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General Raymond Odierno, a Soldier
General Odierno and Emma Sky, center. Photo courtesy of Curt Cashour

General Raymond Odierno, a Soldier

He will be remembered for not just his military talent but his humanity.

Emma Sky

The annals will record General Raymond T. Odierno as one of the finest generals in the history of the United States. Alongside George Washington, Winfield Scott, Ulysses S. Grant, George C. Marshall, Matthew Ridgway, John J. Pershing, George S. Patton, William T. Sherman, and Douglas MacArthur will be etched into memory the name of General O.

General O served in the U.S. military for thirty-nine years, rising to be the thirty-eighth chief of staff of the Army. But he is best known for his exploits in Iraq: as the commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division, whose troops captured Saddam Hussein in a hole in Tikrit, and as the operational architect of the Surge, leading 170,000 multinational forces to break the back of the insurgency.

His military accomplishments speak for themselves. Let me speak of the man. General O will be remembered as not just an extraordinary military leader but as an exceptional human being.

Across social media, people have posted their photos of General O, conjuring up memories of his visits to troops camped out in the middle of nowhere across Iraq, reassuring soldiers, exhausted and filthy from patrol, that what they did mattered. He always urged soldiers to look out for their buddy on the right and their buddy on the left, for in combat they would willingly sacrifice their own lives to save each other. He taught us that the opposite of fear is love.

Some photos capture him sitting with presidents, politicians, diplomats, analysts, and journalists. Others show him listening to briefs and asking probing questions. Many more picture him stopping to share a moment with soldiers. He made all of them feel that they counted.

General O loved America. He loved America’s values, its democracy, its freedoms. He believed in its power as a force for good in the world.

General O loved the Army. He loved the way the Army brought together Americans from different backgrounds and persuasions and bonded them together in green. He felt there was no greater privilege in life than to serve in the greatest army in the greatest country in the world—to wear the nation’s flag.

General O loved soldiers. He loved meeting with soldiers, re-enlisting soldiers, promoting soldiers. He loved talking sports with soldiers, sharing jokes with soldiers. He loved building teams, coaching and mentoring soldiers. He was a soldier for life, a soldier’s general.

General O loved family. He was dedicated to his wife and his children. Their love was his source of strength.

General O embodied selfless service. He was a Jersey boy whose humility and humanity touched thousands upon thousands, an authentic leader who embodied his alma mater’s creed of duty, honor, country.

He never spoke about himself or boasted of his exploits. To lead American soldiers in combat was, for him, the honor of a lifetime.

General O was indestructible and invincible. He was our fearless leader through thick and thin—who made us feel safe, who believed in us and made us believe in ourselves, who made us be our best selves. When we remember General O, we remember our dedication to each other, the commitment to the mission, the selflessness, the trust, the better angels of our nature. He made us all walk taller.

Which one of us would not volunteer to do it again—to be in such company, under such leadership? To live once more in O’s world?

For the rest of our lives we will be proud to say, “I served with Odierno in Iraq. I walked with a Giant.”

Emma Sky, director of Yale University’s International Leadership Center, served as General Odierno’s political adviser in Iraq. She is author of The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (2015).

U.S. Foreign PolicyMiddle EastTribute