FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — When U.S. Army Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate employees Jim Benn and Carlos Soto boarded a plane for Colombia in November 2015, they expected a routine military doctrine exchange, just like the many they had conducted with other nations in the past.
Little did they know it would turn into so much more.
That first visit launched what would be a transformation within the Colombian army — a transformation in doctrine, in business practices, and in relationship building. And Benn, deputy director, CADD, and Soto, terminologist for CADD, would become the “fathers” of that doctrinal revolution.
“The Colombians were finalizing their plans for an overall transformation of their army and unlike the mistakes that other nations sometimes make, they realized that in any transformation you have to transform your thinking along with, or in some cases before, your physical transformation,” said Benn. “They realized that the intellectual transformation was at least as important as the physical transformation. They had been looking at our doctrine structure and they decided that a structure similar to ours would work well in the Colombian army.”
The next step by the Colombians was a request via U.S. Army South for support of their doctrine development. The CADD leadership agreed, but the key pairing of Benn and Soto almost didn’t happen. Benn initially joined as a replacement for the CADD director, who had a conflicting commitment. Soto was added later because he was the resident expert on terminology and could provide key context to current doctrine — in Spanish.
Since that first trip, the two have made approximately five two-week trips per year to work with the Colombian army. They have completed hundreds of hours of work, painstakingly and meticulously translating doctrine line by line and explaining key concepts in Spanish. They feel the result is well worth the effort.
“People often comment about the number of these exchanges and note that it’s a sizable commitment. The answer is ‘yes,’ it is a sizeable investment in resources,” said Benn. “I remind everyone that Colombia is one of our strategic partners in the region and that support to Army Service component commands has been a Combined Arms Center priority for some time. We have established solid working relationships with most of the senior leaders in the Colombian army and with key leaders in other countries in South and Central America. By fostering those relationships, we gain an exponential return on the investment.”
The project consists of four phases and the Colombians are well into phases III and IV now. Phases I and II involved creating a series of publications roughly equivalent to U.S. Army Doctrine Publications and Army Doctrine Reference Publications. Phase III is the development of field manuals and completion of phase IV will result in the development of techniques publications.
Soto is quick to point out that this has in no way been a “cut and paste” activity. “It wasn’t copying our doctrine, it was developing a firm understanding of our fundamental principles and adapting those principles, where appropriate, to their doctrine and our shared doctrine structure,” he said.
For their own purposes, the Colombians called this effort “Damasco” — a biblical reference to the transformation the Apostle Paul went through on the road to Damascus. Prior to this effort, the Colombian army had little in the way of formal doctrine and operated more from what U.S. Soldiers would call after-action reports and standard operating procedures.
Seeing the progress the Colombians have made is a source of pride for both Benn and Soto, but it is another development which they find even more exciting. Other countries are noticing the impact of the work being done in Colombia and are asking to do the same for their militaries. Benn and Soto believe that if these countries have common doctrine, it will strengthen partnerships and allow these militaries to better cooperate on tasks ranging from fighting narcotrafficking to supporting each other during natural disasters.
“I see that what we have done here has far greater implications for the whole region because this has been something I sometimes call a ‘divine spark’ that is starting to spread. … All are interested in having a common structure and an interoperable doctrine that can help them work better together,” said Soto.
The leadership of the Colombian army is so impressed with the results of “Damasco” and think so highly of Benn and Soto in particular, that they established a way to commemorate this effort. Last year, Colombian National Army Commander Gen. Alberto Mejia (a 2001 graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and Fort Leavenworth Hall of Fame inductee) told the two that he was developing an annual award to recognize those who have demonstrated excellence in doctrine development. It would be named the “Benn y Soto” (Benn and Soto) Award. The first honorees would receive the award in May 2018 and the ceremony would be timed to coincide with Benn and Soto’s next doctrine development session so they could participate in the presentation.
When the day of the ceremony finally arrived, Soto became concerned. The time for the event was fast approaching, yet the Colombians had scheduled no rehearsal. He began asking staff members in Spanish “How’s this going to work?”
Their answer? Just stand there and receive the award.
In the end, it was these two men who started the project and continue to see it through, who the Colombians chose to honor as the award’s first recipients. And neither Benn nor Soto saw it coming. According to Soto, their receiving the award is even more significant when put into historical context. The last time the Colombians honored a member of a foreign military was in 1907, when they recognized two Chileans who helped stand up their military academy.
In an interview with a Colombian television station, Col. Pedro Rojas, chief of the Colombian army’s doctrine center, summed up the experience this way. “Damasco strengthens the army and allows us to have a professional language that we didn’t have in our army. And today, thanks to this effort, it is part of our framework and it’s possible for us to enter with our global partners in NATO. It’s a very important step for our professional army … Col. Benn and Soto came here to make our army stronger. They gave us the doctrinal tools and that’s why our command decided to establish this special award which is an icon for our new generation.”
The significance of this honor is not lost on either Benn or Soto and both are even more invested in the work and the impact on its people. “We have helped them professionally, we have assisted them in their goal toward interoperability, and we brought all of our combined active duty military and civil service experience. So, from a technical standpoint, we have assisted them in making that kind of progress. But I firmly believe that equally important to what has transpired down there is that they know that we both genuinely care about them,” said Benn.
Soto concurs. “I feel this is not just my accomplishment; it’s Jim’s accomplishment for us to be able to have this influence. Two men who never worked together that came from two different areas of the United States. I came from Puerto Rico, he came from Alabama. Our destiny brought us together to do something that has brought so much positive influence in the Colombian army and in the region, that until the day I die this man and I will be connected by what we have done and what we have to do in the future.”
Pictured above: Senior military leaders from Colombia and Maj. Gen. Mark R. Stammer, U.S. Army South Commander, (left) presented the first annual Benn and Soto Award for excellence in doctrine development June 6, 2018, in Bogota, Colombia. Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate Deputy James “Jim” Benn (third from left) and Carlos Soto (second from right), CADD terminologist, were selected as the first two recipients for their work since 2015 in support of the Colombian army’s doctrine development.