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Myers Looks Back on Tumultuous Years as Chairman

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 28, 2005 – Balad, Iraq, in July 2003 was a hot, dusty outpost for the American Army. In the morning, the outpost had received a "nuisance" mortar attack, but that didn't stop planning for the arrival of the highest-ranking military officer in the U.S. military.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addresses the U.S. Air Force Academy's 12th Annual National Character and Leadership Symposium on Feb. 24. Myers retires Sept. 30, concluding a military career that spanned more than 40 years. Photo by Danny Meyers

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers choppered into the outpost with a small staff. A brigade combat team was headquartered in a small group of abandoned buildings.

Myers received briefings from the leaders and then met the troops. The soldiers looked as hot and dusty as the place, but they listened as Myers praised them for their service in the fighting north of Baghdad and for the unexpected jobs they were doing then -patrolling some areas in full battle rattle and shifting to a peacekeeping role in others. "I just wish I was staying here longer so I could go on patrols with you," Myers told the soldiers.

After that statement, one soldier turned to another and said, "I think he means that." The other soldier nodded and said, "I think he would."

And he would have, too. "There is not a member of the Joint Chiefs that doesn't know who is doing the heavy lifting in this war against violent extremists," Myers said during an interview with American Forces Press Service. "And it isn't the four-stars sitting around a table in the Pentagon."

Reared in Kansas City, Kan., in a family with no military tradition, the future pilot was actually afraid of planes after seeing a B-24 bomber crash near his house in 1944.

Myers entered Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., and studied engineering. He also was in the ROTC program. "Vietnam was heating up, and I had no problem with serving." he said. "I just wanted to have some control over how I did it." He was commissioned in 1965 and learned to fly F-4 Phantom IIs.

His first duty assignment was at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, but he soon found himself flying over Vietnam. "I really planned on spending five years in the Air Force and then getting out," he said. "My father had a business in Kansas City, and that track was always the most likely course for me."

But the flying he did, the challenges posed to him and the people he met in the military kept him in the service. "It was fun. Well, I wouldn't call Vietnam fun, but it was exhilarating," he said. "I was serving my country, and I was with a great group of folks." Myers has more than 4,100 hours in the cockpit, including 600 combat hours in the F-4. He has also flown the T-33, C-37, C-21, F-15 and F-16.

"The Air Force kept promoting me and sending me to schools, and I enjoyed the life." The sense of fulfillment he got from doing the missions entrusted to him also became a great motivator. "There aren't many jobs where you get up at 4 or 5 in the morning and look forward to going to work," Myers said.

He said he still feels that sense of fulfillment as chairman.

Myers said the events of Sept. 11, 2001, are "burned indelibly" in his mind. President Bush had nominated Myers - then the vice chairman - to replace Army Gen. Henry Shelton as the chairman. Shelton was in the air on his way to NATO meetings in Europe. Myers was discussing his confirmation process with Georgia Senator Max Cleland when the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York. When the second plane hit and it became obvious that America was under attack, Myers rushed back to the Pentagon.

On his way back to the building, he received word that the Pentagon had been attacked. He went into the smoke-filled building and manned the National Military Command Center with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Military personnel responded, putting combat air patrols in place and getting troops to help civilian authorities. And they began to take the fight to the enemy.

Myers took office in October 2001. Going after al Qaeda and groups advocating violent extremism was the most important job.

The general said there isn't one incident that he is proudest of. Rather, it is the way American servicemembers have shouldered the burden of the global struggle against violent extremists. He said it doesn't matter if they are recruits who have just learned their jobs or older servicemembers facing mandatory retirement, "they all put on their packs and marched off to do the country's business," he said, "just as Americans have always done."

American forces worked with indigenous people in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and strike at the heart of the al Qaeda safe haven in that country. A few thousand Americans did what 300,000 Soviet troops could not do in a decade. And now 25 million Afghans are working toward a democratic future.

American servicemembers in Iraq have done the same, he said. The full combat portion lasted about a month and a half, and the coalition deposed Saddam Hussein and stopped a regime that by conservative estimates murdered up to 500,000 of its own people. Since then, American servicemembers have helped train Iraqi security forces, helped capture and kill insurgents and helped regular Iraqis adapt to a new, free environment. "The troops have done amazing things since," Myers said. "If they have to help set up a town council, they do it."

American servicemembers help dig wells, fix irrigation canals, provide medical and dental care and help city and town councils hold meetings. And always, they search for those who want the return of the regime or want Osama bin Laden's nightmare of a future.

In his speeches, Myers often talks about American servicemembers bringing their skills, their knowledge, and - most importantly - their values to the battlefield. He tells of an Army captain who had to set up a polling place in Mosul for the first free elections in that city. The captain was an infantryman, but he knew just from being an American how to conduct an election.

Other American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have put down weapons and helped to make life better for Afghans and Iraqis. They chip in to help repair schools and medical facilities. They donate books and school supplies. Just by being there, they demonstrate that a multicultural society not only works, but also prospers, Myers said.

At the same time that the American military is confronting the threats of violent extremism, the military is working to transform itself. Myers said the pressure of combat has focused the efforts of those in the department to address the needs of the new security environment. "We came out of the last century with a Cold War force," Myers said. "Heck, even our thinking was stuck in the era and stagnant. Sept. 11 focused the military on the new types of threats."

Myers said the attacks showed the need for the American military to adapt to any security problem that comes its way - including those that no one has thought of yet. At the same time, there is still the need to preserve capabilities the military already has. The military has to develop capabilities that span the spectrum of conflict - from peace enforcement to full-scale combat. It must become more "joint," more flexible and more agile, he said.

Myers said recent operations have shown progress in the move toward jointness. In the past, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine units usually simply "deconflicted" the battlefield. Marines would be in charge of one sector, soldiers another, and they wouldn't mix or get in each other's way. The Persian Gulf War - with the Marines on the right flank and the Army making the left hook - was an example of that thinking.

But now, units of all the services rely on each other, Myers said. There are many instances in Afghanistan and Iraq where Army and Marine Corps units are intermingled at the company level, he said. "They cannot do the mission without the support of the other," he said. "And it has been very effective."

Myers said he does not believe there will be such a thing as the "U.S. Joint Service" in place of the four armed services. "The traditions and heritage of the various services are important," he said. "The differences help breed competition in ideas, and that is healthy and good."

But fielding the best joint force in the world isn't enough, he said. All instruments of national power must be devoted to stopping violent extremists. "We have to find better ways of working together within government," Myers said.

He said Treasury Department personnel or people in the Department of Agriculture may be just as important as military action in stopping terrorists. "Education is the way to go," he said. "The National Defense University has increased the number of personnel from other agencies that attend. But I think we may need a university dedicated to the interagency process."

The biggest shortfall in the military is in "getting inside the enemy's decision cycle," Myers said, and that means a need for better intelligence. "Ten years ago, we gutted our human intelligence capability, (emphasizing) technical means," he said.

But terrorist cells don't work in a way that satellites or phone intercepts can necessarily help. "We've committed to increasing our human intelligence capabilities," Myers said. "But it will take some time before that will pay off." He said the United States "is not where it needs to be" as far as being ahead of the violent extremists, but it is working to close the gap.

The struggle against violent extremists also highlights the need to work with other nations, and as chairman, Myers is involved in maintaining these coalitions. "It's not just us against the enemy," he said. "We can't succeed in this alone. Friends have to cooperate with us for all of us to defeat the threat of violent extremism."

It is a complex world. While terrorist organizations look for safe havens to plan and train, there are terror cells in friendly countries. There are also "ungoverned areas" in friendly nations that may draw violent extremists. Combating violent extremist threats in these regions require a different way of working. "Helping other nations build security forces - both military and police - is an important weapon," Myers said. "The example that the U.S. military sets - being under civilian control, answering to the rule of law - also helps emerging democracies as they move ahead."

Much of the chairman's time is spent maintaining and deepening these so-called military-to-military contacts. "My first taste of this was when I was a young lieutenant and they sent me from Ramstein to Denmark as part of an exchange program with the Royal Danish Air Force," he said. "It was an eye-opener. (It) showed me a different way of looking at problems. It's something I've never forgotten."

As chairman, many of his trips abroad concentrate on military-to-military contacts. "The shared experience of being in the military allows us to speak to each other not encumbered by politics," Myers said. "Soldiers can relate to soldiers from another country just purely on military topics."

These contacts are valuable in allowing the military personnel from different countries to work together when they need to. The chairman said automatically breaking off military-to-military contacts is often not the best way to signal to other countries U.S. displeasure. "We have lost the opportunity to speak with a whole generation of Indonesian officers," Myers said. "We were able to adapt when the tsunami struck the country, but it was more difficult.

"We're a sophisticated country," the chairman continued. "We ought to be able to find a more sophisticated way to deal with other countries."

Myers served almost two years as vice chairman before becoming chairman. He's maintained a grueling schedule of meetings, discussions and trips for six years, but he's quick to point out that being with the troops "recharges" him.

"You can't help but be energized when you see our young servicemembers responding - often in the most challenging conditions," he said. "They 'get it.' They know what they are doing is important to the country and the world. You can't help but be recharged."

And Myers has taken every opportunity to meet with the young men and women serving in the military. He has spoken with airmen maintaining aircraft in 140-degree temperatures in the Persian Gulf. He met with young soldiers in Mosul, Iraq, to learn about their experiences in the region. Young Marines have briefed him during visits to Afghanistan, and he has spoken with sailors aboard any number of ships and ashore.

He has also visited the men and women undergoing treatment at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. "They and their families are making the sacrifices for all of us," Myers said.

Contact Author

Gen. Richard B. Myers, USAF

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