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New Army Chief of Staff Odierno Faces Tough Decisions

Tough decisions confront a tough soldier as Ray Odierno settles into his new duties as the U.S. Army‘s chief of staff.

Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, 58, knows first-hand about the cuts everyone in the Pentagon is facing as the nation confronts its fiscal crisis. Odierno’s most recent job was as combatant commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM). Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates chose JFCOM – one of just 10 U.S. combatant commands – to be disestablished in an economy move. Odierno took the job knowing he would be the one to lower the flag when JFCOM stood down in August. The Suffolk, Va., News-Herald called the August 4 disestablishment ceremony “a carefully choreographed bit of theater designed to put the best possible public face on a widely unpopular decision.” Any decision that reduces jobs is going to be unpopular. Now that he’s the nation’s top soldier, Odierno faces plenty such decisions.

The trade journal Army Times called JFCOM’s curtain call “a harbinger of leaner times ahead for defense spending.”

Although the chief of staff commands no combat forces, Odierno is the Army’s top manager: he shapes the future of the service and functions as its voice on Capitol Hill.

“We have majors today and captains today that all they’ve experienced is war,” Odierno said during his Senate confirmation hearing. Between the lines, he was making an awkward point: the Army is filled with junior soldiers who are seasoned on the battlefield but led by senior officers who aren’t. “He’ll have to find a way to tell a captain wearing a combat infantryman badge how to take orders from a colonel who isn’t,” said retired Col. John Gourley, a long-time Odierno observer. “‘Right-sizing’ the Army in the middle of budget cutting will be his greatest challenge.”

The Army is scheduled to reduce its strength by 49,000 active-duty soldiers by 2017 under the Obama administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2012. The service has 570,000 soldiers on active duty.

“First off, the Army is about soldiers,” Odierno said. “So when we talk about defense cuts, you’re talking about structure, you’re talking about end-strength of the Army.” He cautioned: “We must avoid our historical pattern of drawing down too fast and getting too small, especially since our record of predicting the future has not been very good.”

Though he appears to be the model of a conventional soldier, diligent and bright but not necessarily innovative, Odierno surprised his leaders by bucking policy and advocating a build-up of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2006, at a time when the term “surge” was not yet being used. Odierno in effect, became the architect of the surge by defying Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., then his boss in Iraq. Some observers say that Odierno, more than Casey’s replacement in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, deserves credit for winning the nation’s leaders over to a shift to counterinsurgency warfare and a surge – now credited with turning the tide in Iraq.

Odierno’s career includes combat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, duty in potential trouble spots like Korea, and policy-oriented assignments. Friends say his gruff and blunt appearance is misleading and hides a thoughtful, nuanced mind: he has a scholarly side and was recognized as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009 by U.S. News & World Report. In 2003, Odierno was commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which found and captured Saddam Hussein in his underground bunker. A State Department posting from 2004 to 2006 strengthened his grasp of diplomatic issues.

Troops often refer to the looming, 6-ft. 5-in. Odierno as “General O.” Not obvious for his sense of humor, Odierno was entertaining when he appeared on television with Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. With his famously shaven, bald pate, Odierno good-naturedly agreed to don a wig as a gag.

There’s nothing funny, though about re-shaping the Army or facing national security challenges. Now that he has replaced Gen. Martin Dempsey – the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – as the Army’s uniformed boss, Odierno will be confront serious challenges.

“I know we will face some difficult resource decisions,” Odierno says, but he is concerned that shrinking the military isn’t the cure for the nation’s economic ills. He supports a robust U.S. presence in Iraq following the end of official participation in combat operations there and says the United States must pursue its goals in Afghanistan “to the end.”

Those who work around him in the Pentagon will find Odierno a figure of experience, pragmatism, and – yes – receptiveness to new ideas.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...