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