FORT KNOX, Ky. — At the close of a distinguished military career that spanned several decades and continents, U.S. Army Gen. Burwell B. Bell III plans to return to the place where it all began: Chattanooga.
The four-star general, who rose through the ranks over the past 39 years to become one of the Army’s 11 most powerful, highest-ranking officers, officially ended his career Monday with a colorful parade of patriotism at Fort Knox, which he once commanded.
The 61-year-old Oak Ridge, Tenn., native — nicknamed “B.B.” by friends — didn’t hesitate to break out of his solemn role as guest of honor at the retirement ceremony to pay homage to his Volunteer roots.
“Today my blood runs green — Army green,” Gen. Bell told the crowd, eliciting chuckles when he added, “It will run orange soon enough.”
At the close of a distinguished military career that spanned several decades and continents, U.S. Army Gen. Burwell B. Bell III plans to return to the place where it all began: Chattanooga.
Retired Gen. Bell has commanded North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces, United Nations forces, U.S. forces in Europe and, most recently, U.S. forces in Korea. But it all began with his 1969 graduation from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program.
While in the ROTC, the general’s leadership qualities first began to shine, said Ken Harpe, of Chattanooga, a fraternity brother in Kappa Sigma and fellow ROTC officer, coming through the ranks a year behind Gen. Bell.
“He is one of those people who, whatever he says is going to happen is going to happen,” Mr. Harpe said. “He is one of those straight-shooters, and he is of the highest possible integrity. He was that way at (UTC, then called University of Chattanooga), and obviously has continued throughout his military career.”
“He achieved the highest rank in the Army, and he had these very same beginnings that these students now have,” said Maj. Ben Smith, current head of UTC’s department of military science and ROTC program. “It shows them that you can achieve this kind of greatness, too.”
In an exclusive interview with the Times Free Press last week, Gen. Bell said he had not planned to make a career out of his stint in the Army. But when he had fulfilled his four-year ROTC scholarship commitment, he realized he was not ready to quit.
Seeing a Cold War-era Army struggling to rebuild and redefine itself after the Vietnam-era draft was abolished, Gen. Bell says he cultivated a strong desire to help make that happen.
“It had a profound impact on me about what armies can be used for, in terms of goodness, to protect democracy and to protect the pursuit of liberty versus totalitarianism,” he said.
The general has lived up to his ideals, said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Duane Thiessen, who admired Gen. Bell’s career for years before getting to work closely with him in Korea. Lt. Gen. Thiessen was among hundreds of military and civilian personnel who turned out for Monday’s ceremony, during which Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. officially retired Gen. Bell to the satisfaction of a cheering, whooping crowd.
The two generals stood in the back of a classic Army jeep as it circled several units of soldiers and Marines standing in formation in Gen. Bell’s honor. A military band saluted him with a patriotic musical tribute.
In addition to the bright banners of yellow, red, burgundy, green and navy blue in a color-guard formation, a solitary American flag flapped half-staff in the distance, overshadowing the pomp and circumstance with a reminder of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that have claimed the lives of 4,582 troops.
Friends and colleagues said the fanfare over Gen. Bell and his wife, the former Kathleen Fields, of Chattanooga — whom Gen. Casey said is known here and abroad for her dedication to improve the quality of life for military personnel and their families — was an appropriate salute to the couple’s historic contributions.
“He has a high reputation,” Lt. Gen. Thiessen said. “When there’s changes that have to be made, they put him in there.”
He cited challenges such as commanding NATO forces in Europe and a transition of command in Korea, which is expected to be complete by 2012.
“It takes a large person with a big vision to make that happen,” he said, recalling with a smirk the extremely strict Master Activities Calendar, or MAC, to which Gen. Bell required his men to adhere.
“There’s no mystery, there’s no magic. You get in line with the schedule because that’s what has to be done,” Lt. Gen. Thiessen said about the MAC, which covers all events, classes, activities and other important schedules.
The job also takes a man with a great deal of energy, recalled Army Col. Robert D. Williams, who worked with Gen. Bell in Korea.
“The man’s the Energizer Bunny!” Col. Williams exclaimed after the ceremony.
Stephen Mims of Kingston, a lifelong family friend of Gen. Bell’s, agreed heartily after stopping to embrace the general following Monday’s ceremony.
“I think he was just a born leader,” Mr. Mims said.
All the while, the general never forgot about the lower, enlisted ranks he was commanding, said Army 1st Sgt. Robert Johnson, who was stationed in Bosnia in 1996 under Gen. Bell’s leadership.
“He believed in taking care of the soldiers,” 1st Sgt. Johnson said. “That was one of the things I admired about him.”
During last week’s interview, Gen. Bell said serving as a mentor to the lower-ranking soldiers was the most rewarding thing about his service.
“My proudest accomplishment is not about me. It would be about any help that I may have given to the young people of America, who have given to serve this nation,” he said. “Giving them an opportunity to grow and mature and seek their goals and dreams, and watch them achieve, my contributions every day were focused on that fundamental.”
His feelings for those men was evident Monday, when he delivered his retirement address facing the troops lined up before him, his back to the crowd of civilian spectators gathered to watch. He begged the uniformed soldiers and Marines to relax in the blistering June sun during his 20-minute speech, which he used to offer thanks to those who impacted his career, including his wife.
“I want you to stand at ease,” he said before he began. “The arms can be flailing around a little bit. ... I’m not kidding you.”
After the ceremony, he greeted privates he had never met with the same warm hugs and sincere expression of thanks as he did the longtime friends and co-workers who traveled from as far away as Korea to attend.
All the while he maintained a stately grace, which did not escape the notice of Gen. Casey, who praised Gen. Bell’s “profound impact” on fronts across the globe.
“Our Army and our country are forever in your debt,” Gen. Casey said.
As the general and his wife prepare to move to a new home in Ooltewah, family friend Trish Aaron, who first befriended the couple in 2001 at Fort Hood, Texas, expressed how much they will be missed. However, she said, they surely will not escape the spotlight entirely in their retirement.
“The Army’s losing a great family, but I’m sure they will still be proponents of military issues,” Mrs. Aaron said. “They won’t turn their back on the military.”
Video: Gen. B.B. Bell retiresGen. B.B. Bell was honored during a retirement ceremony Monday in Fort Knox, Ky., concluding his 39 years of service in the Army. Gen. Bell was most recently the commanding general of the U.S. Forces in Korea and will return to the Chattanooga area following his retirement.