Obama Taps Army General To Lead Joint Chiefs

May 30, 2011
Originally published on June 10, 2011 2:56 pm

President Barack Obama Monday nominated Army General Martin Dempsey to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Navy Admiral James Winnefeld to be Vice Chairman.

Dempsey, who is known as a thinker and a combat commander, has done tours in Saudi Arabia training the National Guard and in Baghdad at a time when the insurgency was gaining steam. He later led the effort to train the Iraqi military. More recently he served as Acting Commander of U.S. Central Command — the military position that oversees combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

In making his announcement - President Obama highlighted this experience.

"For the first time, the Chairman and Vice Chairman will have the experience of leading combat operations in the years since 9/11," Obama said.

Dempsey is currently chief of staff of the Army, a job he's held for less than two months. In 2003 and 2004, he led the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad during a very difficult time. Retired Army Colonel Mark Olinger was General Dempsey's assistant chief of logistics in Baghdad.

"Imagine a city whose entire government processes are just eliminated," Olinger says. "There's no local law enforcement. There's no government at any level to speak of, and the citizens can do what they want at will."

And the insurgency was gaining strength. Many Iraqi citizens were supporting it. Olinger says Dempsey understood the dynamics.

"He viewed it that we had to build trust and confidence with those Iraqis who were emerging to try to assume leadership roles and also with the Iraqi citizens in general," Olinger says.

Retired General Jack Keane says Dempsey's experience sends the right kind of signal to a military force that's fighting now and will continue to fight for some time to come.

"He was one of our most effective division commanders we had in Iraq during that entire time frame," he says. "If we're going to have a chairman of the joint chiefs of staff during a time when we have been at war in the longest time in the nation's history, we just must have a general officer who participated in that war."

But in Dempsey, the president gets much more than a battlefield tactician. Dempsey can sing — and he's not afraid to show it off in the name of boosting morale. There's a video on YouTube of him singing a Frank Sinatra song at Fort Monroe, Va.

The showman in him gets at something else about General Dempsey: he knows how to talk to his troops — he's a skilled communicator.

Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, the commander of U.S. Army Forces in Europe has known Dempsey for nearly two decades and says the general is just good with people whether they be kings and princes or regular folks. Hertling tells the story of when some of Dempsey's soldiers were headed home from Iraq, and he had to call them back to send them into battle. Dempsey sent Hertling to personally tell their families.

"When you're sending people home and then suddenly you're asked to stay a little longer and say, 'Not so fast.' When you're dealing with individual soldiers, that's a tough thing to turn around, and I think General Dempsey did that admirably in Iraq," Hertling says.

Here in Washington, if confirmed, Dempsey will have a different audience: the President and his national security team. And there will be plenty to discuss, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and new pressure to cut military spending in the coming years.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This Memorial Day, President Obama announced his choice to be the country's next top military advisor. He nominated Army General Martin Dempsey to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BARACK OBAMA: With nearly 40 years in uniform, Martin Dempsey is one of our nation's most respected and combat-tested generals.

BLOCK: NPR's Tamara Keith has our report.

TAMARA KEITH: In making his announcement, President Obama highlighted this experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: For the first time, the chairman and vice chairman will have the experience of leading combat operations in the years since 9/11.

KEITH: General Dempsey is currently chief of staff of the Army, a job he's held for less than two months. In 2003 and 2004, he led the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad at a very difficult time. Retired Army Colonel Mark Olinger was one of General Dempsey's assistants in Baghdad.

MARK OLINGER: Imagine a city whose entire government processes are just eliminated. There's no government at any level to speak of and the citizens can do what they want at will.

KEITH: And the insurgency was gaining strength. General Dempsey understood the need to win over the people and build trust and confidence with the Iraqis.

JACK KEANE: He was one of our most effective division commanders we had in Iraq throughout that entire time frame.

KEITH: That's retired General Jack Keane. Keane says Dempsey's experience sends the right signal to a military force that's still in the fight.

KEANE: If we're going to have a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during a time when we have been at war in the longest time in the nation's history, we just must have a general officer who participated in that war.

KEITH: But in General Dempsey, the president gets a little something extra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN DEMPSEY: So, this is a song by Frank Sinatra. Some of you have heard of him.

KEITH: That's General Dempsey behind the mic. The general can sing - and he's not afraid to use his voice to boost morale.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMPSEY: (Singing) And find I'm king of the hill, a-number-one, top of the heap, king of the hill...

KEITH: The showman in him gets at something else about General Dempsey. He knows how to talk to his troops. His friend, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, served as his deputy in Iraq and he tells this story: Some of Dempsey's soldiers were headed home, when he had to call them back and send them into battle. Dempsey sent Hertling to personally tell their families.

MARK HERTLING: When you're sending people home and then suddenly you're asked to stay a little bit longer and say, hey, not so fast, when you're dealing with individual soldiers, that's a tough thing to turn around. And I think General Dempsey did that admirably in Iraq.

KEITH: Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.