A Thanksgiving memory, leadership, and more

Thanksgiving is a perfect opportunity to give thanks for the people we’ve have the opportunity to meet in our lives, if even briefly.  Today I want to share one such memory when I crossed paths on Thanksgiving with former Air Force Chief of Staff, General Ron Fogleman.

Before doing that, let’s think of America’s troops, especially those serving overseas this holiday.  U.S. troops are at “roughly 750 US foreign military bases…spread across 80 nations.”  There are, incidentally, still about 2,500 troops in Iraq, and another 900 in Syria. 

Let’s also not forget that nearly half of our military is aged 25 or younger.  Even here at home, hundreds of thousands are stationed where the Nation needs them, which may be far from friends and families.

To make sure as many as possible get a special Thanksgiving meal, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) started its plan last spring.  Given the size of the task, you can understand why.  Here’s what is being sent to the troops this year:

Air Force Airman 1st Class Bianca Hrynciw, a services specialist prepares dessert for a Thanksgiving-style dinner for members of the 127th Wing at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich., Nov. 5, 2022. Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Samara Taylor, Air National Guard

41,745 pounds of roasted turkeys 

41,043 pounds of beef 

23,979 pounds of ham 

17,884 pounds of shrimp 

9,009 pounds of sweet potatoes 

85,971 pounds of pies and cakes 

2,274 gallons of eggnog

Military leaders have a tradition of visiting the troops on holidays, and especially Thanksgiving.  Allow me to share my memory of one such visit decades ago.

A Thanksgiving in Africa 

Years ago I spent Thanksgiving in Africa having been deployed for Operation Provide Relief, an effort to airlift food and medical supplies to starving Somalis.  I talk about my experiences in this article in my undergraduate (St Joseph’s University) alumni magazine: A Hawk in a Land of Vultures (St Joe students were known as hawks because of the school’s mascot).  Lots of memories!

Despite enormous efforts, the operation (later renamed Operation Restore Hope) devolved into bitter confrontations with Somali warlords, culminating in the firefight (long after my deployment) that became immortalized in the book and movie, Blackhawk DownHere’s what I wrote:

“Forty-four Americans paid the ultimate price while trying to help. Scores more are crippled and disfigured for life. I suspect there will be no “Wall” in Washington, D.C. for these soldiers and airmen, and their sacrifice in Somalia will soon be all but forgotten. But I can’t forget. At least they tried to give the Somalis hope. The only true failure is the failure to try.”

Some sources say the operation did save about 100,000 Somali lives.

But my Thanksgiving memory relates to then commander of U.S. Transportation Command, General Ron Fogleman, who showed up shortly before the holiday with a planeload of meals for everyone – which we enjoyed at an open-air Thanksgiving dinner.

I was attached to a headquarters element entirely comprised of U.S. Marines except for an Army officer and another Air Force officer.  However, because the ‘guest of honor’ so to speak was an Air Force general, I was told to sit at the head table. 

My boss, a Marine general, introduced everyone to our guest.  I didn’t expect General Foglrman could possibly know anything about me, just another lieutenant colonel on our small staff.  I was really surprised when he brought up my 1992 war college essay (The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012) for which I received an award from General Colin Powell

We then had a short but animated conversation about civil-military relations, history, politics and more.  (General Fogleman earned a master’s degree in military history and political science from Duke University in 1971). The interaction made an impact in a place far away from home on a holiday, and a wonderful memory now.

I’ve found the finest leaders express a sincere interest in, and loyalty to, their subordinates..

What made my experience particularly special was that years later when General Fogleman became Air Force Chief of Staff, our paths crossed at a formal military dinner at Offutt Air Force base where I was then serving with U.S. Strategic Command. 

At the reception he approached and, astonishingly (to me anyway!), picked up our conversation exactly where we left it years ago at that open-air Thanksgiving dinner in Africa.  I, and those with me, were amazed!  To me, this was real leadership in action.

The rest of the story

But that was the kind of person – and leader – General Fogleman was…and is.  As Chief of Staff he was extremely popular with the force, but his advocacy for the service and its members got him crossways with the political leadership. 

Looking back, it is pretty clear that he was simply ahead of the times in his military thinking–as especially as to what the nation needed for its defense in the years ahead.  Even more importantly, he refused to compromise his values and moral compass.  Consequently, to the disappointment of many (me included) he elected to retire early, and did so in August 1997.

Why?  In a fascinating 2001 article historian Dr. Richard H. Kohn explored the general’s decision to retire.  I urge you to read it yourself, as any attempt to fully summarize it is bound to fall short.  That said, allow me to quote this part of Dr. Kohn’s interview:

Kohn: Are there guidelines under which military leaders working directly for the highest civilians can—appropriately—request early retirement? Did you consider the precedent you might be setting and try to think through what is proper and what is improper in our system of government?

Fogleman: I thought it through to this extent: when you reach that level, you are a product of all your years, and hopefully one of the reasons you are appointed is that people recognize that you possess some kind of internal moral compass and some expertise in the profession of arms in a democracy.

I was not thinking about trying to establish some future norm; I was thinking about it more in terms of my own personal views and perspectives on the substance of my service as chief of staff. I think I was selected because folks thought I knew something about the business and that I stood for certain values.

When you reach a point in your tenure where (1) you think you’ve accomplished most of the things that you set out to do and (2) you begin to see evidence that your values and your advice, your expertise, are not valued by those in charge…

Having spent three tours in Washington, I have watched how people can be gracefully continued in a position but just frozen out of any kind of effective participation. Knowing how bad that is for an institution, it is better to step aside and let the leadership appoint someone who they are more comfortable with, who will be able to represent the institution and play in the arena.

I suggest that General Fogleman’s words still resonate as guidance for leaders.

Concluding thoughts

So for me it is a memory from thirty years ago that comes to mind this Thanksgiving, but you each have your own.  Think about the wonderful people you’ve known in your life, and don’t forget to give thanks for the 1.3 million active duty troops (and thousands more in the Guard and Reserves) standing watch around the world helping to keep us safe in a dangerous world.


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