Lt. Col. Loreto V. “JR” Borce Jr. reflects on his time as PTA commander

  • BORCE

When Lt. Col. Loreto V. “JR” Borce Jr. turns over the helm of the U.S. Army’s Pohakuloa Training Area to Lt. Col. Kevin Cronin on June 15, he will have been in command of the Pacific Rim’s premier military training ground for three years — a year longer than the normal tour of duty here.

The Honolulu-born-and-bred Borce agreed to the extra year at a critical time.

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The Army is working on a draft environmental impact statement in its quest to renew its lease on almost 23,000 acres of ceded state land in the saddle area between Maunakea and Mauna Loa the installation occupies.

“With COVID, we had to do a tactical pause, and then reset and look at ourselves internally and what we’re doing to mitigate the spread of COVID — not only inside but outside the installation,” Borce said Thursday. “And I’m very proud of the team and that we took that tactical pause before picking up training now.”

Next up for Borce, who’ll turn 43 on July 2, is assignment to the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

“I’ll be a student for the next year. It’s a senior service college … for promotion to the next rank,” said Borce. “… My goal is to know more about the Pacific Rim.”

The military is a family affair for Borce and his wife of 24 years, Kekai.

Their first-born, daughter Ashlynn, is an Army 1st lieutenant working on a doctorate in physical therapy at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Son Lawrence, their next eldest, a recent graduate of Norwich University — a military academy in Vermont — recently was commissioned as an Air Force 2nd lieutenant.

Daughter Mariah graduated from Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Waimea in 2020, while son Jeremiah is entering his senior year at HPA.

“The goal is for me to go to Oahu and for my wife and my son, who wants to graduate from HPA to stay here,” Borce said.

The current 65-year lease between the military and state expires Aug. 16, 2029. The Army last fall held scoping meetings and took the first round of public input for the lease retention.

“It’s going the best it can right now,” Borce said. “It’s a long process; we’re about one-third there. … Public comment for the draft EIS will come in 2022. And more importantly, the training is essential to the troops, including local National Guard and Reserves.”

Borce added that Cronin “will do an excellent job and move the ball further.”

The state Supreme Court last year upheld in a 5-0 decision a 2015 Honolulu Circuit Court ruling in a case brought by two Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners who argued the state hadn’t properly managed the leased lands at PTA.

In circuit court, Clarence Ching and Maxine Kahaulelio established the existence of military debris, including unexploded ordnance, at the Army training site.

The high court found the state failed to conduct regular monitoring and inspections of the land at Pohakuloa Training Area to prevent the area from “falling into ruin.”

The Army wasn’t a party to the suit and it’s unknown if the ruling will play any part in lease extension efforts.

The pandemic also slowed the community outreach that was a hallmark of Borce’s time in command at PTA, interfered with live-fire exercises and caused the cancellation of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise 2020, the largest international maritime warfare training exercise held every other summer in waters of Hawaii.

“We weren’t able to execute the RIMPAC, which is vitally important for the Pacific,” Borce said. “And the reason I wanted to execute that RIMPAC is to show the lessons I learned from 2018. There were a couple of issues with the supercarrier coming a little close. And I wanted to show the community that we could still conduct training but also be good stewards of the land.

“Throughout the COVID pandemic, we remained professional, we made sure that we adhered to all the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the county regulations, but then, we also made sure that the projects kept going.”

Projects include a $4 million renovation on PTA’s fire house that was dedicated Thursday. PTA provides fire, ambulance and rescue services along the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, the island’s main east-west traffic artery.

Also in the works are two construction projects — new troop barracks and drainage and utility updates — totaling a reported $37 million.

Another accomplishment Borce points to is Operation Lightning Strike 2019, a 25th Infantry Division-level exercise which, Borce said “showed different capabilities from surface-to-surface, air-to-surface and direct weapons systems onto one target.”

Borce also highlighted eight agreements signed between PTA and local nonprofit organizations.

“The reason I did it, more than just it’s the right thing to do, was to share the story of the rich Hawaiian culture here,” he said. “It’s easy to tell the story by having the soldiers experience it, how important this land is to the people. I can show video and talk about it, but for them to experience it is at a different level.”

And to Borce, the desire to share stories cuts both ways.

“I wish I could’ve met more people to tell them the Army story,” he said. “And not just the Army story, but my personal story.

“I served in the 25th Infantry Division for a total of about six or seven years. I deployed with them three times. I lost my best friend. I know the importance of the Pohakuloa Training Area because I trained here. … But also that I know the importance of the land and of making sure that we’re good stewards of the land.”

Asked what advice he’d pass along to his successor, Cronin, Borce mentioned two things.

“The number one thing is to make sure that war fighters come here and receive the best training that the can so, one, they can come back home. … A lot of tax money is being spent so they can train here,” he said.

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“The other one is to just be yourself … and be transparent when you’re talking to the community. I’ve been hanging out with him about two months, already. His demeanor, his personality and his character — he’ll do very well here.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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