed the School of the Americas.

LE:Did were your four years and five months at WHINSEC?

How can you beat working with great professionals, both military and civilian?

How can you beat having the autonomy that I had. And it's not an autonomy based on inattention by my superiors, it's an autonomy based on the confidence and trust that I have been granted by my superiors, which I appreciate so much.

And third, the mission and the people that I engage with from all over the hemisphere are just incredible. The families, the professionals that come here, military, civilians, police, they are just the cream of the crop.

LE:You have traveled extensively in Latin America for your job as the commandant of WHINSEC. What were your favorite destinations there?

Well, I would hate to say something like that because I don't want to insult any particular country. Each country has its magic and really the countries are all beautiful and they all have, like I said, their magic. But what really makes a country a beautiful country is its people. And I've found that every country that I've been, I've been fortunate to meet wonderful people.

LE:You've been the commandant of a school that's come under fire over the years by protesters and members of congress who have questioned the moral teachings and usefulness of the institute. What have you done over the years to counter the claims that WHINSEC is a school that is linked to human rights violations?

First, the reality is that there has never been a direct linkage of anyone committing a crime or a violation of human rights that has been linked to anything the School of the Americas or WHINSEC taught.

The second thing we have done is we have continuously engaged with the public, with protesters, with non-governmental organizations related to human rights organizations. We have invited them, we have opened our classrooms, our institute to the media, both national and foreign, to government officials, ministers of defense, diplomats, members of Congress, pastors.

So the openness of this institution, the willingness that we've had to allow just about anyone to come here, sit in a classroom, see what we teach, read our manuals, read our classes, engage with students, go to the field and see what we're doing in the field. There isn't a single institution in the United States military I believe that is more transparent and more open to the general public to just anyone than WHINSEC. And I know my successor, Gen. Santiago, will continue to follow that kind of policy because it's the right policy. This is paid for by the taxpayer and they have every right to come and see what I'm doing.

LE:Does America and the Western Hemisphere need WHINSEC?

Oh absolutely. Not only that, but I think that what we need is more WHINSECs in other regions of the world to help nations come together. To work out issues not by shooting at each other, not by violation of human rights and genocide, but by actually sitting down together in a venue that allows these leaders to engage with each other, to get to know each other, to work together, so that they will have better lives for their people. So I think that we need WHINSEC more than ever.

LE:What are your thoughts on the annual SOA Watch protest?

In terms of me feeling any kind of negative things over the protesters, I don't. Obviously, they have been given one version of a story and so I am very happy to engage them to see the other side of the story. And so my desire is that when they come out it's not to have an opportunity to proselytize a policy, but for them to have a balanced view of the institute and then make their own choices.

That's democracy, but democracy only works when people are willing to engage with both sides of an argument, then make their own judgements based on a perception or based on knowledge. And unfortunately, the only frustration . . . is that when they first come here they have just received one version of the story and hopefully what we're trying to do is show the other side of the argument and then whether they go away convinced or not, that's fine. But the more important thing for me is that people go away with the full story and not just half of it.

We are hoping that as they mature in their thinking process, once they get all their information, that they will come to the conclusion that their logic of an institution as open as mine, as regulatory and overseen, how can anyone believe that the government of the United States, the Department of Defense, the United States Army would allow an institution like mine to exist if it wasn't honorable, if it wasn't ethical, if it wasn't following the rules, regulations and laws of the country and of the Department of Defense and the Army?

We've got to realize that WHINSEC is symbolic, in that the issue is bigger for some of the protesters as to U.S. policy in Latin America. So I've become kind of a lightning rod. But to people who are against U.S. policies in Latin America — some of them obviously as a result of the conflict in the Gulf and in the Middle East — use that protest to give their protest to the war in itself. So it's a conglomeration of other issues that are polarized at one particular place and time to express discontent with government policies.

LE:As this chapter in your life ends, what do you look forward to accomplishing in the next?

To continue to contribute to our nation as a private citizen, whether I'm working in a private corporation or a government agency. To be able to continue to pay back the great fortune that I as a refugee of a communist, oppressive dictatorship can now try to help prevent things like that from happening.

To continue to contribute to the United States' continued relationship with other nations of the hemisphere and of the world.

LE:Do you have any advice for Col. Santiago?

I would say that you've got a great crew, you've got a great mission. Make it better.

Col. Perez has received numerous awards and decorations during his career to include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal (7th award), Army Commendation Medal, Joint Service Achievement Medal with oak leaf cluster, Army Achievement Medal with oak leaf cluster, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (two awards) and the Overseas Service Ribbon with numeral 6. He has earned his combat infantryman's badge, expert infantryman's badge, senior parachutist badge, special forces tab and the U.S. Army staff badge. He and his wife, Isabel, have two children, Carlos, a U.S. Army captain stationed at Fort Bragg, NC, and Mario, a communications major at Columbus State University.