Iraq War General Lloyd Austin

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Iraq War General Lloyd Austin

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Iraq War General Lloyd Austin

  1. 1. f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 1 / e b o n y. c o m 129 With Iraq war heroics, Lloyd Austin has secured his place as one of America’s greatest generalsB y K e v i n C h a p p e l l p h o t o g r a p h s b y d u d l e y m . b r o o k s Four-Star General Lloyd Austin, during the last days of the Iraq war, opens up about this three tours of duty: leading troops into Baghdad during the first days, making the one key decision during the troop surge and commanding all military operations during the drawdown. battle tested ebony exclusive
  2. 2. y now, if all goes as planned, Iraq should be a sovereignnation.✪ Bynow,ifallgoesasplanned, U.S.combattroopsshouldbeoutofthecountry, andIraq’snewconsensusgovernmentshouldbe well on its way to building an economic, if not political,powerhouseinthe Middle East. ✪ And by now, if all goes as planned, U.S. Command- ing General Lloyd J. Austin III, 58, should be in Washington, D.C., preparing to take over as vice chief of staff of theArmy afterPresidentObama nominated him to become second in command ofthemilitary’slargestbranch.✪ Atleast,those aretheplans.Butas AustinsurveystheBaghdad countrysideaboardaBlack Hawkhelicopterjust weeks prior to officially ending the nearly eight- year war, the four-star general in charge of all militaryoperationsinIraqknowsonethingbetter than most: A well-thought-out plan can be your best friend, but learning to make the best of a bunchofbadrelativesmaybeyourbeststrategy. Austin’s three tours of duty in Iraq since 2003 have been full of comparatives akin to fresh pockmarks along a convoy’s southern entry route into Kuwait. Years of constant workarounds, more-or- lesses, give-and-takes, and “Iraqi good-enoughs” have produced scars, stars and lessons that he will carry with him well after he leaves the Middle East. Relatively speaking, al-Qaeda, which created so much havoc dur- ing much of the war, has been somewhat dismantled and is expect- ed to attempt to regroup. The Iraqi government is relatively stable, its military relatively prepared; however, Iran is next door trying to shake up its young democracy. And Austin is more or less convinced that the chance of a roadside bomb has been significantly reduced, relative to this time last year. But he knows that a well-disguised one could not only upset the military’s road home, but also reignite an insurgency that has suffered a good old-fashioned beat down under his command. EBONY traveled to the combat zone during the last days of the Iraq war to embed with a reflective and humble Austin. As con- voys roll out and tons and tons of equipment are shipped, it soon becomes obvious that the general hasn’t even begun to mentally check out. “This is not a permissive environment. There are people out there still trying to hurt us,” he says, his deep baritone voice competing with the roar of the helicopter. “We’re still trying to work our way out of a job.” 130 e b o n y. c o m / f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 2 f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 2 / e b o n y. c o m 131 B Gen. Austin awards medals to troops for extraordinary service in war.
  3. 3. Austin is the ultimate war gamer, even in the last days of conflict, which is perhaps fitting because it is very likely that future stu- dents of war will study his masterful battle strategies for decades to come. Make no mistake, as the war effort draws to a close in Iraq, it is already being sliced and diced in Washington, with everyone from Pentagon officials to White House advisors to Capitol Hill politi- cians glad-handing as much credit as possible for its success. But here on the ground, with those in the know, Austin is considered to be the one man who played the most instrumental role in America not only winning the war, but also securing the peace. “General Austin is one of the most distinguished American military com- manders of his generation,” says U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, emphatically adding that during the Iraq War, “Nobody has done more, or sacrificed more, in defending this country.” very eye was fixed on me’ OIF 1. Say that you were a part of it, and you get mad props in military circles. When it comes to combat missions, it doesn’t get more courageous than Opera- tion Iraqi Freedom 1—the name given to the first wave of troops to cross into Iraq during the start of the war in 2003. These were the warriors who took the fight to Saddam Hus- sein’s Fedayeen, an elite fighting force—40,000 strong—that put up strong, sometimes suicidal, resistance. Austin was there, on the front line, maneuvering the 3rd Infantry Division from Kuwait into Iraq’s capital city. “I was the guy calling the shots when we captured Baghdad,” Austin, who was a one-star general at the time, says. “I was commanding and controlling all of the brigades that were in the fight, and I was actually at the front end of the column coming in.” It’s early morning at the massive U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad. As he eats his pancake-and-bacon breakfast in the caf- eteria, Austin talks about how he studied Desert Storm—what went right and what went wrong—to decide how to best attack the Iraqi military. Unlike many commanders who kept a relatively safe dis- tance from the actual fighting, Austin came to the realization that he needed to be thisclose to the action. “In order to command a fight, I had to see the battlefield,” he says. “I studied what happened [in Desert Storm]. [There,] the fight moved so fast that it outran the ability of the command post to keep up. It was very easy for the command post to be irrelevant because of the fast pace. So one of my goals was to develop a command post that was mobile enough to be relevant to the fight and to be in the fight; to be far enough up front so I could see the battlefield [and] what was going on.” While his plan put him physically in the middle of a fierce tank battle—in his makeshift mobile station as dust storms kicked up— it also put him mentally in the middle of a moment for which no amount of study could have prepared him. “I can remember be- ing in this room full of people … looking up, and every eye in that command post was on me as a leader,” he says. “Every eye was fixed on me.” These were not the eyes of grizzled war veterans. These were the eyes of kids—some, baby-faced teenagers—who had put their lives in his hands. “These kids didn’t know whether we were going to make it through this fight, whether we were going to live or die,” he says. “Artillery rounds zoomed back and forth overhead. They were seeing stuff blow up around them.” Barely 30, Master Sgt. Demetrius Johnson was there, one of the young enlisted soldiers with the fixed eyes. “There were units run- ning low on ammo, visibility was low, the enemy was closing in,” says Johnson, Austin’s driver back then who has been with him ever since. “You could hear a lot of the uncertainty in the voices of the commanders on the radio.” If ever the scene was set for Austin to make his best kick-ass speech, this was it. A little banging on the table and lots of profane language from the 6-foot-4-inch, 250-plus pound man—who admits that his sheer size “can be intimidating at times”—would surely whip his soldiers into a fighting frenzy. Instead, Johnson says, Austin calmly took to “the radio and gave guidance that turned the tide. Everyone knew he was in control. He knew what was going on, and he knew how to take care of the situation,” Johnson says. “When you heard him … you got a sense of calm and peace, and you knew that you would be OK, just by his voice and how he talked to soldiers.” trusted leader That day, Austin says, he learned “the enor- mous responsibility” of leadership. That day, Johnson says, Austin became more than a leader. “I trusted him. Everyone he comes in contact with trusts him.” To this day, Austin believes that being on the front line with his troops spoke louder than any orders he could have barked out. “Leadership is a fascinating thing,” Austin says, looking up from his plate, his mind seemingly churning at the thought of what all had to go right that day for him to even be sitting here now. “If you look at what the average American envi- sions the general to be, the commander to be, there’s this [Gen. George S.] Patton image. There’s this guy who is loud and forceful, the finger-in-the-chest kind of guy. That works well in the movies, but it won’t make a guy get up and charge a machine gun for you.” Austin prides himself on embodying more character than cari- cature. “I want people to understand that I’m not going to break [them] in half when I talk to [them],” Austin says. “I’m going to listen to [them]. I take the time to reach out to people and put them at ease.” In fact, Austin has been such a calming influence on the battle- field that it’s sometimes easy to overlook the mastery of his meth- ods. He rarely raises his voice or seeks publicity. In fact, those within Austin’s immediate circle have encouraged him to toot his own horn more. But for a man who says his “goals in life are simple: to be loved by my family, respected by my peers and feared by my enemies,” seeking publicity and praise are not on the top of his to-do list. “I talk enough to the media,” he says, shrugging off the clear distinction some have made between him and his more media- savvy predecessors, Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno. “I’m not what you would consider a celebrity general. I’m a war- fighting general.” “He’s not the limelight guy. That’s not what he does,” says Gen. Arthur Bartell, who has worked for Austin all three times in Iraq. “But he’s larger than life. He walks into a room, and he fills the room … he’s one of those leaders who people need to know about.” It’s clear that Austin believes preparation, not adulation, is what makes a general great. “If you’re not careful, you can begin to be- lieve in your own press clippings,” he says. “You can become a toxic leader. It can become all about you, not about your people and not about the mission.” Austin prefers to spend more time sitting in strategy sessions than in front of cameras. His study habits are legendary. He rou- tinely pores over everything from historical analyses of insurgency levels to daily attack trends. According to Austin, “You have to un- derstand the war-fighting business.” In his mind, he says, a bat- tlefield is a three-dimensional image with constantly interacting moving parts. “In my business, if I don’t understand it, if I don’t endeavor to be the best, it will cost lives at some point.” e turned this thing around’ Austin credits much of his work ethic to lessons he learned as a child growing up in Thomasville, Ga. His mother’s boy through and through, Austin made it a point to talk to her every week, even while in combat. “She had the unique ability to give you good advice, even if she didn’t know the specif- ics of the circumstances,” he says, “about dealing with people, doing the right thing when no one is watching. She kind of drilled it into me as I was coming up.” It was his work ethic and deep military knowledge that proved invaluable when he returned to Iraq for his second tour in 2008. At the time a three-star general, he was faced with the biggest chal- lenge of his military career: to advance the faltering war following the troop “surge.” While others were back home taking credit for the decision to bring in an additional 20,000 troops, which was successful in quell- ing the level of violence, it was Austin who was sent into Iraq to maintain control after the surge troops had left. “He didn’t have the luxury of the surge because it had ended,” one military official told EBONY. “And there were folks who were here and trying to get 132 e b o n y. c o m / f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 2 f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 2 / e b o n y. c o m 133 (Far left) Austin receives a briefing on drawdown plans, which include moving troops and equipment out of a still-hostile environ- ment. A signpost on the Navy base in the southern port city of Umm Qasr (left) where Rear Adm. Kelvin Dixon (above, right) is one of the top officers working to train the Iraqi Navy on use of its new Ameri- can-built boats to patrol the coastline and valuable oil platforms. “I talk enough to the media. I’m not what you would consider a celebrity general. i’m a war-fighting general.” 3 E‘ A H‘
  4. 4. the hell out because they didn’t want this thing to go bad and get blamed for it.” And it was going bad—fast—especially down south. “Basra [in southern Iraq] had gotten out of control,” another mili- tary official says. “Insurgents had taken it over pretty much, and they had really ramped up the attacks against us and the green zone,” which, until then, had been relatively attack-free. Operating out of Saddam’s infamous Al Faw palace, Austin was technically the second-highest-ranking commander in Iraq (behind Petraeus). But for all tactical purposes, Austin was in charge, directing the operations of more than 150,000 troops. And Sgt. Maj. Joseph Allen had his back. Allen recalls the day when Austin received word that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had gone rogue, decid- ing on his own to use the Iraqi military to go after the Shia militia in the south in an attempt to take control of Basra. Al-Maliki touted it as the “Charge of the Knights,” the first solo military action that the Iraqis had taken without U.S. assistance. Sounded good. But by all accounts, it was going terribly wrong. “He did it without really planning for it,” Allen says. “They were getting beaten up pretty bad down there.” The Shia militia was advancing, taking control of more and more of the city. Austin knew that “If we didn’t take care of business in Basra, we would probably lose the war,” says Allen, who went with Austin to Basra in the midst of the fight to personally meet with al-Maliki. It didn’t take long for the general to make the bold decision to help. It would be the first time Iraqi and American sol- diers would fight side-by-side in combat. Austin quickly brought in technical aviation and put in a tactical command post. “He started moving elements close to the border,” Allen says. “We had to shore that up. We put some eyes on them so we could see what was happen- ing. That hadn’t been done before. In a matter of weeks, he turned this thing around.” “The Shia militia never gained strength from then on,” one mili- tary official says. “That operation is what gave al-Maliki the politi- cal clout to win provincial elections the next year, then go into the national elections. That was really a pretty decisive operation, not just for us, but for the government of Iraq.” “Itwastherealturningpoint,”anotherofficialsays.“Therearealot of people out there who are taking credit for what Austin has done.” Today, the violence level is at its lowest point—from 200 attacks per week during the height of the insurgency to about seven at- tacks per week now. “We have a good working relationship with Iraq because of [the general],” Allen says. “[Al-]Maliki has publically given General Austin credit for taking back Basra, and he trusts [him]. The door is open to him. He can go wherever he wants to go.” In the most complex environment in which the United States has ever waged war, it has been those types of bold actions and the care that he exhibits for his soldiers that make Allen and others line up to work under Austin. “My job is to cover his 6 [back], but I cover his 3 [side], 6 and 9 [other side],” Allen says. “My life doesn’t mean a whole lot to me when it comes to General Austin. I love the guy to death, like a fat boy loves cake.” he Odd Couple In the end, perhaps no one else had the experience—or the respect—needed to re- build Iraq, literally from the ground up. During the past year, Austin has returned for his third tour of duty. This time, he’s in charge as a four-star general, taking over command from Odierno, who is now Army chief of staff. Many of those teenagers he took into battle with him in 2003 are still with him in some capacity. He chuckles when talking about some of the tactical and strategic briefings he now gets from them. “I have 36 years of doing this,” says Austin, who is the first African-American to command a division and corps in combat. “Your youngsters wind up briefing you on things—they don’t know this—that you invented.” The current “reposturing effort” has taken Austin into new territory, from the battlefield to the negotiating table. In the process, he has had to work closely with Ambassador Jeffrey and his diplomatic staff. “We have worked hard to build a team,” the general says. “We have these two ele- 134 e b o n y. c o m / f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 2 f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 2 / e b o n y. c o m 135 Austin shares a light moment with Sgt. Maj. Joseph Allen dur- ing a briefing (above) before going to board a Black Hawk helicopter (right) en route to his headquarters at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. “There are a lot of people out there who are taking credit for what austin has done.” [Continued on page 156] ‘The Heartbeat ofthe Community’Mr. Lee brings home cooking to war zone It’s hard to spend any time at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad without meeting Mr. Lee. That’s what everyone calls Floyd Lee, the head of food service. Known for his colorful ties and positive disposition, the Hampton, Va., native has brought a little bit of the American South to Baghdad. Because of Lee, soldiers and embassy staff enjoy everything from collard greens to smothered pork chops. And on Fridays, he serves up Louisiana gumbo, étouffée and blackened catfish. Not an easy task, considering the fact that most of Mr. Lee’s cooks are from India and Sri Lanka. “They didn’t know how to cook the Southern-style foods, so I had to get in the kitchen and show them exactly how to [do it],” says Lee, a retired veteran who has been in Iraq for eight years. “I believe that I will be traveling to India when I retire, and I will see a gumbo stand there, and it will be one of my guys offering Louisiana gumbo with a side order of greens.” Lee says it’s his goal to make the cafeteria “the heartbeat of the community” and “the birthplace of morale.” During war, he says, the cafeteria provides an escape to “[people] coming in after they have had a rough day, a rough convoy. It’s a place of fellowship; a place to have a good nutritious meal and unwind. It starts here at the dining facility.”—KC T
  5. 5. 156 e b o n y. c o m / f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 1 ments, the embassy, which comes from the State Department, and the military, which comes from the Department of Defense. Typically, they are really different organi- zations with different DNA. So unless you do some things to bring them together to cause them to work together, the natural state of affairs is that they would go in dif- ferent directions.” This working relationship came out of what may go down as a historic meeting, one in which Austin and Jeffrey, along with their staffs, came together in 2010 to focus on ways to span the boundary between the military and embassy. To this day, they still go by the combined-vision agreement that was reached then. “There was skepticism on both sides,” Austin says. “Someone told me that you could cut the skepticism with a knife the morning we entered into the goal-setting session. We came out of that [nearly] one organization. We committed to doing things that would help our organi- zations stay focused on the common goals.” Since then, Austin and Jeffrey, who was once the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, have been inseparable. The two meet twice a week, go together to discuss issues with Iraqi officials, have worked together on Iraqi elections and to resolve internal Iraqi disputes. Austin has even moved his office to the embassy compound so that he and the ambassador can work together in the final stages of the war “because of the signal that itsends,”saysAustin,whodescribesthemil- itary-embassy effort as “a team of teams.” “We have developed total trust in each other,” says Jeffrey, comparing their rela- tionship to the military-diplomatic efforts in Bosnia before and after the Dayton Ac- cords. With one very important distinction: “In a situation like this, something can go wrong at any moment,” Jeffrey says. “We are not a normal mission. We are not even a normal big mission. We are a mission that has to operate in a still very dangerous envi- ronment where we are being targeted, or I would even prefer the term hunted.” Politics of Peace In addition to the warriors on Austin’s team, there are African-Americans on the diplomatic side who will be there well after the troops have gone. There are those like Rebekah Dramé, who organizes cultural and educational programs at the embassy in an attempt to better relations between Iraq and the United States, and lessen anti- American sentiment. Then there are those like Michael Jordan, an economic advisor withUSAIDwholeadsateamofeconomists in an assessment of the Iraqi economy that will help guide future U.S. policy. And Oni Blair, a foreign-service officer with the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. She oversees more than $150 million in humanitarian assistance to Iraqi refugees and displaced families. And George Murray, a former chief of the Chi- cago Housing Authority Police Department who now is the liaison between the U.S. Em- bassy and the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and works hands-on in the rebuilding of the Iraqi police force. If all goes right diplomatically, Iraq will take off. Strange to say about a country that is mostly desert and wasteland. Al- though Iraq’s GDP was flat in 2010, the country has the second-most oil reserves in the world. The potential to become a very wealthy nation very quickly is very real. “Iraq could become the next Dubai,” says Rear Adm. Kelvin Dixon, one of the top Navy officers in Iraq. Dixon, who helps train the Iraqi Navy in the south- ern port city of Umm Qasr, can be rou- tinely seen riding on one of the Louisi- ana-built swift boats that now makes up the fleet that serves as the cornerstone of the Iraqi Navy. These boats will have the critical responsibility of protecting the coastline and the two valuable oil plat- forms that produce some 90 percent of the country’s wealth. During the final sit-down with Austin, this time in his office, he peers out his win- dow and reflects on a country he has helped to define and that has helped to define him. His mother died last year while he was here, but he can still hear her voice. His children have matured during the last eight years, as has his wife’s honey-do list. Meanwhile, Austin says he can only hope for the best for Iraq. In five to 10 years, he envisions a country where the more-or-lesses and give- and-takes give way to “a bustling economy where people are free to move about and enjoy life,” he says. “I would like to see a prosperous Iraq … and Iraqi leaders who are prominent in the region.” Which, relatively speaking, is a lot better than anyone anywhere—except perhaps the general—had thought was possible when he took Baghdad with his young troops. General Lloyd Austin Cont. from page 135 Men of Abuse Continued from page 155 beria nis sequam, cus ipsus, ilibusIdunt doles moluptatiat landandae ma cum, ommo et quia evenes audignates est, tet venis aliqui cus aut magnatia ventem quisti asit, odita simusame voles et, simaio. Sant erspel moluptaqui rem. 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