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Panama Era Ends with Ceremonies at Fort Clayton

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

FORT CLAYTON, Canal Zone, Aug. 2, 1999 – The U.S. Army's presence in Panama officially came to a close here July 30 with the casing of the colors during ceremonies on the pristine parade ground.

With the mournful cry of bagpipes under cloudy skies, Marine Gen. Charles Wilhelm, commander in chief of the U.S. Southern Command, based in Miami, passed in review of a few more than 100 soldiers and as many civilians still based here with U.S. Army- South. The remainder of the command has already departed and begun establishing its new headquarters at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico.

"From your new home in Puerto Rico, I will expect you to build new relationships with the Panama Defense Forces," Wilhelm told the soldiers assembled before him."

Marching in step with Wilhelm as he walked the length of the field was Army Maj. Gen. Philip Kensinger Jr., commander of U.S. Army-South and Joint Task Force Panama. Wilhelm lauded Kensinger's, and his wife, Greta's, skill and compassion in planning, managing and executing the move to Puerto Rico.

"The Kensinger leadership team will not only write the final lines of our presence in Panama," Wilhelm said, "it will also write the opening lines of our presence in Puerto Rico." Kensinger will take command of the unit Aug 13 when it officially stands up at Fort Buchanan.

The ceremony ended nine decades of continuous Army presence in Panama. The first soldiers arrived in 1910, and Army engineers were integral to construction of the Panama Canal. During World War II, the Army presence peaked at 65,000 soldiers who "protected the canal and the hemisphere," Wilhelm said.

Since the formation of the U.S. Southern Command in 1983, the U.S. Army-South has been "the doorway" to democracy-building and DoD's main point of contact with Central and South America, Wilhelm said. He said the Army command not only provided critically important canal security, but trained and exercised with Latin American forces; conducted humanitarian missions, the latest following the widespread destruction of hurricanes Mitch and Georges; and played a pivotal role in ending a border dispute between Ecuador and Peru.

Wilhelm noted the condition of U.S. bases and ranges the United States will turn over to Panama when the 1977 canal treaty takes effect Dec. 31.

"Yesterday, as I flew over the canal and drove the bases, I was consumed with pride over the pristine condition of the facilities and properties," he said. "You have been good stewards."

He commanded the unit to "continue to perform as the tip of the Southern Command spear" from Puerto Rico. "Your 88-year mission here is done," he said. "You can report with pride, 'Mission accomplished.'"

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMarine Corps Gen. Charles Wilhelm, right, passes in review of troops during closing ceremonies at Fort Clayton, Canal Zone, July 30. Maj. Gen. Philip Kensinger, left, U.S. Army-South commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Keehu accompany the general. The ceremonies marked the end of 88 years' Army presence in Panama, that began with construction of the Panama Canal. Photo by Douglas J. Gillert.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageCommand Sgt. Maj. Robert Keehu carries the U.S. Army-South colors during a ceremony July 30 at Fort Clayton, Canal Zone, ending the unit's mission there. The colors will be transferred to the command's new location at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico. Members of the color guard wore uniforms styled after those worn by the first Army garrison stationed in Panama in 1910. Photo by Douglas J. Gillert.  
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