FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii (AP) — Maj. Gen. Richard Burr salutes with his palm facing out, like he's shielding his eyes from the sun. He wears a wide-brimmed felt "slouch hat" with a brown and green camouflage uniform.
The two-star general in the Australian Defence Force stands out amid the American soldiers donning berets and green and beige fatigues at the U.S. Army's headquarters for the Pacific. But he's responsible for directing their training and exercises as U.S. Army Pacific's deputy commander for operations. The Army is also making Burr their liaison to New Zealand, his homeland Australia and countries in Southeast Asia.
Burr's appointment — it's the first time a non-American has served in such a high-ranking position at a command like this— symbolizes the Army's push to connect more with allies and friendly nations in the Pacific as it implements the Obama administration's policy to "rebalance" national defense strategy toward the region.
Burr reports to Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski, a three-star general and U.S. Army Pacific's top commander since 2011. Wiercinski is responsible for most U.S. soldiers in the region, except those in South Korea.
Burr said his presence in Hawaii tells others the U.S. Army is open to broadening its relationships.
"I think it sends a very positive message to all countries in the region — not just our two countries — that stronger partnerships is really the way to go," Burr said in an interview Wednesday, one month after arriving in Hawaii for the new job. "And building from bilateral to multilateral partnerships is the key to a stronger, more stable region."
The position reflects a deepening of an already close relationship between the U.S. and Australia, two nations who fought together in World War II and whose alliance was formalized by treaty in 1951.
More recently, Australia sent troops to fight alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq, even when those decisions were unpopular with voters at home.
Burr was among the deployed. He commanded Australian troops in Afghanistan in 2002 and during the invasion of Iraq the following year. In 2008, he commanded all coalition special forces — including Americans — in Afghanistan.
The 49-year-old said these experiences mean Americans know him, and know he takes the responsibility of commanding U.S. troops seriously. This helps the U.S. feel comfortable placing him in such a critical position.