By LYDIA BERGLAR
Although it’s been nearly 30 years since Chad Foster lived in Dade County, several residents were excited to hear his name on a National Public Radio broadcast about Fort Cavazos (formerly Fort Hood). Foster’s mother (Jane Foster) and his sister (Jennifer McDaniel) still live on Lookout Mountain.
Colonel Foster has served as Garrison Commander at the Texas fort for two years and is changing command in July to Chief of Staff of the III Armored Corps, a two-star general position. NPR interviewed Foster about the renaming of the fort, but before he was leading a fort with a 60,000 on-base population (and broader network of over 500,000), he was a Dade County teenager wondering what to do with his life.
Foster graduated high school in 1994 with the last graduating class of Northwest Georgia High School and the first class to walk across the stage at the new Dade County High School. Four years later, he graduated from West Point (the United States Military Academy) in 1998.
Foster said he can’t pinpoint a specific time when he decided to pursue a military career. “I gave the impression to a lot of people that I was intent on joining the army, but in reality, I was torn over a lot of different options because I wasn’t sure of my ability to handle any of them.”
A theme through Foster’s young adult years was a variety of interests but insecurities about pursuing these interests. He recalled, “I really wanted to be a guitar player in a heavy metal band or a comic book artist or a pro skater. There was a lot of self-doubt in there. I didn’t know if a kid from a small town could make it.”
In addition to these hobbies, Foster had an interest in the army. He said, “I heard about West Point from the TV show, ‘North and South.’ The two main characters both attended West Point. Also, my mom encouraged us to read, especially anything historical related. A lot of the history and individuals I read about had to do with the army, like Dwight Eisenhower. To this day, I have a great deal of admiration for him, and he went to West Point.”
Teachers also played a significant role in Foster’s career path. He said, “I had a lot of support in Dade County. I say I was raised by the women in my family, but teachers also played a great role and helped me believe I could do great things. The first teacher who specifically mentioned the academy to me was Mr. Bill Emmett, my calculus teacher.”
Foster also listed other teachers and parents of friends such as Betty Lamance, Cherie (Dooley) Swader, Deborah Bryan, and Mike Reed. “I could probably list two dozen more. And Donna Street – while she’s focused on the history of our community and keeping it alive, she was always looking past boundaries to big opportunities, saying, ‘You can be a part of the world in a positive way.’”
With support from the community behind him, Foster started at West Point several weeks after high school graduation. He earned a Bachelor of Science in European History, and he has earned two master’s degrees: one in national security policy and the other in strategic studies.
Foster appreciated the rigor of the academy. He said, “You learn how to soldier the same time as you learn how to think. It’s unwise to put too much of a distinction between the people who do the fighting and the people who do the thinking for your country. You need an educated military.”
At West Point, Foster met his wife, Khanh Diep, who also has an impressive military career and life story. She was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1976. Diep’s father was an officer in the Vietnamese army before escaping with Diep, her mother, and her two siblings. After stops in the Philippines and Malaysia, the family landed in Houston, Texas.
Foster reflected, “That’s the American dream right there. Her two siblings are successful professionals, and she’s a highly successful army officer. She was a language major at the academy and speaks Vietnamese, English, French, and Spanish. She also earned two master’s degrees, and not to mention, she’s a great mom. I’m very proud of her.”
Foster and Diep have one son, Bryce. The family faces some of the same challenges as other military families, but being in the same field also has its benefits. Foster said, “The easy part is that we completely understand what we both do at work, even though we do drastically different things. We speak the same professional language. We understand getting the call and being deployed for a year or more at a time. We’ve both benefited from the great opportunity that is the United States Army. We would never have met without the army, and we wouldn’t have had our son. We’ve had a lot of good times together.”
He continued, “The challenging aspects are being separated for long periods of time. There’s a significant amount of stress and strain, both physically and mentally. We’re about to be split up again because she’s going back up to West Point to be Chief of Staff.”
Both Foster and Diep have completed combat tours, served at the Pentagon, and held a variety of positions. Foster described his most recent role as Garrison Commander, saying, “Think of the fort as a city. When you factor in all the retirees, veterans, families, active duty members, and active duty families, it’s over 500,000 people. I’m kind of like a city manager or mayor. I’m responsible for everything from security to training support to public works to community relations. You have to think in long-term, strategic perspectives in this role.”
He was not involved with the decision to rename the fort, but he was involved with the execution of the renaming. This is why NPR interviewed him for its May 9 broadcast.
Foster told NPR, “I can’t think of a better namesake than Richard Cavazos. His bravery in battle, his legacy of leadership and mentorship – absolutely the kind of leader that we want to be associated with and the legacy that we’re going to continue to live up to.” Cavazos was a native Texan and the first Latino four-star general.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR host, explained how the renaming came about, saying, “In 2021, Congress passed its annual defense bill authorizing the military’s budget. Within that funding bill, Congress also created a commission to identify military sites where the Confederacy still loomed over United States soldiers, sailors, and airmen. The former Fort Hood was named after a Confederate general.”
Foster added, “We’re not erasing Fort Hood’s history. You know, we’re not going back and changing the past legacy of service and sacrifice that has characterized us for a long time, really since our founding in 1942.”
To young people considering careers in the army, Foster offered this: “I can’t stress enough that the U.S. military offers an incredible set of professional opportunities. Military service is a springboard for other opportunities in life through schooling, certifications, learning technical skills, and gaining practical experience in those skills. In the military, you serve alongside people who are different from you. You’ll meet people from all walks of life, all parts of our country, and other countries. I wanted an opportunity to prove myself and be a leader, and through the army, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to do that. You gain credibility by demonstrating your integrity and commitment to accomplishing the common goal. We need good soldiers, and we always will.”
The relational bonds formed in the army are a key highlight for Foster. “Some of my greatest friends are from the military. Very few other professions have such a close bond. When you sign that dotted line, you sign up for the biggest support group.”
He continued, “You’re asked to do things that the general population is not asked to do, but that doesn’t make everybody who serves in uniform some kind of superhero. There are civilians who go through some of the same challenges, like police officers and firefighters. Everybody has a load to carry, no matter what kind of work.”
To young people in general who find themselves wrestling with self-doubt, Foster says, “Don’t doubt your ability to handle whatever life throws in front of you. If you’re willing to put in the work, if you have the humility to ask for assistance when you need it, there aren’t too many things beyond your ability. Nobody gets anywhere completely on your own. You have to decide on your own to put in the work and take chances, but if you have the support of good people around you, you can do pretty much anything.”