Like all Americans, I followed the congressional proceedings on ISIS with great interest. Of particular note was the testimony of retired Marine General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, former Commander of US Central Command. If Gen Mattis thinks we will probably need boots on the ground, well I believe him. Now let me tell you why I say this. I have immense respect for Gen Mattis, personal respect he earned in the early days of our Post 9/11 war in Afghanistan.
What follows is a long anecdotal, but deeply personal story based observation of bold, innovative leadership and the importance of relationships between leaders to form a winning team and strategy. I am not a historian and I may have some of my details confused but I hope to convey how I really saw the actions from my post. Most of the people in this story would later become very senior military leaders.
Looking back over the last 12 years, actions taken in the early days of America’s Operation Enduring Freedom also known as the Global War on Terror (GWOT) are now simply an historical footnote. For me those events are part of a vivid memory. In those early months I was the Vice Commander of the 618 Tanker Airlift Control Center (TACC) doing my best to serve my boss Major Gen Mike Wooley who was the Commander of the TACC. The TACC is responsible for worldwide planning, scheduling and execution of all airlift and tanker missions. We military guys always say that any title that says commander is a good thing. But any title with a Vice in it means you get to do a lot of things the boss is too busy to do.
Thus it happened that for 24/7 senior leadership coverage at the TACC we split our responsibility, and I ran the “night shift” when the planners in the Middle East and Afghanistan were awake. That allowed Mike Wooley to handle and brief the generals above him. I took a lot of the initial phone calls from the leaders who were knee deep in the fight. As the Vice it is important to note that unless time was of the essence I rarely made a decision on my own, only a recommendation for the “boss” to consider. I was incredibly privileged to be an observer of some really outstanding acts of leadership and team building.
In those early days of taking the fight to the Taliban and Al Qaida every bullet fired, every bean eaten, every bit of fuel consumed had to be flown in. In short, all our operations hinged on airlift. The initial plan to retake southern Afghanistan hinged around a dirt runway near Kandahar dubbed Rhino Landing Zone (LZ). Rhino LZ was to be taken by Task Force 58, under the Command of then Brig Gen James Mattis. Mattis orders, according to the Armed Forces Journal article was, “ to lead TF 58 to Afghanistan and conduct three to five raids in 30 days to ‘create chaos, denying the enemy their sense of security.’ As the concept of operations for TF 58 matured, “three to five raids” developed into a mission to seize an FOB.
Mattis had been tasked with the deepest amphibious assault ever executed by a Marine Task Force. While he had at his disposal special operations MC-130s and other Marine C-130s, Mattis knew that for his troops to move beyond Rhino for his ultimate objective he needed more logistical support than his small tactical airlifters could provide, he needed C-17s. Mattis had a problem and he needed help.
Bold Decision #1 – Mattis probably didn’t feel he had the time to let the CENTCOM staff figure out all aspects of his logistics planning. He needed to move fast, ahead of this staff and his staff started making phone calls. When news of his questions hit the States, he received a call from Air Force Brigadier General Vern “Rusty” Findlay who was the commander of the 437th airlift wing at Charleston AFB South Carolina. (Note: General Rusty Findlay was the subject of a previous GeneralLeadership LeaderView Interview) Rusty commanded an elite wing of C-17s. But in those early years, only seven crews were trained in the use of night vision goggles. It would take more than seven crews in the long term to execute these missions. According to the AFJ article Mattis recalled, “He ended by reassuring me that, yes, he had crews trained to land C-17s at night on dry lake beds and could make it happen.”
Bold Decision #2 – Rusty and his operations group commander Colonel Robert “Dice” Allardice immediately began to lean forward to train his crews to execute this mission. Now Rusty and Dice were smart enough to inform their superiors at Air Mobility Command of his actions…. but he didn’t feel he had time to wait for a complex staffing problem. Thus, Rusty’s Wing was operating ahead of the Air Mobility Command staff. He felt he had no time to lose. A change in training into night vision goggles is something that can literally take months to proceed through the staff.
Bold Move #3 – The then current AMC Director of Operations Major General Roger Brady and his deputy Col Lance Christian immediately began to staff the project, cutting through as much red tape as they could, and Brady’s concern was to make sure that this audible needed to be done in a deliberate manner to ensure that the safety of the airplanes and crews was not compromised. Brady was understandably concerned that despite the exigent need, this mission was not done with any compromise in safety. And believe me his the AMC/USTRANSCOM Commander General “Tony” Robertson was not interested in compromising safety of AMC crews and aircraft.
While Rusty and Dice, Roger Brady and his staff proceeded boldly, Gen Mattis was busy finalizing his assault plans. I am not overstating that the immense pressure that all of us felt from the White House, Secretary of Defense, and the American people themselves to respond to the 9/11 attacks. The conscious tension at the headquarters was palpable and visceral.
The mood at AMC was focused and determined. Remember we were also simultaneously supporting the Northern Alliance, operations at Bagram AB and Pakistan. We had given our word to General Mattis that we could get this job done, but the C-17 was our newest airlifter, and this $200 million airplane had never done night assaults on an unimproved runway under actual combat conditions. The pressure mounted as the time for D-Day approached. With Rusty and Dice prepping their crews and then deploying them to theater, Roger Brady and his team provided top cover and ensured as many of the t’s were crossed and i’s were dotted as possible.
The plan for the assault was developed but as the night approached another concern developed at AMC headquarters. The night landing profile was difficult enough, but AMC grew increasingly concerned that the C-17s could operate clear of possible surface to air missile fire and assorted heavy caliber small arms fire. The C-17 mission profile called for a very steep descending circling approach is flown by the C-17 to keep them within a protected radius.
This protection was to be provided by the first group of Mattis’ Marines in Task Force 58. AMC understandably worried that the small initial force of marines might not be able to secure a radius around Rhino LZ to ensure the C-17s would be protected.
At AMC a Threat Working Group known as Twig, was responsible for recommending a go/no go decision to AMC leadership. This group was composed of a diverse group of intel professionals, operators and support officers who collected intel data about small arms fire, man pad missile launches, input from operators on safe flight operations and based on all considered factors make a recommendation to the AMC commander This group was concerned. A night assault landing is tough enough to perform, by specially trained crews, but it would get really difficult if someone was shooting at the planes. The C-17 was a limited strategic asset and the Twig was reluctant to risk the lives of the crews, and loss of aircraft if the field couldn’t be secured.
Bold Decision #4 – Less than three days from D-Day, Air Force Brig Gen Richard Mentemeyer, who directed mobility forces at the combined air operations center (CAOC) in Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia finally got wind of the plan. The fog of war and the seams of communication had kept had kept CENTCOMs air planners out of the loop. Rich had to coordinate with Gen Mike Mosley CENTCOM Air Component Commander, the AMC staff and the TACC. Rich simply had 72 hours to learn the mission, and give assurances to his many bosses that this mission could be flown. I spent a lot of time on the phone with Rich Mentemeyer, and we established a close personal relationship that lasts to this day. Rich made the bold move to push this through his staff and gain approval. There was a lot on the line.
Bold move #5 – One of those nights, about a week prior to the mission, I got a call from Gen Mattis. After quick pleasantry’s he got to the point. “Geno, I need those C-17s and I need the TACC to get the approval pushed through the AMC Headquarter and whateve that twig does.” “Sir, I got it, and I can relay this to my boss but I’d suggest you give Wooley a call. He’ll be in here in about an hour.
As I remember, an hour later Wooley and Mattis linked up on the secure telephone. The conversation went something like this. “Jim…I need to be sure the field is secure…. and Mattis replied, “Gen Wooley, I give you my personal word of honor that my Marines will secure the field and give you a safe corridor for your guys to fly in. “ Even at the time I was reminded of the scene from the movie “Apocalypse Now” where Robert Duvall tells his subordinates, “if I say the beach is safe to surf, the beach is safe to surf.”
And operating on that personal word of honor, Wooley said, “Geno you go down and convince the twig we need to make this happen. I will go brief the four star.” And on those words, Wooley went upstairs to brief the boss, and gain final approval, and filled with the motivation of the leadership I’d seen I went down to the twig to make the final persuasion that this mission could be approved.
Bold Move #6 – it all boils down to the crews. In the end, despite what any general on a staff decides or thinks it is the capability, skill and courage of each soldier, sailor and airman to make any mission happen. Our C-17 crews performed flawlessly and executed their missions.
The night of Nov 28 our first two C-17s flew their first missions into Rhino. They saw no shots fired at them. The reports from the ground say you couldn’t even see the C-17s in the air until they turned on their landing lights for the final landing. The next 7 days saw a massive airlift into Rhino providing all the equipment for Mattis and Task Force 58 needed to seize this airfield and move smartly to recapture Kandahar from the Taliban and Al Qaida.
Team Building is All about Trust, Trust, Trust– The very nature of this dynamic operation made it critical that personal trusts, and words of honor and commitment to a combined mission were critical. Each member of this senior team had a role, but none of it would have happened has their not been a bond of trust and honor amongst us all that each and every man and woman would do what they said they would do, what they were tasked to do.
It was my observation that despite staff conflicts, organizational seams and joint military communication difficulties, when the stuff really hits the fan, bold leadership, initiative, and prior training can ensure success.
The historians have compiled volumes of lessons learned. These lessons have been incorporated into both tactical manuals and airlift doctrine. But for the team at AMC…. I got to see the effects of bold and decisive leadership. More than anything I saw how much an exchanged word of honor a bond of trust, validated by two men who knew that their teams were ready, ensured tactical success on the battlefield.
Events at Rhino LZ happened because of bold innovative decision-making and in the end hinged on the trust of our senior military leaders that each member of their respective teams would do their jobs.
Major General Wooley later retired as the three star commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, Major General Brady later retired as the four star commander of United State’s Air Forces Europe. Gen Mentemeyer retired as a Major General. Gen Findlay retired as the three star Vice Commander of AMC. “Dice” Allardice later went on to lead the combat air assault during our Iraq invasion and retired as the AMC Vice Commander. And General Mattis later went on to retire as the four star commander of USCENTCOM.
As for me, I retired to the state of Margaritaville, where I think about the leadership lessons I learned in a post 9/11 crucible, while searching for my lost shaker of salt.