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Our Man in Iraq

"We're helping the Iraqis build a new Iraq. It's refreshing to see the spirit of a newly freed people who want something better for their future," says Army Gen. George Casey. U.S. Army photo

At nine o’clock on the morning of July 7, 1970, two U.S. military helicopters embarked from Phuoc Vinh, Vietnam, en route to Cam Ranh Bay to visit soldiers who had been wounded in action. They sailed over dense clouds and through valleys surrounded by deep ridges. This was not a combat mission, but a flight of compassion.

But blood begets blood in wartime, and on July 9, the wreckage of one of the helicopters was discovered on a hillside. The seven men inside — Maj. Gen. George Casey and six members of his staff — were dead. War is hell, they say, and from an intended mission of mercy, seven families received the news they had hoped to only hear in nightmares.

When his father was killed, George Casey Jr. was preparing for a two-year tour of duty in Germany, to be followed by law school. That two-year stint is now in its 34th year — what the general’s wife calls “the longest two years she’s ever been subject to” — and Army Gen. George Casey Jr., commander of the multi-national forces in Iraq, believes his father’s death played a significant role in shaping his military future.

“If he’d have stayed alive, I probably would have gotten out,” says Casey, MA international studies ’80, speaking by phone from Baghdad. “I didn’t necessarily want to stay in something my father was doing. I think his death had a kind of opposite effect.”

A soldier’s destiny

Today, Casey’s military service feels like destiny. The general commands 130,000 soldiers from 34 countries, all charged with helping establish democracy and stability in a country deprived of them for a generation.

One might expect a four-star general leading a mission of historic importance to exude a Patton or MacArthur-like presence, with a storming baritone perking soldiers’ spines to attention. But over the phone, at least, Casey subdues rather than steamrolls. His voice is a steady, relaxed, middle- American lilt. DU Graduate School of International Studies Assoc. Prof. Arthur Gilbert, who taught the general back when he was still a captain, recalls Casey as a quiet student who “wasn’t the kind of person who made an impression because of the power of his personality.”

Casey’s wife, Sheila, meanwhile, says that when they met in college, she was attracted to his child-like sense of humor, his quick-witted, conversational way with people and his ability to be the butt of the joke as well as the joker.

It’s less surprising, then, that he didn’t plan on a military career. Casey was a self-described Army brat. He was born in Japan, where his father was stationed with occupation forces in the late 1940s, and grew up throughout the United States and Europe. He has fond memories of his father, whom he describes as “kind and loving” even though he was gone much of the time.

“He was off to Korea when we were young,” Casey recalls. “From the time I was 6 until 13 or 14, he was basically in staff jobs. So we were together a lot in Virginia, but he was starting his third tour in Vietnam when he was killed.

“One of the great regrets of my life is that I never really got to know my father as a man.”

George Sr. never pressured his son to follow in his footsteps, although he did nudge him a bit. The junior Casey applied to West Point to satisfy his father’s wishes, but really wanted to enroll at Georgetown, and did so as soon as he was accepted. He enlisted in the Army for a two-year stint after graduating from ROTC, and once ensconced in the military, Casey embraced the life. He clearly belonged.

“You get conditioned to it,” Casey explains. “I really enjoyed it — the challenges and the people. It was already in my blood, and I just didn’t know it. Once I got in, I didn’t want to stop.”

Casey ascended through the ranks, ultimately landing at the Pentagon as the Army’s vice chief of staff. While stationed at Fort Carson in 1978, he took a detour to the University of Denver, where he focused his studies on Northeast Asia. Many of the lessons he learned during his two years at DU have assisted him at critical times.

“Shortly after I left grad school, I found myself in Cairo on a U.N. mission,” Casey says. “This was 1981, smack in the middle of the Cold War. We would spend a week at a time on the Suez Canal with one American and three Russians. The tension was so thick … The first night, I had cooking duties, and they wouldn’t take a bite of their food until I took a bite of mine. But after we got to know each other and debated the fine points of communist ideology vs. democracy (which I was well up on from my studies at DU), we got to appreciate each other as people and really broke down the barriers.”

General Casey’s studies gave him a thorough understanding of the psychology of the region, essential knowledge for a high-placed military official with a seat at the negotiating table. He later served as a military adviser to Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state during the Clinton administration, throughout the negotiations to end the war in Kosovo. Casey met with Russian generals to determine Russian participation in the conflict, and the lessons he learned at DU would “come streaming back to me at the strangest times,” he says. “It had a lot to do with what I learned about the Russian psyche and how they dealt with things — how they negotiated, and just their whole mindset.”

Although Casey was a quiet student, his DU professors had no doubt he’d go places. “He was extraordinarily well-disciplined,” Gilbert recalls. “He always did everything by the book. All of his work was characterized by discipline, by getting it done right the first time.”

Part of this discipline is ensuring that he lives a balanced life. The general is exposed to the horrors of war on a daily basis but withstands the pressures by keeping himself fit — not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.

“I have a group of things I’ve been telling my subordinates since I was a brigadier in Bosnia: In operational assignments, you have to find time every day to read, sleep, exercise and think. You have to keep your mind active and your body fit, and you have to look outside of what you’re working on day-to-day and look for fresh ideas.”

One of the things that inspires Casey most is the thought of playing with his grandchildren — he and Sheila have five from their two sons. As one might imagine, being away from his family is a trial all its own. But the Caseys agree that military separations take a harder toll on the wife.

Sheila is the chief financial officer for The Hill, a newspaper that reports on Congress. She regularly deflects reporters who sidle up to her desk hoping for inside info on the general. The couple talks by phone several times a week, and their two sons — both non-military — live nearby. Still, this separation is their longest ever, and the distance seems further with every war.

“I drove my dad to the airport with my mother when he went back to Vietnam, right before he was killed,” Casey recalls. “I remember saying to my mother on the way home, ‘You’ve done this so much that by now, it must be easier.’ And she said, ‘Actually, no, it gets harder.’ I didn’t understand what she meant until about 10 years ago. It’s a sacrifice that the wives make more than the husbands, because we’re out here engaged and doing things.”

“One of the biggest myths is that spouses in the military are used to this,” Sheila Casey explains.

“You never get used to the separation. I think they get harder as you get older. I’m lucky that I have a fulltime job and my children live relatively close. But when I look at this conflict and the number of people over there — there are probably over a million people who are feeling exactly the way I’m feeling.”

If anything distracts from the feelings of longing and sadness at being apart, it’s the sense of historic importance attached to this mission. General Casey is a pivotal player in the U.S. war in Iraq. He interacts on a regular basis with the Iraqi prime minister, but perhaps his greatest challenge is helping to illuminate the importance of his mission to the rest of the world. Viewing the war on a daily basis, Casey sees how the reality is infinitely more complex than the messages conveyed through the media. He notes, for example, that the feelings of the Iraqi people are a mixed bag.

“Someone told me that the best you can expect is that the Iraqi people will tolerate the presence of foreigners in their country,” Casey says. “If you look at the polls, 80 percent of the Iraqi people answer ‘yes’ when asked the question, ‘Do you want the multi-national forces to leave?’ But when you go back and ask them to place that in their hierarchy of needs, it’s down at the bottom. And the Shia — 60 percent of the population in the south — know that if we leave they’ll have significant problems. The Kurds are the same. So it’s really a small portion of the Sunni population that is vehemently and violently opposed to our presence. The rest run from toleration to active support.”

But even if the Iraqi people fail to appreciate the effort, Casey takes pride in the fact that the military is not just fighting, but building. “We’re helping the Iraqis build a new Iraq,” he says. “It’s refreshing to see the spirit of a newly freed people who want something better for their future. They recognize that they have the opportunity for something really new and different after 30 years of oppression, and the opportunity to give that gift to somebody makes not only myself, but also our soldiers and service members, quite proud.”

Casey never expected full Iraqi approval and is far more troubled by the incomplete coverage provided by the American media, which, he says, omit vital aspects of the story in order to increase ratings.

“Trying to tell our story to the American public in a way that sustains their support for what we’re doing over here is an important, and, I will tell you, very difficult part of my mission,” the general says. “The things that we’re doing — building schools, building hospitals, setting up electrical power distribution centers — these kinds of things aren’t as dramatic as a car bomb going off in downtown Baghdad. So, you don’t see the progress that’s made at the same time that you see the violence.”

This sensational focus distorts the overall picture of wartime life for the multi-national forces, according to the general, and fails to provide the public with a comprehensive and accurate sense of what’s being accomplished.

“The media, especially the TV media, give you visual snapshots of what’s happening,” Casey explains. “They don’t capture the overall, they don’t capture trends, and they don’t capture long-term change. What happens in these missions — and I have experience in this from Bosnia and Kosovo — is that you make progress in little steps. In the course of a week, you might not see much progress. In the course of a month, more is visible, and over the course of two months even more is visible. Then you get ready to leave, and you turn around and look backwards and you don’t recognize the place. That’s difficult to capture daily in a media snapshot.”

Considering his position, the general steers away from any statements that might appear political, but he has no trouble stating that from a personal standpoint, he has seen the war as the right thing to do from day one, and feels strongly about its value for America’s future. And right now, Gen. George Casey Jr. is playing an instrumental role in shaping that future.

“Success in this mission is extremely important to the long-term security of the U.S.,” he says. “I firmly believe that a successful democracy can bring positive change to the region. And it’s only by winning the battle of ideas — the battle of moderation over extremism, the battle of moderate Islam over extreme Islam — that we can win the war on terror. So we have to be successful.”

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