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General Raymond Odierno: College football opened doors for U.S. Army leader

A military career was not the plan, but now he’s the Army’s chief of staff

By Carrie Ritchie

Gen. Raymond Odierno, Chief of Staff, United States Army

When Gen. Raymond Odierno joined the football team at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1972, he hadn’t given much thought to a career in the Army. He didn’t come from a military family. He just wanted to play college football.

Now, more than 40 years later, he is the Army’s top leader in charge of more than 500,000 of America’s sons and daughters. Along the way, he became known for orchestrating one of the biggest military achievements in recent history: the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

“The military and sports are so close and so many of the characteristics are very much the same,” he said. “I think the team nature of the military equates very closely to the team nature of athletics.”

Odierno was intrigued by sports at an early age. Both of his parents played sports when they were young, and he grew up watching many athletic events at Morris Hills High School in Rockaway, New Jersey. Later, he attended high school there and lettered in football, basketball and baseball.

His prowess as a tight end on the football field caught the eye of the U.S. Army football coaches. He would go on to play two seasons for the Black Knights before multiple knee injuries ended his football career.

But Odierno didn’t let his football injuries totally sideline him from collegiate athletics as he also pitched three seasons for Army’s baseball team. He went 5-0 as a starting pitcher during his senior season.

Like all graduating cadets, he was required to serve in the Army for five years. He never anticipated making it his career, but that feeling would change. He loved being able to travel and work on different assignments with different people.

“As I got into the military,” he said, “I realized how much it fit my personality.”

In sports and the military, Odierno said teammates must be resilient and they have to trust each other and their leaders.

Working his way up through the ranks, Odierno became an outstanding leader and earned the respect of his peers along the way. He has commanded at every level of the Army, from platoons of about 30 people to the “Iron Horse” division of more than 10,000 soldiers. It was a team from his 4th Infantry Division that ended one of history’s largest manhunts when it captured Hussein in December 2003.

“It required great coordination,” he said. “The results of the team came first.”

Odierno later became the senior U.S. military commander in Iraq and was responsible for managing the troop drawdown from that troubled country. In that role, he served as the primary military adviser on Iraq to the United States’ highest political leadership.

Odierno’s contributions in Iraq were “historic” as helped stabilize the country and support the Iraqi people as they rebuilt their government, said Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, who served under the former cadet football and baseball player in the drawdown stage.

“He turned chaos into order,” Caslen said. “He gave democracy an opportunity to grow.”

Odierno became chief of staff of the U.S. Army in September 2011, a role he still holds today. As the Army’s top leader, he is responsible for all aspects of the nation’s largest military branch.

Odierno is passionate about that role.  As a member of “The Long Gray Line” – a moniker that refers to alumni and current students of the U.S. Military Academy – Odierno loves to be involved with the academy, especially its sports programs, said Caslen, who is now superintendent of the school.

“Whenever he attends a football game, he’s not in the stands; he’s on the sidelines,” Caslen said. “Sometimes you’ll find him in the team’s huddle.”

Odierno can also be a motivational force to Black Knight student-athletes.

In November 2012, he was invited to speak to the Army football team before its game against rival Air Force. That day, Brig. Gen. J.T. Thomson, an Army football player during the 1980s, was in the locker room.  He said Odierno’s words were so inspiring he should be given partial credit for Army’s 41-21 rout of Air Force, the team’s biggest win that season.

“This was 27 years after my last game, and I was ready to strap on a helmet and play,” Thomson said. “Those guys went out there and just totally dominated that game.”

Supporting collegiate athletics is important to Odierno because of the impact they have had on his life and career. He encourages student-athletes to take advantage of every opportunity they have in sports and in the classroom. The lessons they learn can stay with them through life.

“I’ve been in many, many difficult situations, but I never once considered quitting or saying, ‘This is too hard,’” Odierno said. “I think it has a lot to do with the toughness I developed early on through sports.”

Biography

Gen. Raymond Odierno

Chief of Staff, United States Army

Hometown: Rockaway, N.J.

Current Residence: Washington, D.C.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in engineering, U.S. Military Academy, 1976; master’s degree in nuclear effects engineering, North Carolina State University, 1986; master’s degree in national security and strategic studies, Naval War College, 1990; doctorate in Humane Letters, North Carolina State University, 2010

Sports: Football, baseball

Fun fact: The Army baseball team scrimmaged against professional teams including the New York Yankees and the Mets. As a college pitcher, Odierno pitched three scoreless innings against professional baseball teams.