Four-star general Donn A. Starry dies at 86

September 1, 2011

Donn A. Starry, 86, a four-star general, Vietnam veteran and erudite military historian who crafted a war-fighting doctrine for the Army in the years after the conflict in Southeast Asia, died Aug. 26 at his home in Canton, Ohio.

He had complications from a rare form of cancer, said his wife, Karen “Cookie” Starry.

Gen. Starry was one of the “intellectual giants” who “turned the Army around after Vietnam,” said Conrad Crane, director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute.

In his 40-year career, Gen. Starry witnessed and directed dramatic changes in the way the Army conducts wars.

A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., he advanced through the ranks during the Cold War. He held command assignments in Germany and Vietnam, where he led an armored cavalry regiment during the war.

In 1977, Gen. Starry was named commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), then based at Fort Monroe and now at Fort Eustis, both of which are in Virginia. In that assignment, he developed the doctrine of “AirLand Battle,” a Cold War strategy for facing off with the Soviet-aligned Eastern Bloc countries.

Before AirLand Battle, the Army had operated under a doctrine known as “Active Defense.” It was based on the concept of a small but high-tech and agile force that could defeat the first wave of a large-scale conventional attack by the Soviets in Western Europe.

Gen. Starry reshaped that strategy. In his plan, air and land forces were integrated, just as the name suggested. AirLand Battle also extended the battlefield. Gen. Starry looked miles beyond the front, calling for helicopters and “smart” precision weapons to attack the enemy from the rear.

The doctrine was put to the test in the early 1990s in the Persian Gulf, where U.S. forces overwhelmed the Iraqi army. That, Crane said, was evidence of its success.

The doctrine that Gen. Starry crafted was largely overtaken by the war on terrorism, changes in combat that came with it and the rise of counterinsurgency.

As head of TRADOC, Gen. Starry founded the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He retired in 1983 from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida as commander of the U.S. Readiness Command, which prepares Army and Air Force units for deployment overseas.

Donn Albert Starry was born May 31, 1925, in New York City. He was raised in Kansas City, Kan., where his father, a veteran of two world wars, was a company commander in the Kansas National Guard.

Gen. Starry went with his father to summer camps at Fort Riley, Kan., and developed a deep admiration for the cavalry officers who took care of their horses first, then one another, and themselves last. When he was 6, the Guard made him an honorary lieutenant.

As a teenager, the future general performed in a rodeo in Kansas City.

He enlisted in the Army in 1943 and, soon after, received an appointment to West Point, where he graduated with the Class of 1948. He earned a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University.

His papers were edited by Lewis Sorley, a retired lieutenant colonel and military historian, and published in a collection called “Press On!” — named after Gen. Starry’s traditional sign-off.

Gen. Starry’s first wife, the former Leatrice Gibbs, died in 2008 after 60 years of marriage. Their daughter Suzanne died in infancy.

Survivors include his wife of two years, the former Karen Deitrick; four children from his first marriage, retired Army Col. Michael Starry of Newport News, Va., Paul Starry of Hilton Head, S.C., Melissa Starry of Baltimore and Melanie Mohler of Seattle; one sister; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Gen. Starry’s decorations included the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, two Distinguished Service Medals, the Silver Star, three Legions of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.

He received a Soldier’s Medal for his actions May 5, 1970, during the Cambodian incursion. On that day, he pushed future general Frederick M. Franks out of the way of a North Vietnamese grenade. Gen. Starry was wounded in the chest. Franks lost his leg, but not his life.

Every year, the two men phoned each other on the anniversary of that event, Franks said. They called each other “the friends of the Fifth of May.”

langere@washpost.com

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.