Most U.S. Army generals wear pistols on the battlefield. Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, a decorated paratrooper who next month takes over as the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, packs an M4 rifle.
A physically imposing but modest man who is little known outside Army circles, Austin's hands-on style reflects a connection with front-line troops and a breadth of combat leadership that senior officers say make him ideal for his new job: running the day-to-day operations of the Iraq war.
Whereas the top U.S. commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, must serve as much as a diplomat and public face of the war as a military leader, Austin must master the gritty details of Iraq's battlefield geometry -- constantly prioritizing the use of dozens of U.S. and Iraqi combat units as well as aircraft, unmanned drones and other military forces to carry out the U.S. strategy.
Austin, who during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 became the first black general to maneuver an Army division in combat, will replace Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who has earned high marks for managing the "surge" of nearly 30,000 troops in Iraq.
These days at his Fort Bragg headquarters, Austin is poring over the same daily briefings Odierno sees, while working to make sure his staff is electronically wired to battlefield commanders and to agencies in Washington, all with the goal of building "some sustainable momentum" in Iraq, he said in a radio interview last week.
Still, Austin, who has played a central role in running the military's combat operations since 2001, predicts grueling years of conflict ahead -- in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. "We're in it for the long haul. But it's a tough, tough road ahead," he told WFNC in Fayetteville, N.C.
Austin declined to be interviewed for this story.
Austin, 54, was a pivotal figure in the invasion of Iraq. Leading the forward headquarters of the 3rd Infantry Division as it spearheaded the march to Baghdad, he gained a reputation for showing up unexpectedly in the heat of battle. He received a Silver Star for gallantry in combat.
"Lloyd's approach is, 'I am a soldier like everyone else,' " said retired Army Brig. Gen. Bill Weber, a fellow 3rd Infantry Division commander during the invasion. "His style is flak vest, Kevlar and a ton of ammunition, and he's a big, strapping guy and can carry it," Weber said of Austin, who stands 6-foot-4 and was a star high school basketball player in Thomasville, Ga.
Austin also stood out for his strategic thinking: When the 3rd Infantry met unexpected resistance and essentially ran out of combat forces to carry on the armored thrust to Baghdad, he was central to formulating a new plan that brought in other brigades to relieve his troops and maintain the momentum critical to the campaign's success, Weber recalled.
Within months after Baghdad fell, Austin was rewarded with command of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan, one of a nonstop series of demanding assignments in recent years. That was followed by a posting from September 2005 to October 2006 as the chief of staff of U.S. Central Command, which oversees all U.S. forces in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa.
"He's one of the best troop leaders we have," said Army Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, who recalls that Austin hated sitting behind a desk when they served together in Afghanistan. "He goes everywhere he can. He will be standing on the walls at Shkin fire base [on the Pakistani border] to get a feel for what goes on there. He will fly to the deepest regions of Konar province to meet with village elders. . . . He'd never ask his soldiers to do anything he wouldn't do."
In his current job as commander of the Army's 18th Airborne Corps -- which includes the 82nd Airborne Division and other units, with a total of 35,000 troops -- Austin recently led troops parachuting from aircraft as part of intensive preparations for the Iraq deployment.
"He was the first off the ramp," as is traditional for the senior paratrooper on the aircraft, said Col. Ben Hodges, who jumped with the general as his chief of staff at the Corps.
Subordinates say the personable, soft-spoken Georgian has high expectations and a side he refers to as "the evil twin." "When you're really screwing up, the evil twin can come out," said one Army general who worked for Austin. "So he can be tough but never unreasonable."
They also praise Austin for his personal loyalty, saying he travels long distances to pin insignia at promotions and calls out of the blue to check in on old comrades. "He cares all the way down to the bone marrow," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Dorian Anderson, a West Point classmate who played rugby with Austin and graduated with him in 1975.
The fifth of six children, Austin does not come from a military family but is a distant relative of the first black man to attend West Point, 2nd Lt. Henry O. Flipper, who graduated in 1877, Anderson said. As a black soldier, Anderson said, "we all accept that doing 120 percent is not always a bad thing. He's kind of driven by that."
Austin has served more than three decades in the Army, but as an avid fisherman he sometimes jokes about leaving. "His inside joke is, 'I can't wait to go run a bait shop,' " Weber said.
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