Maj. Gen. Mark O’Neil takes command of U.S. Army Alaska
The Army picked the right morning to hold a big event.
“What a beautiful day,” said Gen. Robert Brown, commander of U.S. Army Pacific, who was in town to preside over a change of command ceremony for U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK).
Taking the unit colors under a dazzling blue sky Wednesday was Maj. Gen. Mark O’Neil, who has served as Brown’s chief of staff since May of 2016. O’Neil takes over for Maj. Gen. Bryan Owens, who is retiring from the Army after 34 years of service.
After praising the weather, Brown quickly praised both the incoming and outgoing USARAK leaders, saying both are “really, really superb general officers.”
Brown said Owens will be missed, and praised the outgoing commander for his dedication to building the Army’s readiness in Alaska.
“You’ve had a distinguished and amazing career of service to our nation,” Brown told Owens.
During his remarks, Owens got emotional while thanking his wife, Jen, and three daughters for their support throughout his career. No matter how tough his day was, Owens said, he could always count on the support of his family at home.
“No matter what time I came home, you rushed me at the door and gave me hugs and smiles,” he said to his daughters — who who were in attendance and another watching via video feed from Europe.
As for his wife, Owens choked up when talking about her dedication to raising their family while he traveled from assignment to assignment.
“You’ve done it all,” he said.
Brown said his success was due to the soldiers and officers under his command.
“Without men and women like this, we would not have the freedom we enjoy today,” he said.
Owens also took a moment to recognize the local community for its outsized support of the military.
“I have never seen such great support for our military in my 34 years of service,” he said.
As commanding general, O’Neil will be in charge of roughly 11,000 troops in Alaska. It’s a big job, but one Gen. Brown thinks his former chief of staff is ready for.
“He’s commanded at every level,” Brown said of the new commander, who began his career as a platoon leader and has served in leadership positions for both regular and special forces units. O’Neil was in special operations from 1998 to 2011, where he competed an assignment as the Chief, Current Operations Division for the Joint Special Operations Command. O’Neil has been deployed “about 15 times,” Brown said, and has served with distinction in Afghanistan, Iraq and “all over the world.”
Brown said the Army made a wise decision by naming O’Neil to the position, but joked that the move to Alaska from the Army’s Pacific headquarters in Hawaii might take some getting used to.
“They didn’t mention he had to turn in his flip-flops and stand-up paddleboard for winter boots and a parka,” Brown said.
That didn’t seem to be a problem Wednesday, as spectators crowded beneath tents or sipped water bottles in the bright Alaska sunshine. After the ceremony, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz told O’Neil that Wednesday’s weather is the norm for Anchorage.
“300 days a year it’s like this,” Berkowitz quipped.
The mayor told the new general he’s looking forward to continuing the close relationship between the municipality and the Army.
“We’re going to do great things together,” the mayor told the general.
During brief remarks during the ceremony, O’Neil said he’s anxious to tackle the challenge of leading the Army’s Alaska-based forces.
“Let’s get ready to get after it,” he told the assembled troops and dignitaries on hand.
An avid hunter and fisherman, O’Neil said he thinks he’ll be plenty comfortable in his new hometown and said he and his wife, Wendy, can’t wait to start their new life in Alaska.
“We’re extremely happy to be here in the Last Frontier,” he said.