8:33 A.M. March 23, 2002, Fairfax, Virginia
I’d been poisoned in Vietnam and ambushed in Haiti; instituted the war plan for invading Afghanistan and knighted by the Queen; attacked by the Vice President and prevented a high-ranking Cabinet official from precipitating global war by deliberately shooting down an American airplane—so the last scenario I could have imagined for my own death was falling off a ladder while trimming a tree in my backyard. Yet, that’s exactly where I found myself on the morning of March 23, when I slammed head first onto the ground.
I was completely paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe . . . oxygen nearly depleted . . . starting to lose consciousness . . . powerless to do anything about it. . . .
My mind flashed through snippets of the incredible “ride” that constituted my life.
* * *
Early on in my days as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we had small, weekly White House breakfasts in National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s office that included me, Sandy, Bill Cohen (Secretary of Defense), Madeleine Albright (Secretary of State), George Tenet (head of the CIA), Leon Firth (VP chief of staff for security), Bill Richardson (ambassador to the U.N.), and a few other senior administration officials. These were informal sessions where we would gather around Berger’s table and talk about concerns over coffee and breakfast served by the White House dining facility. It was a comfortable setting that encouraged brainstorming of potential options on a variety of issues of the day.
During that time we had U-2 aircraft on reconnaissance sorties over Iraq. These planes were designed to fly at extremely high speeds and altitudes (over seventy thousand feet) both for pilot safety and to avoid detection.
At one of my very first breakfasts, while Berger and Cohen were engaged in a sidebar discussion down at one end of the table and Tenet and Richardson were preoccupied in another, one of the Cabinet members present leaned over to me and said, “Hugh, I know I shouldn’t even be asking you this, but what we really need in order to go in and take out Saddam is a precipitous event—something that would make us look good in the eyes of the world. Could you have one of our U-2s fly low enough—and slow enough—so as to guarantee that Saddam could shoot it down?”
The hair on the back of my neck bristled, my teeth clenched, and my fists tightened. I was so mad I was about to explode. I looked across the table, thinking about the pilot in the U-2 and responded, “Of course we can . . .” which prompted a big smile on the official’s face.
“You can?” was the excited reply.
“Why, of course we can,” I countered. “Just as soon as we get your ass qualified to fly it, I will have it flown just as low and slow as you want to go.”
The official reeled back and immediately the smile disappeared. “I knew I should not have asked that. . . .”
“No, you should not have,” I strongly agreed, still shocked at the disrespect and sheer audacity of the question. “Remember, there is one of our great Americans flying that U-2, and you are asking me to intentionally send him or her to their death for an opportunity to kick Saddam. The last time I checked, we don’t operate like that here in America.”
I left the room that day but I never forgot it. I went back and I shared it with the Joint Chiefs— not revealing who the official was—but nonetheless getting into how it had played out. “You may not think those types of things still happen in Washington, but trust me—they do, and I’ve just been exposed to it. Keep your antennas up and do not ever fall into it.”
* * *
Looking back on the thirty- four years of my career that led up to my appointment as Chairman, I felt comfortable with the man I saw in the mirror. I had earned a solid reputation as an honest, straightforward role model for integrity, ethics, and selflessness—a leader whose moral character was beyond reproach. Now, as I proudly stepped into my position as highest-ranking military officer in all of the United States Armed Forces—the principal military adviser to the President and the National Security Council—I was excited to serve as a living example to the three million-plus men and women of our armed forces that it really is possible to rise to the top of one’s profession through character-based leadership and without its being at the expense of others.
But what was I stepping into behind the heavily fortified walls of the Pentagon’s inner circle? Would subsequent White House gatherings attempt to drag me into more revolting conspiracies? I’d had bosses who asked me to steal for them, others to access and falsify their records. I’d seen my share of cowards and relieved them of duty. But never in those thirty-four years had I seen—or even imagined—anything that came close to a senior Cabinet member suggesting I be party to killing one of our great airmen in hopes of starting a war. Was this typical of what really went on at the highest levels of the United States government, the country I had passionately devoted my life to serve?
If my first few weeks as Chairman were any indication of the challenges the next four years would bring, I would have countless opportunities to call upon those principles deeply ingrained within me as a young boy in a small North Carolina town called Speed.