Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, President Barack Obama’s choice to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wears four stars on his shoulders, holds three master’s degrees, fought two wars against Iraq, and survived one bout with cancer.
And he has one catchy hobby: singing. He’ll belt out Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” at the drop of a hat.
Crooning is not among the qualities that pushed Dempsey to the top of Obama’s list in searching for a successor to Adm. Mike Mullen, whose term as Joint Chiefs chairman began under President George W. Bush and ends Sept. 30. But Dempsey’s singing singles him out in a field of Army generals who are usually less publicly playful, and more rigidly aligned with a military culture of caution.
Last Friday, in front of news cameras and a gathering for kids and adults who have lost fathers, mothers and other relatives in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Dempsey sang a bit of “New York, New York,” and also “The Unicorn” children’s song: “... there were green alligators, and long-neck geese, some humpty-back camels and some chimpanzees ...”
And he uses social media sites to push the music theme. In a recent Facebook post he mentioned that he likes to use videos set to music to reinforce the message in his Army presentations, and he asked younger soldiers to suggest selections. Among the responses: Metallica, AC/DC and endorsement of his recent use of a song by the group Disturbed.
At age 59, with 36 years of Army service after graduating from West Point, Dempsey comes across as energetic and athletic. Last year he underwent treatment for what his spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Alayne Conway, said Sunday was “head and neck cancer that presented itself as a tumor on the base of his tongue.” She said his doctors have given him a clean bill of health.
The story of Dempsey’s rise to the top job in the military is remarkable, not least because just a month ago it was widely presumed that Marine Gen. James Cartwright was a lock for the post. Dempsey had just been sworn in for a four-year term as the Army’s chief of staff, an assignment he clearly relished. A cup of coffee later, Dempsey is a Senate vote away from taking a much different job, one that will make him the senior military adviser to Obama.
Cartwright’s stock fell after the public release of a Pentagon investigation into claims of misconduct with a young female aide. The Pentagon’s inspector general cleared Cartwright of the most serious claims, which suggested he’d had an improper relationship with the woman. But the investigation found that he mishandled an incident in which the aide was drunk and either passed out or fell asleep in his hotel room, where he was working.
This would not be the first time Dempsey has changed course suddenly. When he was serving in 2008 as deputy commander at U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the greater Middle East, Dempsey was picked to become the Army’s top general in Europe. But he never made the move because the Central Command’s top leader, Adm. William J. Fallon, resigned suddenly and unexpectedly. Dempsey took over as the acting commander until Gen. David Petraeus was confirmed for the job several months later.
Dempsey then was given command of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, at Fort Monroe, Va., where he developed the Army’s thinking on how to prepare for future wars. There he preached “the gospel of adaptation” — a conviction that uncertain times demand that soldiers and their leaders be versatile, flexible and open to new ways of doing things.
Dempsey, who grew up in New Jersey and New York, received a master’s degree in English from Duke University in 1984 and then taught English at West Point. He also earned master’s degrees from the Army’s Command and General Staff College in 1987 and from the National War College in 1995.
He has a reputation for embracing change. Peter Mansoor, who served under Dempsey in Iraq as a brigade commander in the 1st Armored Division, wrote in his book, “Baghdad at Sunrise,” that Dempsey — then a one-star general — had good instincts.
“His vision and ability to manage transitions and change were important assets” for a commander at a difficult time in the Iraq war, Mansoor wrote. Dempsey also fought in the 1991 Gulf War that expelled Iraqis occupation forces from Kuwait. And in 2001-03 he ran a U.S. military program to train and equip Saudi Arabia’s National Guard. He then took the 1st Armored Division to Iraq.
On the day Dempsey became Army chief of staff on April 11, Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised his “quiet confidence” and unwillingness to be satisfied with the status quo — “a quality I have always looked for when selecting our military’s senior leaders.”
Gates recommended Dempsey for the Joint Chiefs chairmanship, but, if confirmed, Dempsey will not work under Gates, who is retiring June 30. Instead he will be partnered at the Pentagon with Gates’ designated successor, Leon Panetta, if Panetta is confirmed by the Senate.
A theme that Dempsey had identified as a main focus of his term as Army chief — how to prepare soldiers and the institutional military for the post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan period — will almost certainly be a central feature of his agenda as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
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