Early during the Iraq War, three American soldiers held a tense meeting in a Fallujah police station with two dozen unhappy Iraqi policemen.
The Americans had arrived in the city the previous night, and the police officers, many armed with assault rifles, had sharp words for their new bosses, recalled David Costa, a command sergeant major who attended the meeting.
But the lieutenant colonel in charge, John A. Hammond, remained calm and firm, Costa recalled Tuesday.
“There is going to be public safety in the city of Fallujah,” Costa remembered him saying.
The story, an example of Hammond’s leadership under pressure, was one of several that was shared Tuesday during a ceremony marking Hammond’s retirement from the Massachusetts Army National Guard as a brigadier general.
During the celebration at the State House, guardsmen spoke of Hammond’s courage and commitment during his tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Amid the congratulations, however, the day served as a reminder of the continuing war in Afghanistan, where Hammond, and many of those in attendance, served until earlier this year.
“The greatest concern I have is that it’s now become the forgotten war,” Hammond, said in a interview. “We lose 10 [soldiers] a month, and it goes by completely unnoticed.”
The war remains as important as ever, he said.
“It’s far better to deal with these problems on the other side of the ocean,” said Hammond, who grew up in Reading. “You never want a situation where we’re worrying about suicide bombs going off at the Burlington Mall.”
Dozens of soldiers who served under Hammond attended the ceremony, most wearing the guardsman’s uniform of navy pants and a black jacket. Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray thanked Hammond for his service, as did Major General L. Scott Rice, the state’s acting adjutant general.
In conversations before and after the official program, soldiers from each of Hammond’s two tours described the retiring brigadier general as a leader who took action unusual for someone of his rank.
Costa, a 60-year-old guardsman who lives in Swansea, said Hammond voluntarily joined dangerous patrol missions in Fallujah.
“Every night we went on patrols. Almost every night we came under enemy fire,” Costa said. “Every night he was in the lead vehicle.”
In Kabul, Hammond’s passion for rebuilding schools in the city’s outer areas impressed Lieutenant Colonel Laurence Bazer, a chaplain who served alongside the general.
In addition to supervising projects and meeting with local leaders, Hammond helped hand out school supplies to local children.
“I saw the excitement in his face as he did that,” Bazer said.
Speaking after the ceremony, Hammond said he believes that development is crucial to ensuring success in Afghanistan.
“When you fight a counterinsurgency war, you have to win the population over, not through talk but through action,” he said.
He believes the war’s outcome remains uncertain and the correct withdrawal strategy is elusive. Hammond said he wants the United States to bring troops home as soon as possible, but he cautioned that leaving too soon could lead to chaos.
“It’s so fluid right now,” he said. “It’s difficult to make an assessment of where it’s going to go.”
After 31 years of active duty, Hammond will assume a new role with a local organization advocating for veterans.
His son Shea, who recently graduated from Merrimack College, said Tuesday that his father had earned all of the day’s accolades through his service.
“He deserves it,” Shea said. “He’s obviously my hero.”