Commander of 25th infantry takes a position at the Pentagon

Aug. 26—Related Photo Gallery: The 25th Infantry Division holds Change of Command Ceremony

On Friday, Maj. Gen. Joseph Ryan wrapped up his tenure as commander of the Army's 25th Infantry Division.

As leader of the Army's "Pacific Division," he has been at the center of the Army's efforts to reorient its operations from drawn-out counterinsurgency fighting to the Pentagon's top- priority area of operations as tensions simmer with China.

"The division is integrated into everything the Army out here is doing, and as a result of that, it's integrated really into everything the joint forces is doing," Ryan said in a sit-down with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reflecting on his time at Schofield. "The 25th Infantry Division is 12,000 doers, 12,000 executors of national security policy in the region. We have soldiers out and about in this region, engaged in this region, every day of every year for the two years that I've been here, doing phenomenal work."

But to many Hawaii residents Ryan is best known as the face of the Army's response to the Red Hill water crisis. Early on, his blunt way of talking to the public earned him praise from community members at a time when relations between the military and Hawaii residents had soured as Navy officials were downplaying the danger and scale of the crisis.

However, while the Red Hill crisis was a huge deal, Ryan is hesitant to accept praise or talk about it as a defining moment for the division. Ryan told the Star- Advertiser that "it wasn't extraordinary because we weren't doing anything that we didn't think was simply the right thing to do. We were doing what we felt like we should have done, and I would do it the same way again if confronted with a similar set of circumstances."

When it became clear in late November 2021 that the Navy's Oahu water system had been tainted, Ryan was in Japan, where his troops were conducting a large-scale exercise with the Japan Ground Self Defense Force. Among the affected areas were the Aliamanu Military Reservation and Red Hill housing, both administered by the Army.

The Army organized Task Force Ohana, which delivered clean water, examined sick residents and worked to move people into hotels. Ryan cut his trip short to return to Oahu. When he got back on Dec. 3, he told attendees at a town hall meeting at AMR that while the exercise was strategically important, "it's not more important than what we're doing right here."

Throughout the month, the Army and Navy's differing public messages were stark. During a morning town hall broadcast over Facebook on Dec. 15, 2021, Ryan started off by telling affected residents of Army housing, "I am disappointed to tell you, but I have to be honest with you, to tell you that we're not going to be able to move you back into your homes for Christmas. That is disappointing to all of us. We had hoped to get to a solution that would allow for otherwise, but that is not going to be the case."

Just hours later, during a joint session of the state Legislature, the U.S. Pacific Fleet's then civil engineering director, Rear Adm. Dean VanderLey, told Hawaii lawmakers, "After evaluation of the testing results, we will work closely with the Department of Health and other stakeholders to be able to declare our waters safe and get people back in their home. My goal is to get this done by Christmas."

Christmas came and went while the crisis continued.

Despite sharply different approaches to Red Hill here in Hawaii, across the region Army and Navy officials in the Pacific have had to work more closely together than they have in decades as tensions with China simmer. While leading the 25th, Ryan spent nearly as much time traveling the region as he did in Hawaii. He was in constant meetings with both U.S. and foreign officials, shoring up alliances and building new partnerships.

China has invested heavily in its military and has stepped up its operations in disputed regions of the South China Sea. Beijing considers nearly the entire sea — a critical waterway that more than a third of all international trade travels through — to be its exclusive sovereign territory, over the objections of its neighbors.

Ryan told the Star- Advertiser, "I think in the summer of 2021, if you go back and reread the news clips, you'd see very little talk from a national security standpoint about the insidious actions of the People's Republic of China in the South China Sea. ... Certainly there was some of it, and there was some recognition of it, especially out here. But it wasn't broadly represented in international media and certainly in Washington, despite the fact that that we pivoted."

Ryan said he believes that was in part due to bloody and chaotic evacuation of civilians from Kabul after U.S. military forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021 and the Russian military's 2022 push into western Ukraine.

Ryan said that those events have captured much of the attention of commentators and lawmakers in Washington but that "despite all that, I think we've done a good job in outlining the threat that exists in this region, not for tomorrow or the next day, but for the future of our way of life."

With such a focus on maritime territorial and navigation disputes in the Pacific region, there has been sometimes fierce debate in military circles over what role the Army can — or should — play. These debates flare up especially during debates about the the defense budget. Army officials have adopted the mantra that while operations at sea are central, "people live on the land."

"The biggest challenge from a leadership perspective, over the past two years for me personally, understanding the scope and breadth of everything — that we were going to be asked to grow and integrate into a more robust land power network," said Ryan, who added that "land forces represent the large majority of forces throughout the region. And we take full advantage of that when we can."

China has condemned many of the exercises Ryan's troops have conducted with militaries around the Pacific region as "provocative" and accused the U.S. of trying to stoke conflict and interfere in the region.

Ryan said that the United States at times might need to do a better job of defining what it's doing in the region as tensions boil. He said that while he is in the business of preparing troops to potentially fight, diplomatic efforts to prevent such a fight are critical and that there needs to be dialogue, especially with China.

"Sovereignty is important for the United States, for the other nations in the region to include the PRC (People's Republic of China)," he said. "We respect that sovereignty. That's an underlying principle. I think that sometimes goes without saying, but maybe we ought to revisit it every once in a while, because the basis of everything we're trying to do out here is respect of sovereignty."

Ryan will be taking on a new assignment at the Pentagon.

Maj. Gen. Marcus Evans, who served as chief of staff at U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., will take over from Ryan at Schofield. But Ryan said that his time in the islands left a mark.

Ryan reflected on getting to know the late Henry Lee, a Korean American Army veteran born and raised in Wahiawa just outside Schofield, who would serve in three wars and earn the Purple Heart before returning to Hawaii to finish his education and become an educator himself.

Lee died in January at the age of 92, but during a ceremony in June his family accepted the U.S. Army Pacific's posthumously awarded 2023 Mana o ke Koa Award to Lee for his role in the community and support for veterans and their families. Ryan said that veterans he met like Lee are "representative of so many great things about here in Hawaii, this sort of melting-pot conglomerate of cultures."

But Ryan acknowledged that the military is struggling in its relationship with the public and is facing a major recruiting shortfall. Army rolls fell in 2022 by about 15,000 soldiers — or 25% — short of its 60,000 recruitment goal. Ryan said he frequently felt the strain and that "we're undermanned."

Ryan said he came into the military after Operation Desert Storm, which was one of the high points of the American public's trust in the military. The past two decades of costly wars in the Middle East and South Asia, along with several scandals across the military — including the Red Hill crisis — have contributed to sharp drops in trust. A 2022 Gallup Poll found the public's trust in the military had dropped 8% in just two years, from 72% in 2020 to 64% in 2022.

"There is a vocal contingent of concerned U.S. Hawaii citizens who hold us to task, keep us accountable for who we are, what we do and how we do it. And I respect that," said Ryan. "But there's also an unspoken large number of folks here, I think, who greatly respect and admire what it is the U.S. military is doing and trying to do to protect the people of the United States, to include the people of Hawaii, from the threats that are out there."

Still, Ryan said, "We have to also educate ourselves, some of our younger leaders perhaps, who maybe consider what the military does for the people of the United States as a foregone conclusion. We can never, we can never take it for granted."