I Loved Being a Soldier

October 15, 2015

At the end of a military career, it’s appropriate to reflect on your years of service and what they meant. This is a simple task for me in some ways; the course of my career was largely set by a small number of pivotal, personal events. Their importance to my time in the U.S. Army was not always clear while I was in the midst of them, but they are in retrospect.

I never specifically made a choice to serve a full career in the Army. It just kind of happened. In the back of my mind I always thought I had reserved a small sliver of a choice to step away, but it never really occurred to me to do so (… except maybe once or twice while I was on the Joint Staff!). Each key event or decision in my career seemed to re-validate the original, simple purpose: to be a soldier.

Of course, the first key decision was that initial decision to serve. For that, I have my father, mother, and uncles to thank. My dad was one of four brothers, and they all served: three in World War II and one in the brand new U.S. Air Force just after the war. One was badly wounded at Okinawa, one with Patton’s Third Army in Europe, and my father was an amphibious combat engineer who participated in 13 landings while island-hopping across the Pacific.

All the brothers were enlisted. They had very little good to say about officers (until I became one, of course). But they were my heroes. So that first decision was a no-brainer — I never really considered doing anything else. I grew up at a time when Army-Navy surplus stores were like the “Best Buy” and “GameStop” stores of the day, and a new helmet liner, an M1 cartridge belt, or leggings stamped “1943” were as delightful a gift as a Call of Duty video game is today.

I’ll be forever grateful to that generation of Jacobys — like that entire generation of Americans — for setting such a compelling example of service, sacrifice, and patriotism. They didn’t talk about it in those terms, they just lived it in those terms and I can only hope to have done it some justice.

My father was a hard man; he was a Depression-era kid. But he was a loving father. And I never doubted his love for all of us and his pride in my choice to serve. (He got past the officer problem once I was commissioned in 1978.) My mother was a beautiful, talented woman, ahead of her time. She poured herself into her kids until her last breath. I wish my parents could have seen how this all worked out; they did all the heavy lifting in building whatever values and character I had — the Army just gave me the opportunity to put it to work.


I wanted to be a soldier and I wanted to go to West Point. But West Point didn’t want me right away. I didn’t get in. So I went to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and did ROTC.

The Army I was exposed to there in 1972 was still at war in Vietnam. It was still shooting M14s in training, still eating C-rats that came with cigarettes and John Wayne bars. We trained under a couple of majors and captains who were paratroopers, Vietnam vets, Silver Star and Purple Heart winners. Those men were hard and they were experienced and they only worried about what was important. And they inspired us.

I had a blast in ROTC. It was fun — even when protesters set fire to our ROTC building in protest of the Linebacker II bombings of Hanoi. What a different time in our history that was.

West Point

But I still wanted to go to West Point. So while I was having fun, my mother was applying and reapplying to the academy on my behalf. On our third try, West Point, for reasons unknown, finally caved and let me in. So my second big decision was starting over again at West Point. Had I stayed at Lafayette, I would have been commissioned with the Class of ’76, with guys like Stanley McChrystal, Ray Odierno, David Rodriguez, and David Barno. With competition like that, I would almost certainly have tapped out at lieutenant colonel, so it was a good choice to move on to a different year group.

But when I made the choice to go to West Point, I quickly discovered that West Point, as opposed to ROTC, was not fun at all! The academy I entered in 1974, in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, was struggling to revalidate itself to the American people. It was rocked by a major cheating scandal, and we struggled to integrate women. The Academy leadership struggled — just as the whole Army did — with the fall of Saigon in 1975. There was a palpable effect throughout the force when that happened.

But the officers they put in front of us were special — again, Vietnam vets and accomplished soldiers. Men like my company tactical officer, Lt. Col. Boyd Harris, who inspired and challenged us. These were men I wanted to emulate. West Point accomplished its mission for me and my classmates. And we built real bonds of brotherhood. I wasn’t the best soldier in that class — that was probably my roommate, Mike Scaparrotti, or maybe former Secretary of the Army Louie Caldera — but there’s no doubt I’ve been the luckiest.


Happy to be on my way from West Point, I went to the 82nd Airborne, where I was a platoon leader for three years, followed by a year at the brand new Joint Special Operations Command. I embraced the Army machine, and, frankly, it was good to me. My neighbors across the street were Keith and Debbie Alexander. That was fun, and I’m sure they have been monitoring my activities ever since. Harold Simmons was my first platoon sergeant. He was a good man, with biceps as big as my head! A Vietnam vet from the 173rd, he showed me how to lead, allowed me to lead, and supported my leadership as I grew as an officer. In 1983, I went to Grenada and commanded a company with Operation Urgent Fury — the only combat opportunity that was available in those days. It was just the luck of the draw that my battalion was the Global Response Force, loaded and ready when the call came.

I was so fortunate with the start I had. It was all about my leaders. I didn’t know our Army was broke — fiscally and professionally — didn’t know we were in a post-Vietnam malaise, didn’t know I should be worried about a certain career path. I just knew I had missions to do and I loved being a paratrooper.

Back to West Point

But you can’t stay on the line forever. Thinking about the impact that officers and NCOs had on me as a cadet at ROTC and West Point, I applied to teach there. That meant two years in grad school, three at the academy — five years out of the force. I probably didn’t realize at the time just what a risk that was for my career.

Unfortunately, teaching at West Point is still a career risk. We’ve got a new generation of captains and majors who are still willing to take that risk. They’re incredibly bright, they teach, train, and inspire cadets every day, they do a great service to the nation and the academy. But they do so at a significant risk to their own careers.

We need to do better that that. The men and women we put in front of cadets — as tactical officers, instructors, coaches, and sponsors — may be the most important institutional personnel decision we make.

Looking back at it, my junior officer time — while unscripted — was the Army at its best. I was kept focused on leader development challenges, sheltered from things I couldn’t affect, taught by example about my profession (but not my career), and blessed with positive but serious bosses and professional NCOs, all in a period advertised as a troubled time for the Army. We’ve got our own challenges today, and I hope we’re still doing the same for our junior officers. Our company-grade leaders should not be worried about the federal budget or the promotion rate to O-6. They should be worried about training and leading soldiers and learning their craft.

For Captain Jacoby, the hook was set. And I didn’t even realize that the Army was changing fast and reinventing itself every year through initiatives like urinalysis, the Battalion Training Management System, MILES, the real integration of women and civilians into the formation, and the development of true jointness. That all took root during those early days of the ‘80s. And I got to grow up in that.

Education and Marriage

In 1990, as a major, I was selected for the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS). I thought that was a good thing. But then the awful, horrible, unthinkable happened to Major Jacoby: I found myself stuck at Fort Leavenworth during Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Five years out of the force for West Point, and then I missed the big war. I was sure that my career was over.

But I never really regretted Leavenworth or SAMS — or, for that matter, any Army or joint school I have attended. It was there at SAMS that I began to think critically about my profession, and there I learned the value of continuing education for military leaders at all levels. And I remain convinced today: When we come down to our last dollar, we should spend that dollar educating and training leaders — to include our NCOs — to be critical thinkers about soldiering, about themselves, and about the profession of arms.

And while I was at Leavenworth, I married Grace. Grace gave me love, balance, and babies. Having a center of gravity in your life other than work is such a great thing — it’s made me a better person in every way, including a better soldier. For 24 years now, Grace has been not only the love of my life and the mother to our boys, but she has been the best partner imaginable in my military service. Retired as a lieutenant colonel herself, she was as good an officer as I have served with. Duty and sacrifice were instinctive to her. And she “got it” that my professional duties didn’t out-prioritize my duties to my family, but were bound to compete with them. We sometimes present that as a choice we have to make, but it’s a false choice. It is simply the balancing act of the life we lead. I was blessed with a wife who has given me that love and balance.

Battalion Command

Despite missing the big war — and I was sure it would be my last chance — in 1993, I got the opportunity to command a battalion: an infantryman’s dream. I felt like I had more influence as a battalion commander — over the lives of my soldiers, over training, over the accomplishment of missions — than in almost any other job. That is why we love our battalions, our squadrons, ships, and garrisons. And I really loved commanding the Red Devils of the 1st of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

I thought I’d finally got my career back on track after that. I made O-6 and was selected for brigade command in 1997. But I didn’t get 1st, 2nd, or 3rd Brigade of any division, as any officer in my position would have wanted. Instead, I got Joint Task Force-Bravo, conducting theater security cooperation in Honduras. That, I was sure, was the Army’s way of telling me I’d culminated.

I went into what I presumed was exile for 16 months, unaccompanied, working for a tough, smart Marine named Charlie Wilhelm at SOUTHCOM. General Wilhelm was one of the most admirable men with whom I’ve been associated and that experience was an education beyond what I could have imagined. That’s where I learned to work in complex, joint, interagency, multi-national, and multicultural environments. That’s also where I learned that, while there are different cultures in the various organizations that serve our country, we all have similar values and building trust is a personal endeavor.

9/11 Wars with a Detour

Shortly after that, as a new brigadier, on one bright September morning, I was working in the western wedge of the Pentagon as a deputy director in the Joint Staff J5 when a plane crashed into our building. The nation was at war, and we all knew that the next phase of our service would be very different from anything we’d known before.

I spent three years as assistant division commander in the 25th Infantry Division, getting the 25th ready for its first combat deployment since Vietnam. I was determined not to miss the next big one. So we took the division to Afghanistan, and it was there that I truly learned the operational art: how to employ military forces in support of theater-strategic end-states. I also learned that partnering and trust in combat were even more vital than in peace. And I became a believer, learning that the Afghans could be worthy partners and the mission was worthy of the sacrifice we were making.

When I was privileged enough to get two-star command in 2005, it was not the 1st or 2nd or 3rd or any other division. It was U.S. Army Alaska. I thought to myself: This is JTF-Bravo all over again! And Grace, a warm-blooded girl from Puerto Rico, said “Have a nice tour!” She felt like we’d been exiled to the ice planet Hoth. But, once again, I learned more there than I could possibly have imagined.

I came to love Alaska. It was where I really learned to be a complete general officer. And it wasn’t terminal. From Alaska to Fort Lewis, Grace gladly traded snow for rain, and I had the privilege of taking command of I Corps in 2007.

There, we had the great challenge, and great opportunity, of getting the Corps — which was fundamentally a theater security cooperation headquarters — ready to assume duties as Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I), its first combat deployment since Korea. Shortly after taking command, Dick Cody, then vice chief of staff of the Army, told me, “Chuck, you have a problem. … you’re on the patch chart, but you’re not in the Transformation Campaign Plan.” That meant no equipment, no people, no training programmed for the Corps. But, with his sly wink and the stroke of his infamous blue pen, General Cody got us started on the path to Iraq, and with several other dedicated senior leaders, we got the Corps ready. It was an opportunity to learn what a group of general and flag officers can accomplish when they work as a team with a common purpose and a vision.

In the larger sense, it was a remarkable team that transformed the Army even while we fought in two different theaters. Retired Generals Sullivan, Abizaid, McCaffrey, and Luck and many others all helped along the way. The memory of their selfless assistance causes me to lament the passing of that senior mentor program that was so valuable to me and many others headed to fight in theater.

Together, we ran a successful parliamentary election in 2010, implemented the security agreement, transitioned control to Iraqi Forces, and began the withdrawal of U.S. forces and equipment. The course of events in Iraq since then cannot change the fact we accomplished our mission — all of our missions — and we gave the Iraqi people the opportunity to establish a unified, democratic government. We gave them the chance to be a great power for growth and stability in the Middle East. And it’s my opinion that it’s too soon to write the eulogy for that Iraq. I will always be tremendously proud of what we did there, and I will always treasure the relationships I built with the great folks who got it done, especially my teammates in I Corps.

Joint Staff

Thanks to a push from General Petraeus and the good sense of humor of Admiral Mike Mullen, after I Corps I got to serve as the Joint Staff J-5. If MNC-I was the height of the operational art, it was not until my second tour on the Joint Staff, with Admiral Mullen, that I truly learned what it means to serve the at the national strategic level. And I learned about the very substantial differences in trying to affect joint and interagency coordination at Forward Operating Base D.C. versus at FOB Courage in Iraq or FOB Shkin in Afghanistan.

And it was in this assignment that I really started to think — and really started to worry — about the interactions between our senior military leaders and our political masters. I will tell you that I think we’re facing a real challenge in our civil-military relations right now, in a way that we haven’t in many generations. It’s going to take some hard thinking and some inspired leadership on the military side, as well as the civilian side, to figure out who we want to be and what we want to look like going forward — and we’ll have to do it in stride, even as we manage the various crises that the strategic environment continues to present. I know we are up to the challenge, but we must be deliberate and determined about it. The American people deserve it, and our future security depends on it.

Back to Command and Reflections on Fatherhood

And finally, I had the great honor to command North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command. The odds against this Detroit-kid-turned-paratrooper becoming the unified combatant commander for North America had to be about a million to one. But miracles happen. And though generations of fighter pilots rolled over in their graves at the prospect an infantryman in charge of NORAD, for three and a half years we managed to neither lose Santa Claus nor compromise the defense of our homelands.

I will say again how much it’s meant to me to take on the sacred trust of homeland defense with our best and most exceptional partners in Canada. In recent years, the vulnerability of the homeland has markedly increased, and our ability to create and think about a modernized, complex deterrence has been seriously eroded. The vital task of supporting civil authorities in the homeland is a growth industry that has absolutely become a core Department of Defense task. And I will emphasize again that we have no greater strategic blessing, no greater competitive security advantage, than being part of the community of like-minded, democratic nations that comprise North America. Cultivating our partnerships with Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas is the best security investment we can make, and I am immensely grateful for my counterparts in those great nations and their willingness to partner with us.

And somehow, in the course of this unlikely journey, Grace and I managed to be blessed with three great boys. My sons are the only thing that competes with my military experience as the great pride and privilege of my life. And, in fact, there is no competition — the boys win, hands down. They are absolutely the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and the best thing I’ll ever achieve. Grace and I got a late start, and our boys grew up the sons of a senior officer, with all the good and bad that comes with that, and they did so respectfully, responsibly, and with humility. And my sons also grew up within the range of the echoes of many rifle salutes from memorial services at the post chapel. They understand the hardest, most personal side of an Army at war.

In Retrospect

And now, at last, I have hung up my uniform. What does this all mean to me, looking back? Well, a few things.

First, my unlikely career path, with all the fits and starts and should-have-been dead ends, is proof that it’s not always about knowing the right person, or getting the right job, or checking the right block. It’s about blooming where you’re planted. It’s about commitment, service, and duty, and trying every day to do the right thing. And it’s about regaining your balance after stumbling, no matter where you are. Our professional United States military represents one of the great meritocracies in the world, and I got to live it.

The Army can be a big, ugly, bureaucratic monster, but the Army made room for me and let me follow this path, and for that I am immensely grateful. From Alaska to Central America, across Asia and the Middle East, and all over this great homeland of ours, for almost 37 years I have been motivated and happy going to work every day. And every day I came home tired, but grateful for the chance to make a contribution to the Army, to the Joint Force, and to my nation. I have been privileged to work for, and with, some truly great Americans, and I have been blessed at every step with great bosses, from Johan Lawton, my first Company Commander, to George Casey, to Marty Dempsey, our courageous Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretaries Gates, Panetta, and Hagel.

The other thing that occurs to me as I reflect on the past, oddly enough, is a concern for our future. Watching our Army and our nation and our world develop for these many decades, I am convinced that we’ve got some big fights ahead.

We always will, of course, because we are one among the few nations on Earth who are willing to dream of a better world, and to fight for it when necessary, because we have the courage and the character to define ourselves by what we’re willing to fight and die for. And so the burden of leadership, in a world that desperately needs leadership, is that we are bound to be either fighting, or working to deter a fight.

Together with those concerns about civil-military relations, it’s that deterrence mission that concerns me going forward. I’m afraid we’ve lost the bubble on the idea of deterrence. We need to work on it, so we can get back to a place where we’re picking our fights instead of having them picked for us. The strategic environment has changed quickly, drastically, and continually since the end of the Cold War. Our deterrence theory needs to catch up.

For two centuries now, we’ve been in a debate with ourselves about whether we’re going to be a big nation or a great nation. Today, bigness is both less relevant and less sustainable than it used to be. So we need to find ways to achieve greatness. We need to be a great country with a great Army, not just a big country with a big Army.

We haven’t seen our last crisis. But one thing that I have always believed, one thing that I have tried to instill in my soldiers and leaders and in my sons, is the fact that hidden in every crisis there is a great opportunity. My career has been proof of that. Our history has been proof of that.

Finding that great opportunity is, to my mind, the essence of positive leadership at every level. Our opportunity to be a great nation exists in all the crises, big and small, that seem to beset us in these troubled times. Our measure as a great nation is to be better coming out of these moral and strategic tests than we were going into them.

All this means that there will always be a high demand for competent and committed military professionals. Fortunately, we’ve got them in abundance. I am absolutely convinced that the colonels and one-stars we have coming up are the best generation this country has seen. They’re smart, they’re battle-hardened, and they’re ready to assume greater leadership. The field grades that work for them are innovative and motivated, the NCO corps is stronger and more professional than it’s ever been. And somehow, in spite of our missteps and our shortcuts and our years of combat, this generation of 17 and 18-year-olds continue to raise their hands and volunteer for a life of service at the rate we need them to. I know we have the leaders and the soldiers to continue being that great Army and Joint Force that our country needs. So I feel good about stepping out of the way and letting others lead.

The final thing that occurs to me as I reflect on a life of service — of which I’ve got almost 41 years in uniform, if you count the fun cadet time and the not-fun cadet time — is how I feel about the many times people have thanked me for my service.

It’s thoughtful, and it’s appreciated. It’s different from the Vietnam era, and they mean it mostly for our young warriors. But it always feels a little strange. Because the truth is, I feel like I got a lot more out of being a soldier than I was ever able to give back.

I hit the “I believe” button early, and have kept pressure on it. I have had so many great experiences and known so many wonderful people, seen so much of this amazing world, and I have partaken in the camaraderie and pride that comes from being part of something greater than yourself, and working for something that you truly believe in. And who can ask for more out of life than that?

In his fourth and final novel, Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald referred to the brutal World War I battles of Verdun and the Somme as “the Love Battles,” because he couldn’t think of any other explanation, no other force powerful enough to compel so many hundreds of thousands of young men to march straight to their certain deaths, than a sublime love for their countries, for their values, for their heritage and their cultures — for each other.

We often conceive of the life of service as a life of sacrifice, and it is. But it is also, as Fitzgerald implies, a life of love. And I have been blessed with a life full of that love: I have loved every opportunity I’ve had to serve around the world. I have loved my time standing the watch over our homelands. I have loved being a father and a husband. I have loved the men and women with whom I have served. I haven’t loved the Army every day, but I have loved the life and the noble purpose it has provided me. And I have loved being a soldier.

That is the best summation I can give you of the 41 years I’ve spent in uniform—I have loved being a soldier … every day.


General (Ret) Charles H. Jacoby, Jr. retired in December after nearly 37 years of commissioned service in the Army. He commanded at every level of Joint and Army service. Most recently, he was Commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq in 2009-2010; Director of Strategy, Plans, and Policies (J5) for the Joint Staff from 2010-2011; and Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command from 2011-2014. The preceding is adapted from his retirement speech.


Photo credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard