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.
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

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