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Tuesday, August 13, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New commander at Fort Lewis, Army's highest-ranking Filipino

Seattle Times staff reporter

Lt. Gen. Edward Soriano became the highest-ranking Filipino American in U.S. Army history yesterday when he received his third star and took over command of Fort Lewis.

During a low-key ceremony, the 55-year-old general showed glimpses of the down-to-earth, gregarious nature that has characterized his past commands.

Referring to the Army's senior leadership that promoted him, he quipped, "Kind of shows you they have a sense of humor."

Surrounded by nearly two dozen family members, Soriano welled up as he thanked his mother, then drew a laugh when he remarked, "I certainly wouldn't be here without her."

He also spoke of his father, the late Fred Soriano, who fought alongside U.S. troops against the Japanese as a Filipino scout during World War II, survived the Bataan Death March and then served in Korea.

The brief promotion ceremony was followed by a more elaborate production as the departing commander, Gen. James Hill, received his fourth star and handed Fort Lewis' colors to Soriano.

Hill, 56, will now take over Southern Command, responsible for all U.S. military activities in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Color bearers wielding a sea of flags and ribbons set the backdrop for the ceremony as howitzers fired off salutes.

The National Federation of Filipino American Associations and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) said Soriano is the first Filipino American to become a three-star general.

"His leadership is a credit to our country, and his example is a proud one for the Asian-Pacific-American community," S. Floyd Mori, JACL national president, said in a statement.

As commander of Fort Lewis and I Corps, one of four corps headquarters in the Army, Soriano will be in charge of about 20,000 soldiers. The base is at the vanguard of the Army's "transformation" initiative, testing the service's first two Stryker brigades.

Equipped with troves of high-tech fighting gear and new eight-wheel Stryker vehicles, the first of the brigades is expected to be ready for combat by May, making it highly possible it could see battle in the event of a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Soriano's message to soldiers was simple: Mission first. People Always. One team.

"First and foremost, it's about readiness to fight," he said.

He also stressed the importance of families. "We can't succeed today without the support of our families."

Soriano, a 32-year Army officer, comes from Norfolk, Va., where he was director of homeland security for the U.S. Joint Forces Command.

In that role, he helped set up the military's Northern Command responsible for homeland security, said Gen. Larry Ellis, who officiated at the ceremony. The new command will go into effect Oct. 1 at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

"My friend, you have earned it by your demonstrated performance over a sustained period of time," Ellis said after presenting Soriano with his stars.

Hill received the Legion of Merit, and his wife, Toni, received the Secretary of the Army's Public Service Award for their service at Fort Lewis and nearby communities.

During his two years there, Hill was instrumental in launching the Stryker brigades, improving soldiers' living conditions with a privatized-housing initiative and building relations with local towns and cities through his "community connector" program.

"General Hill has kept this command ready to fight now while transforming it for the future," Ellis said.

Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com.

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