Lessons From War With Gen. Odierno Part 1

General Odierno

General Odierno

This is another installment in our Lessons from War project, in which Jan C. Scruggs interviews prominent Americans about their experiences concerning the Vietnam War and veterans. Today we present the first half of our interview with Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno. 

Gen. Odierno became the 38th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army on Sept. 7, 2011. Gen. Odierno attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1976 with a commission in Field Artillery. From October 2001 to June 2004, Gen. Odierno commanded the 4th Infantry Division, leading the division during Operation Iraqi Freedom from April 2003 to March 2004. From December 2006 to February 2008, he served as the Commanding General, Multi-National Corps – Iraq (III Corps) as the operational commander of the surge of forces.  Later, he served as the Commanding General, Multi- National Force – Iraq and subsequently United States Forces – Iraq, from September 2008 until September 2010. Most recently he commanded United States Joint Forces Command. 

 What impact did the Vietnam War have on our military? 

When I entered West Point in 1972, the Vietnam War was still going on and the popularity of the military and military service was not as it is today.  By the time I was commissioned from the United States Military Academy in 1976, the United States had been in a heightened state of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union for several decades.  With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, military priorities diminished as the country struggled to overcome a period of economic decline.

After Vietnam, the Army struggled with the paradox between its tactical and operational successes in contrast to the strategic results of the campaign.  We well understood the incredible courage and bravery displayed by our soldiers in battle and yet we could not reconcile this with the poor treatment they received from the nation upon their return.

Jan Scruggs and General Odierno

Jan Scruggs and General Odierno

Anti-war and anti-military public sentiment was a reality.  Disciplinary issues, substance abuse, and low morale permeated our ranks and threatened the profession of arms.  We moved from a draft Army to an all-volunteer Army, however, diminutive public support made this an extremely difficult endeavor.  Every facet of the military had been questioned for many years, especially the role of the Army.

The world continued to change during this time and the Army had to change with it.  We fielded the big five weapon programs: M1 Abrams Tank, M2 Bradley Vehicle, AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopter, Patriot Air Defense System and the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS).  We developed the new AirLand Battle doctrine and reinvigorated our collective training by standing up the combat training centers.  All of this progress was lead by our leaders from Vietnam. It was their experience and leadership that enabled us to build an Army that is now recognized as the best in the world.

Which veterans of Vietnam have impacted you as a military leader?

Retired General Colin L. Powell: He served two tours in Vietnam and is the recipient of the Purple Heart; he is the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and 65th Secretary of State.

Retired General Jack Keane: He served two tours in Vietnam; he served as the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army; he helped to develop the surge strategy for Iraq.

Retired General Eric K. Shinseki: He served two tours in Vietnam and he received two Purple Hearts. After he was severely injured from a land mine, he fought to remain on active duty.  He later became the 34th Chief of Staff of the Army and today serves as the 7th Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Gen. Odierno West Point, 1976. Via West Point Public Affairs.

Gen. Odierno West Point, 1976. Via West Point Public Affairs.

Retired General Fred Franks: He is a highly decorated combat Veteran and recipient of two Purple Hearts who fought to remain in the combat arms after losing his leg during the Vietnam War. He later became the Commander of the Training and Doctrine Command.

Retired Colonel Jack Jacobs: He is a recipient of the Medal of Honor during his first of two tours in Vietnam.  From 1973-1976, Jack taught international relations at the United States Military Academy.  As my instructor and a highly decorated combat Veteran, he had a tremendous, positive impact on me as a cadet thinking about my future in the U.S. Army.

What do you try to do to keep the spirits high for our troops in the combat zone?

First, commanders keep the spirit and morale of the troops high by communicating with our soldiers. Every day, we reinforce with them the importance of the mission they are undertaking and give them continuous feedback about their contributions and the success of the mission. Soldiers perform well when they understand how their mission is integrated within the big picture and that the success of their mission is linked to our greater operational and strategic success.

Second, we build troop morale by establishing the conditions within the theater that enable our soldiers to accomplish that mission. We create an environment in which they can excel and in which their squad, their platoon and their company can excel.  We ensure that units have the right equipment, the right training, and the right capabilities so that they have confidence in what they have to do.  By preparing soldiers for the mission, we build trust in our leaders and trust within our units.


Read Part 2 of the interview here.