By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
CARTEGENA, Colombia, Sept. 13, 2007 – Colombia’s president and top military leaders turned out here today to honor and bid farewell to America’s top ranking general.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled from Washington to Simon Bolivar naval base to attend an award ceremony and a luncheon with the chiefs of Colombia’s armed forces.
During the visit, the chairman, who is due to retire on Oct. 1 after a 40-year military career, also met with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez for about 40 minutes in a distinguished visitor lounge at Rafael Nunez Airport.
Pace forged strong ties with military officials here while serving as commander of U.S. Southern Command from 2000 to 2001, an official traveling with the chairman said. During his year-long assignment, the official noted, Pace visited Colombia 13 times.
During the award ceremony, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told Pace he’d become a good friend.
“We are very grateful for everything you have done for us,” Santos said. “As one of us, you and your wife, Lynne, can come to Colombia any day, and we will receive you with our arms open, but particularly, with our hearts open.”
The defense minister awarded Pace the Cross of Boyaca, the highest military award that can be conferred on a Colombian or foreign officer. The award gives the recipient the same privileges as the president or ex-president. The minister also awarded Pace the Adm. Padilla Meritorious Service Medal, the highest decoration the military can confer on military officers of admiral rank or higher.
At a news conference following the ceremony, Pace said that while he was grateful for the honors, he felt “strange” wearing the prestigious Colombian medals and light blue and white striped sash.
“I accept these awards on behalf of all the U.S. military that have had the incredible honor to serve side by side here,” he told Gen. Freddy Padilla, commander of the military forces of Colombia and the chiefs of the army, navy, air force and other military officials.
As is the norm for the veteran troop leader, Pace also took time out to praise the men and women who serve in Colombia’s armed forces. He noted that the more than 200 Colombian sailors that participated in the nearly hour-long ceremony represented all who serve their nation.
Despite a seasonal downpour during the Colombian minister’s address, the assembled troops stood firm.
“When it started to rain,” Pace said, “they did not flinch, and I think that example on the parade field is indicative of all Colombia’s armed forces. Whether it is rain or narcoterrorists, the Colombian armed forces do not flinch, do not blink; they stand their ground.”
Pace went on to say that the United States and Colombia, the two oldest democracies in the hemisphere, “have always been there for each other.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that that friendship and that partnership will continue,” he said. “I will always seek to find ways to support you.”