In 1968, a young Army captain recently returned from Vietnam took command of the Nike-Hercules antiaircraft missile battery in which I was serving. A man diminutive in stature, but large of heart; a former Florida National Guardsman and enlisted Marine Corps reservist; he had earlier left his position as a history teacher while the unpopular Vietnam War raged to accept a commission as an Army lieutenant. Jay Garner never returned to teaching, but remained in the Army until his retirement from active duty as a lieutenant general and Assistant Vice Chief of Staff of the Army in 1997.
At the end of the Gulf War Jay remained in northern Iraq, charged with returning and protecting the Kurdish people who had fled to the mountains near Turkey’s border. After convincing them to leave the mountains where many of them suffered from malnutrition and the effects of the elements, Jay’s command sheltered, fed, and protected these people from Saddam Hussein’s forces for a number of months. When it was finally time for the Americans to leave, several thousand Kurdish protesters briefly held up the withdrawal and hoisted Jay on their shoulders.
His 1991 Operation Provide Comfort mission was a model of “how to do it right”, and its success made possible the creation of a semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave in the north, which today, for all its troubles, is far more prosperous, free, and safe than the rest of Iraq (go to www.theotheriraq.com to see what I mean).
It came as no surprise to me when Jay was tapped in retirement by the Pentagon to return to Iraq to begin setting up a civilian government after Saddam was toppled. What was a surprise, was that he was replaced after only a little more than a month on the ground by former Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. It’s my belief—and this is just my opinion—that had Jay not been replaced so soon, today’s much improved situation in Iraq would have come about years earlier. Even during those first few weeks after major hostilities ended, rather than barricading himself in some palace in the so-called Green Zone, Jay went out on the streets of Baghdad to talk with and listen to the people. Iraq in those early days of uncertainty didn’t need a diplomat in a suit—it needed this little fireplug of a guy who listened and talked straight to the people and then rolled up his sleeves and worked to rebuild the country because he actually cared.
Now 70 and a private citizen, Jay is still involved in improving the lives of the Kurdish people. One Kurdish political leader, Farhad Barzani, is quoted as saying "We love him, because we know him." I understand the sentiment. You can’t meet and speak with Jay for five minutes without being drawn in by his belief in whatever he is doing, which he conveys in an easy, down-home manner of speaking. His goal becomes your goal, and it isn’t a trick … you just know this man cares and you want to be a part of it.
“We love him, because we know him.” Although I’d never heard it expressed about Jay in that way before, it does express the sentiment of every soldier I’ve ever known who served with him … and there are thousands of us.
A lot of us retired Army guys have memorabilia mounted on our office or den walls—me included. We know it’s an affectation of sorts, remembrances of our “glory days” on “I love me” walls. Jay’s wall-mounted memorabilia is slightly different … hand-drawn thank-you notes, in crayon, from Kurdish children. I wish I had his wall.
Copyright © 2008 by Gary Stephens
Gary Stephens is a retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer and the author of the 2007 techno-thriller, Epiphany