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Americans have heard the name General David Petraeus and the word Iraq many times together. But with today’s announcement that Petraeus is moving up to head the US Central Command….the name you will start hearing will be General Raymond Odierno. And, you might be wondering…who is “Ray” Odierno?
Odierno commanded the 4th Infantry Division in 2003 when it pulled Saddam Hussein out of the spider hole. Odierno was on his way home in 2004 when his then 26-year-old son Tony was headed into Iraq—the two met for a 90-minute dinner in a mess tent in Kuwait. General Odierno at that point was sometimes referred to as “Tony Soprano” for his very tough line with Iraqis suspected of being involved in insurgent activity.
But for the entire Odierno family, the war was about to change.
Five months later, while on patrol in Baghdad, young Tony was wounded when the Humvee he was riding in was hit by a rocket propelled grenade. The driver was killed instantly; Tony’s armed was ripped off. General Odierno and his wife Linda got the call and were on a plane within hours—like so many other parents-flying to Landstuhl Hospital in Germany to meet the medivac flight out of Iraq.
The Odierno family granted me a rare interview at their home in March 2006 to talk about all of this. Tony had been working as a military aide in the Pentagon to General Peter Pace, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And Dad was parked next door in an office as a senior staff aide, taking some time between tours of duty in the combat zone.
General Odierno would return to Iraq shortly after that to be Petraeus’ top operational commander. He worked closely with Petraeus to make the so-called surge work and even privately acknowledged his surprise about the degree of reconciliation among Sunnis.
The tough attitude hasn’t gone away. Ray Odierno makes it clear how furious he is about Iranian weapons killing US soldiers in Iraq.
On the other hand, when I saw the general on a trip to Baghdad this past summer and asked how Tony was doing, he expressed his parental dismay that Tony was “cohabitating” in New York with his girlfriend.
Sadly over the years, I have interviewed many young amputees and wounded, and parents of those troops who didn’t make it back. The Odiernos are very private, but wanted to talk in 2006 because they felt they wanted to reach out to other families and tell them they would make it past the tough times.
Linda Odierno, an Army wife and mother, began weeping when the interview began, recalling her wrenching fears about how much pain Tony was in during those first hours and days.
But it was General Odierno who told me how much the family had pulled together, how Linda had learned to change Tony’s dressings and take care of his needs so he could be nursed at home by her.
And it was General Odierno who told me about his own journey: “As a parent you almost feel sorry for yourself initially, at least I did, and then when I saw Tony I didn't feel sorry for myself.”
Now General Odierno says, when he talks to other military families, he talks as a parent, not as a general.
As the general heads back to Iraq for yet another tour, I saw him in the Pentagon hallway a few days ago. After getting the rib crunching bear hug he gives everybody I, of course, asked how Tony is doing. Dad beamed and said Tony is now engaged to be married.
And that's who Ray Odierno is.
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