Success is failing, then rebounding, says I Corps general

Senior officer's tasks include Pacific Rim, suicides, sex assault

Staff writerFebruary 4, 2014 

Outgoing I Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Robert Brown was more visible outside the gates than his recent predecessors at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, as seen in this photo from a 2013 visit to Amazon headquarters in Seattle.


Give Lt. Gen. Robert Brown a room full of young Army officers eager to learn from a three-star general, and the Joint Base Lewis-McChord commander might just bring up all the times he thinks he’s failed in uniform.

He says he wants a younger generation of leaders to understand that success has far more to do with rebounding from setbacks than it does with keeping a spotless service record.

“I give them straight-out examples. I’m sure they all walk out of there saying ‘Holy smokes, he’s a three-star general; I bet I can be a four-star, no problem,’” said Brown, the departing commander of Lewis-McChord’s I Corps.

Brown, 54, is taking his lessons in leadership to a new assignment this week, commanding the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He will manage programs grooming mid-level officers and soldiers moving into command positions.

It’s a good fit for an Army commander who swaps leadership tips with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and famed Duke University hoops coach Mike Kryzewski from time to time.

Brown previously served at Fort Lewis as commander of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, which he led in northern Iraq in 2004-05. The Stryker brigade lost 44 soldiers but also saw high points such as overseeing Iraqi elections.

He came back to Lewis-McChord nearly 20 months ago to lead I Corps as it turned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan back to its traditional role partnering with allies on the Pacific Rim.

That shift allowed Brown to be more visible in the Puget Sound region than his recent predecessors, making time for functions at the University of Washington Tacoma, the Museum of Glass, Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon and the Seahawks.

“As an Army we’ve got to do a better job of reaching out to society,” he said. “We’re becoming too separate from society, to be quite honest, and folks don’t understand what we do.”

He recently looked back at his time as I Corps commander in an interview with The News Tribune.

Q: The I Corps in the past year had significant exercises in Australia, Japan and South Korea. What surprised you about those events?


A: We’ve done three exercises in six months that are major, major exercises. What surprised me was the amazing agility of the corps staff and how every generation in the Army, from private to general, has learned the importance of cooperation and collaboration. We’re never going to do anything alone ever again.

Q: You have two Stryker brigades carrying out large-scale exercises this month in Yakima and in California. Neither is going to Afghanistan. Have the federal budget cuts known as sequestration really impacted your ability to do business?


A: It has. Let’s say there are 12 brigades here. For 12 years, they were at the highest level of readiness, prepared for anything. Now we only have three of those. All the others are at the lowest level of readiness.

The bigger impact of sequestration was it just doesn’t allow you flexibility.

If as a commander they were able to say, ‘Here’s how much money you’ve got and figure it out, commander.’ OK, that would be one thing.

But it takes money from pools you can’t control. It’s like having a checkbook you have to balance, but 20 people are writing the checks, and you don’t know for how much and you don’t know how much you have in the account. Good luck balancing it.

Q: What are you trying to show on your visits to businesses and colleges in the Puget Sound area?


A: By reaching out to business, academia, sports teams, we’re educating them on the Army. We’re helping them see the value of hiring a veteran. At the same time, we’re educating them on what we’ve done as an Army. We have incredible, agile and adaptive leaders. Their lives depend on coming up with creative solutions to complex problems, and that can help any business.

Q: Are there any failures from your career that are relevant to your next assignment?


A: You can feel like you’re as prepared for command as you’ve ever been, but if you lose a soldier in combat — God forbid you have to go to combat and you lose a soldier — nothing prepares you for that.

It’s the worst feeling. It’s like someone just takes your heart, tears it out. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life. So how do you deal with that?

You’ve got to know you’ve done everything you can to train them. You have to be able to look each parent in the eye and be able to say, we did everything we could do. And you’ve got to have a buddy you can talk to, and you’ve got to have ways to deal with it.

Q: In the downsizing, are you worried about losing junior level officers who rose to the occasion in Iraq and Afghanistan?


A: We’ve got the most operationally experienced Army we’ve ever had. Leader development is our No. 1 priority as far as training because no one has a crystal ball. You see the debates. Are we going to have a large Army? I go back to when I was on the joint staff in 2000. (Then Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld and the experts had (produced a) 60-page document that didn’t even mention ground combat because we weren’t going to need ground forces, at all.

Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. We’ve been a little busy over the last 12 years.

Nobody has a crystal ball. I hope we don’t need the Army for a long time; my gut and my experience tells me that’s not the case. We’re going to need the Army, we’re going to need the Navy, the Air Force and Marines.

Change was the only thing that stayed the same in Lt. Gen. Robert Brown’s 20 months as the senior Army officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

His primary assignment was taking soldiers who only recently fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and training them instead to focus on military partnerships along the Pacific Rim. They’re at the forefront of the Army’s effort to renew Pacific alliances it set aside during the wars.

“We were coming back, and the vision was to be a tailorable, agile corps that can react and be responsive to the Pacific,” he said.

That was his big job, but the smaller challenges were just as tough. The Army faced a complicated budget picture the past two years with spending constraints that crimped funds for maintenance and training.

The Army also announced plans to deactivate one of Lewis-McChord’s three Stryker brigades and an artillery battalion – a cut of about 5,000 troops after the base saw a decade of growth.

With the drawdown, the Army faced pressure to ease transitions to civilian lives for soldiers exiting the military.

Brown got some big help from two new commands the Army launched at Lewis-McChord to better manage soldiers. One is the 7th Infantry Division led by Brown’s successor, Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza. The other is the 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command under Brig. Gen. Kurt Ryan.

The two new general officer commands provide steadier leadership at Lewis-McChord, but it’s hard to say what lies ahead for the base in a time of Army downsizing.

“What I worry about is, will we cut too much, too fast?” he said.

During Brown’s command, the number of suicides at Lewis-McChord reached a plateau and then declined slightly in keeping with Armywide trends.

The I Corps also opened a first-in-the-Army sexual assault response center that brings together prosecutors, investigators, victims advocates and medical professionals.

“It goes directly to empowering folks to get out and figure out how we can conquer this cancer in our ranks,” Brown said.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646

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