By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2005
There's the swagger, and that ever-present stogie. There's the height and heft of his physique. And that barking voice with its font of perhaps impolitic obscenities ("That's b.s," he famously asserted on national TV), not to mention his penchant for not suffering fools, as is the prerogative of a three-star general.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, 57, is the kind of commander you don't mess with, you don't cross, who punctuates pronouncements with barked questions like "Everybody got that?" And he's so steeped in military culture that he ends his televised sound bites as if ending an army radio transmission: "Over."
But it's for something far less idiosyncratic, far more visceral, that the troops on the battered streets of New Orleans hold him in high regard: He's a soldier's soldier, the man you want in the trenches with you, the kind of man who'll cover your back.
As he strides through a command center set up outside the shuttered and storm-battered Harrah's casino here on Saturday, that is why the troops want to shake his hand, look him in the eye and thank him even as he thanks them for their work.
He's wrapped his big mitts around the hand of Spec. Amy Firestone, a member of the quick reaction force from the 1345th Transportation Company of the Oklahoma National Guard. She served in the dreaded Superdome, packed with evacuees and mayhem.
"Did you see any murders?" the general asks her sympathetically.
"I seen some stabbings, sir," she confides, her voice dripping with regret over what she witnessed.
He pats her on the shoulder, saying, "Thank you for being a good soldier," and palms a 1st Army medallion into her hand as a keepsake as he moves on to the crowd of troops and cops who have gravitated to him.
Mayor Ray Nagin called Honore (pronounced ah-NOR-ay) "one John Wayne dude" when the general arrived here after the storm and started taking charge. It seemed the city had spiraled out of anyone's control when the 6-foot-2 general with the pencil mustache and caramel skin appeared from obscurity and threw his weight against the mayhem.
"He's got the power to make things happen," Firestone says. Nearby, Honore is pledging to a volunteer that the Army will find a way to retrieve 1,000 pounds of meat the man wants to donate for the troops. "It's awesome that he came here," Firestone says. "He's the first general I've seen come down here."
Every day, he's there -- or somewhere: New Orleans, the Mississippi-Alabama coast, or Camp Shelby up near Hattiesburg, Miss., where Joint Task Force Katrina is based. From there he commutes via Black Hawk helicopter after each day's Battle Update Briefing, where his pronouncements are punctuated with choice phrases like one that bursts from his lips during a brief tirade Saturday over another commander's statements about weapons status for Joint Task Force Katrina: "It ain't his [expletive] job! I mean, how the [expletive] did he do that?"
That's the general, the farmer turned career military man of 36 years, speaking his mind, propriety be damned.
Yes, he offers in an interview aboard his Black Hawk, his wife of 34 years, Beverly, has admonished him from time to time about that intimidating public manner, about "using the word 'b.s.' on TV," he says. (The recent usage came when a reporter told Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that a Louisiana politician had complained there was too much red tape facing victims. Before Chertoff could answer, Honore snapped: "That's b.s.!")
But he also believes that "it takes a big personality to command the army east of the Mississippi River."
That's the region of the Army's 1st Division, and he is its commanding general, based in Atlanta, overseeing the preparations of units being deployed to Iraq. As leader of the Joint Task Force Katrina, he now commands all active-duty troops from all military branches devoted to the storm recovery operation. As of Saturday, those troops numbered 20,800, and more are coming. (National Guard troops number 50,000, but they are not under Honore's command.) And yes, he says he is a John Wayne fan, has seen all his movies. But he asserts that the troops in general are taking the battle (recovery) to the enemy (Katrina's destruction).
"This ain't about me," he says, there amid the troops. "This is about us."
With his leadership of U.S. armed forces in the post-Katrina operation, he burst onto the public stage with broadcast images of him deploying troops on New Orleans streets and growling, "Lower your weapons!"
A few days later, when he is heard barking at a soldier to "sling it" (meaning his M-16), he explains, "It's a zero-threat environment" and he doesn't want soldiers' demeanor to suggest "that the city is under siege."
And yet the water-logged streets of New Orleans are filled with troops, police, firefighters, FEMA recovery officials. With the vast majority of New Orleanians evacuated since the storm, the beleaguered city is one huge work zone.
In the thick of the recovery, a typical day (Saturday, for instance) took Honore from Camp Shelby to the USS Iwo Jima, anchored on the Mississippi River in New Orleans, where he met with other military leaders to strategize on the remaining search-and-rescue or recovery operations. He met also with Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, the newly appointed lead federal representative here following the recall to Washington of embattled FEMA Director Michael Brown.
He has spoken to the media so often that he has honed his message, his preferred lines (which his aides say he devised himself). He repeatedly says, as he did in an appearance with Allen, that "the storm turned back technology 80 years" in the region by knocking out all communication systems and that the region's first responders were themselves victims.
And, fending off early criticism of the federal government's response to the crisis, he says, "It's like the first quarter of a football game. You're losing 25 to nothing. What in the hell is the coach gonna do?
"You can beat [the players] up and tell them how stupid and dumb they are and degrade them," he continues, or you can take a new tact, find new approaches and remember "there's still three quarters of the game left."
Retired Army Gen. Dennis Reimer, who served as Army chief of staff from 1995 to 1999, is hearing much that is familiar from his days commanding Honore.
"When he shoots from the hip, it's always based on experience, and his experience is where the rubber meets the road," Reimer says.
Among other positions, Honore served as commander of the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea, as vice director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as commander of the Standing Joint Force Headquarters for Homeland Security, part of the U.S. Northern Command. He saw action in Iraq and Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. He holds a master's degree in human resources management.
One episode that is vintage Honore occurred in 1998, Reimer remembers. Honore was addressing a group of military acquisition officials, speaking about new weapons systems.
His speech became well known to Army brass and was memorable for a particular line quoted in the journal Inside the Army: "You are fielding pieces of crap. Is that clear enough to you?"
Now Honore brings that pointed, no-nonsense sensibility to an unprecedented humanitarian disaster that requires a tough leader, Reimer says.
"It's better to ask for forgiveness than for permission," Reimer says. "What Russ has done is understood what his role is and understood the broad mission. He will make somebody mad. He will step on somebody's toes and probably do some things wrong," albeit very few things wrong, Reimer said.
Switching to a sports analogy, albeit a tortured one, he says: "His batting average will be in the 90th percentile, and that will work in the major leagues any day."
Imagine it: He was the college kid at historically black Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La., in the late 1960s who had a horse named Big Dan, who worked on a dairy farm and who planned, when graduation came in 1971, on being a farmer.
That's how he was raised -- on his father's farm in Lakeland, La., amid a large mixed-heritage Creole clan (the "Ragin' Cajun" nickname in the Army is a misnomer) in a rural region called Pointe Coupee Parish north of Baton Rouge. He had 11 siblings that included a straight line of eight boys, of which he was the youngest. They grew sugar cane, cotton and corn and had pigs and cows, too.
"I grew up poor, but we had a good family" and a grounding in the Catholic faith.
He describes his father as a "master of provisions, of providing for the family." That skill, he says, was an early influence on his character, along with what he learned of "making the most of all your assets," a lesson gleaned from the dairy farm where he worked during college. After serving in the ROTC while in school, he entered the military and made it his life, much to his father's dismay.
"He was not too hot on this Army thing," Honore says.
But he found it to be a calling.
"The Army gave me open sky.
"I got in the military and I liked what I was doing and the opportunity to be judged by your performance as opposed to other measures." He is talking about race, but he does not want to elaborate. Rather than talk about the racism of those days, he says, "I'm more about the future than the past."
But his past as a farmer lives on. At his home in Atlanta, he is known for the vegetable garden he maintains down the street, where he harvests potatoes, peppers, okra and corn. It's his form of relaxation and exercise, he says.
"He's a very kind person and brings back vegetables from his garden," says Col. Robert Minor, a neighbor, who's received tomatoes and cucumbers from the general.
Honore has raised four children, including a son, Michael, who is an Army sergeant in Baghdad. His youngest child, Stephen, is only 15, and Honore is hoping he'll chose the military too. He jokingly calls it "the family business."
"But that'll be his choice," Honore says.
One of his daughters, Stephanie, lives in Florida. The other, Kimberly, lives in New Orleans. She was out of town when Hurricane Katrina struck, but her pets were stranded for several days in her Jefferson Parish apartment. She asked her dad to save them.
But he was so busy, what with the city descending into mayhem and evacuees being moved by scores of thousands out to cities and towns around the country and troops pouring in and the rescue of humans still underway.
But this week, 10 days into their abandonment, Kimberly's pets were finally on his agenda. Honore found himself with a bit of downtime. As he tells it, he chuckled at what he knows may sound silly to some. It was "a cat and hamster rescue," he says, freeing Gumbo and Hammie from their own post-Katrina hell.