Army of One

With an unpopular war overseas and an embarrassing scandal at home, the military turned to an outsider to shape its future. For Pete Geren, it’s the mission of a lifetime.

February 2008By Comments

Active duty: Geren at a swearing-in ceremony for recruits at the Jefferson Memorial last October.
Photograph by Getty McNamee

On a bleak December morning nearly thirty years ago, shortly before my bridal procession at Houston’s Holy Ghost Catholic Church, I had murder, not matrimony, on my mind. Specifically, that of my betrothed. As friends and family had begun filling the pews, I’d received a call that my future brother-in-law’s plane was circling Hobby Airport, unable to land because of an epic ice storm that had shrouded Houston in fog. My fiancé, Jeff, suggested (inanely) that we postpone my trip down the aisle until the weather cleared so that his brother could fulfill his role as groomsman. Perhaps the guitar soloist could entertain the guests for a few hours?

When I erupted in tears (what bride wouldn’t?), we cast about for better options. A bridesmaid offered to resign. More tears. Finally, Jeff turned to his law school roommate and asked, “What would you do?” The unflappable 26-year-old replied sensibly, “Get married.” He then offered to stand in for the tardy brother. In my wedding pictures, my eyes are red and puffy, and the roommate—tall, lanky, and cheerful—is wearing an ill-fitting borrowed tux.

Since then, the roommate, Preston M. “Pete” Geren, has practiced and perfected his low-key, levelheaded leadership style on an increasingly elevated stage of public service: as an executive assistant to the late U.S. senator Lloyd Bentsen, as a four-term Democratic congressman for his hometown of Fort Worth, and, over the past six and a half years, in various troubleshooting posts at the Pentagon. Geren joined the Pentagon staff in early September 2001 as the congressional liaison for then— Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on issues such as base closures. On the morning of September 11, after he’d had breakfast at the Pentagon with Rumsfeld and a handful of congressmen, a distant thud shook the sprawling building that would ultimately turn his mission—and his life—upside down. In July 2007 he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the twentieth Secretary of the Army.

For the scores of lifelong friends—including me and Jeff—who attended Geren’s official arrival ceremony at Fort Myer’s Summerall Field, in Arlington, Virginia, his selection to lead the U.S. Army at this crucial time in its history was less a surprise than a tribute to the scarcity and power of common-sense thinking. Though Geren told me he considered his lack of military service a handicap, it is actually his strength. By coming from outside the Army, he has the luxury of detached, rather than defensive, decision making.

The Secretary of the Army plays no role in military strategy, but he does serve as the civilian CEO of a million-person, $170-billion-a-year operation. Geren has assumed the post at a time when the Army is shouldering historic challenges and suffering public humiliations. Its all-volunteer force is entrenched in the longest armed conflict in its history, requiring soldiers to endure grueling extended deployments. Last year the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., exposed failures in how the military cares for its wounded, and another investigation unearthed widespread corruption in the way it awards contracts.

Perhaps most importantly, Geren’s appointment comes during a period when the Pentagon sees a future that threatens “persistent conflict,” a term that carries dramatic import for the Army’s force, operations, and weaponry. Everything seems to be on the table for critical examination. That gives Geren, who, one general told me, was seen at the Pentagon as “an agent of change,” an opportunity afforded few of his predecessors to shape the Army of tomorrow.

Still, the clock is ticking. By Geren’s calculations, he has at most ten months left in what he calls a “high mortality job,” since a new presidential administration will likely name its own team at the Pentagon in January 2009 (though his comment could just as easily refer to the fact that two of his three predecessors were fired). From the beginning, he knew what he’d have to do to make any lasting changes. “I’d have to pick a few things to focus on and make sure everyone who works with me knows that these are my priorities,” he said. “You decide what’s most important and constantly hit on it.”

It would be easy to be consumed by daily minutiae and disregard long-term planning. One general, a close adviser of Geren’s, described to me his ability to “handle the short-knife fight—close combat.” Seeing my puzzled expression, the general translated for me: “He can handle engagement with Congress and at the same time think about where the Army needs to be four to five years from now. He’s looking long-term, way beyond his watch.”

The first thing Geren tackled was the scandal at Walter Reed. Last February, the Washington Post exposed in heartbreaking detail the squalid living conditions and substandard care soldiers received at the Army’s famed hospital. Rats and cockroaches flourished in mold- infested quarters; a dated bureaucracy frustrated outpatients with complex medical needs. The Post’s stories were a painful punch in the gut to Pentagon leadership, and in short order, the Secretary of the Army, as well as the commanding officer at Walter Reed, was fired.

Soon after his appointment, Geren scheduled a meeting with senior medical officers at Walter Reed. In the wake of the Post’s stories, morale had plummeted. But there is something about Geren’s presence that reduces anxiety. Trim and balding, with the same runner’s physique he had in college, Geren has expressive blue eyes and an easy smile. He chooses his words with precision. (His demeanor is sometimes so understated that one friend years ago described him to a political reporter as “a wooden Indian.” After one congressional election, he was asked about that description during an interview on C-SPAN. Geren gave a thoughtful pause, then responded characteristically: “I like to think I’m not that bad.” The wooden Indian, sent down from central casting.) But that lack of swagger is also one of his best assets. S. Ward Casscells, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, remembers that at the time of Geren’s visit, the staff was so dispirited he worried he would have to “lock the doors” to prevent mass resignations.

Then Geren began speaking, and the mood shifted immediately. His message was resolute: Wounded soldiers deserved better, and the Army would not fail them. His delivery pierced the anxiety in the audience. “He was so strong and so determined,” recalled Casscells. “He just inspired confidence.”

Within a few weeks, the notorious Building 18, crumbling and filthy, was shuttered. Outpatients were moved to better housing located closer to the hospital, upgraded with flat-screen televisions and Internet service. A new operational system was created to guide soldiers through the medical bureaucracy. A hotline for frustrated patients was installed, with orders that questions be answered within 24 hours. Geren called the Post’s stories on Walter Reed both “painful” and “a great service.”

“In a million-person organization, there are problems out there that aren’t always known,” he said. “Dana Priest [a Post reporter who worked on the investigation] launched that reform, and the Army responded the way it does when it learns that soldiers haven’t been treated right.”

At Walter Reed, Geren brought in Brigadier General Michael S. Tucker as a “bureaucracy buster.” Before, outpatients with head injuries struggled to make and remember their own appointments. Now soldiers are assigned to “warrior transition units,” with a specific doctor, squad leader, and case manager. “There is full accountability now,” Tucker said. “Soldiers need a mission. Their mission is to heal, which means taking their medications as prescribed, going to treatment and appointments. It is their job.”

Tucker, who receives a daily e-mail tracking complaints made to the new hotline, gives Geren regular updates on the hospital’s progress. “We are righting a lot of wrongs,” Tucker said. “Walter Reed was a great opportunity to look at ourselves.”

I caught up with Geren in December for the Army-Navy football game, joining him on a bus entourage that began with a breakfast for patients at Walter Reed before heading to the stadium, in Baltimore. At the hospital, he and his wife, Beckie, spoke to each soldier personally. Most did not recognize the Secretary of the Army until he introduced himself, asking in his soft-spoken manner, “How are they treating you here?” The youthful soldiers seemed too awestruck to voice concerns—if they had any—but they also seemed genuinely impressed by Geren’s visit. Later, I remembered his comment on constantly hammering your priorities. Even on game day, you make time for Walter Reed.

Geren also focused his attention on the contracting scandal, in which Army officers received kickbacks from bidders. He named a task force to take immediate action on current contracting, and he asked former Under Secretary of Defense Jacques Gansler to lead a commission to identify flaws in how the Army goes about spending its billions. Its final report offered what Geren called “a blunt and comprehensive assessment” of Army procedures.

But there’s another key issue he believes could have the biggest impact on his legacy. He hopes to eradicate the cynical adage “If the Army had wanted you to have a family, it would have issued you one.” At his arrival ceremony, Geren elevated the issue by making it the central theme of his remarks to the crowd of Pentagon and Capitol dignitaries and foreign emissaries. With the full pomp and circumstance of the military on display—and the Old Guard of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment and the Fife and Drum Corps performing—Geren promised to provide “soldiers and families a quality of life that is commensurate with their service.”

“I didn’t appreciate until I came to the Pentagon the extraordinary sacrifices families make,” he told me later. “For children, every day your mom or dad is gone, you are worried about their personal safety.”

September 11 gave him as intimate an understanding of combat as one can have, short of actually going to war. Scenes of the disaster are etched into his memory. A soldier in a bloody uniform, typing away on a computer late that night; paramedics with the glow of flames reflecting on their faces, with rows and rows of stretchers behind them.

“As a civilian, you don’t really think about what soldiers do,” he said. “They run into burning buildings. They run toward the sound of gunfire.”

When I interviewed Geren at his Virginia home on a cold and rainy December evening, he was in a reflective mood. Earlier in the day, he had signed a condolence letter to a widower with three young children. “I am touched personally by what these families are going through,” he said. “We’re facing something we haven’t faced before, with multiple deployments creating single-parent families.”

Shortly after he became Secretary, he began exploring how the Army as an institution could assist families. The more people he spoke with, the more he became convinced of how critical it was. “It is a readiness issue,” he said. “You can’t have a ready force without caring for the families.”

Demographics support that opinion. Today’s Army is older, more likely to be married, and more educated than it was twenty years ago. But the length of the war has severely strained its all-volunteer force. Deployments last fifteen months, up from the usual twelve, with only twelve months at home before the next tour.

The Army desperately needs recruits, and research confirms what common sense might suggest—that decisions on whether to stay with or leave the Army are driven by a spouse’s happiness. “When confronted with this fact situation, the support systems just have to change,” he said. “We are really in uncharted waters. We have never asked so much of our families.”

These ruminations prompted Geren and Army chief of staff George Casey to write a formal document, called the Army Family Covenant. The plan, which has been signed at bases around the world to emphasize its importance, was accompanied by $1.4 billion in spending on services for families, like day care and youth programs.

I had my doubts that Pentagon leaders could issue a proclamation in Washington and actually change culturally imbedded behavior. But Geren’s focus has already prompted some commanding officers to find ways to make the Army more family-friendly. Fort Leavenworth’s commanding officer, Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, told me that a young soldier studying at the base’s Command and General Staff College asked him if class times could be delayed to allow families the chance to walk their children to school.

When Caldwell first raised the issue with administrators, they balked. He ordered the change anyway. “When I got the usual institutional resistance, I said, ‘You all go back and figure out how to make this happen, because it sounds like too good of an idea,’ ” said Caldwell, who has three elementary-age children himself. “I just spent thirteen months away from them and missed thirteen months of their lives. We ask a lot of our families. I know how challenging and hard it is.” Caldwell also ordered college faculty not to assign weekend homework so students could focus on their families.

The tweaks in schedule may seem small, but their significance has been magnified by the Army’s lengthy, repeated tours of duty. “We’re sending a message: This is the year to spend time with your kids,” Caldwell said. Geren’s commitment, he said, had prompted a change in his thinking. “My feeling was, I’ve been empowered by the Secretary of the Army to figure out how to improve the quality of the lives of our families.”

In mid-December, Geren took a trip that seemed to encapsulate the transformation of the Army. Visiting El Paso’s Fort Bliss for an Army Family Covenant signing ceremony, Geren held an impromptu town hall meeting with families. A woman asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “When will the duration of deployments be reduced back to twelve months?”

Geren paused and said he wished he knew a specific date, but he didn’t. He assured her that shortening deployments is the Army’s highest priority. The Army hopes to expand its troop numbers by 75,000 in the next five years, which is a sure way to reduce the burden on the current ranks. In that light, the Army Family Covenant, as a method of recruiting and retaining soldiers, will become an integral part of the Army’s future. Once again, my old friend’s common sense will have a lasting impact.

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