A June 11th article about the nomination of Peter J. Schoomaker as Army chief of staff incorrectly reported the code name of a 1980 Iran rescue mission and the reason it was scrubbed. The mission was called Operation Eagle Claw. It was ended before a collision between a helicopter and tanker plane, when other events left the number of available helicopters below a required minimum. (Published 6/13/03)
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has reached outside the ranks of active-duty generals to pick a new military leader for the Army, settling on Peter J. Schoomaker, a retired four-star officer who left the Army three years ago after a career concentrated in the select and secretive world of Special Operations, defense officials said yesterday.
It is rare for a retired officer to be brought back to a military leadership job, and unprecedented for one to fill the Army's top military post, according to several military historians.
The move came despite private warnings to Rumsfeld that such an action likely would be perceived as an affront to the Army's upper ranks and an expression of no confidence in them. But it followed unsuccessful efforts by the Pentagon leader to persuade at least two active-duty generals to take over as Army chief of staff. And in Schoomaker, Rumsfeld has found someone with a reputation as an innovative thinker and experience in a branch of the military known for the kind of agility and mobility that the defense secretary would like to see adopted by conventional Army units.
"If he's going to go into the retired ranks, I think he's picked the right guy," said a senior military officer aware of the decision. "Schoomaker is an innovator, he's tough-minded and he's got good judgment."
While the choice has not yet been formally announced, defense officials confirmed it yesterday ahead of today's retirement ceremony for Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who is stepping down from a four-year term as chief. Shinseki's final two years in the job have been marked by strains with Rumsfeld over the nature and pace of Army modernization programs.
Rumsfeld's first choice to command the Army had been Shinseki's deputy, Gen. John M. Keane -- a fact that became known a year ago in a move widely viewed as an attempt to undercut Shinseki. But Keane recently withdrew from consideration, citing his wife's illness.
Rumsfeld then approached Army Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, who led U.S. forces in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Franks, who is a close friend of Schoomaker's, has chosen to retire this summer.
Rumsfeld also discussed the Army job with Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, who has been in line to succeed Franks at Central Command. But according to one Pentagon insider, Abizaid was not keen on becoming chief, and picking him would have left Rumsfeld searching for someone else to fill the Central Command slot.
Rumsfeld's strains with the Army were reflected in a highly publicized clash last year over plans to build a new howitzer system, which Rumsfeld canceled, and a dispute this year over how large a U.S. force would be required to stabilize postwar Iraq. In April, the defense secretary forced the resignation of the Army's civilian leader, Thomas E. White, replacing him with the secretary of the Air Force, James G. Roche.
In going outside the active-duty ranks to pick a new Army chief, Rumsfeld can point to similar examples but no exact precedent. Maxwell Taylor, who headed the Army in the 1950s, was summoned from retirement to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President John F. Kennedy. Lyman Lemnitzer, a onetime chairman, returned to head NATO in the 1960s. Other retired generals and admirals have also been recalled to head one of the service academies.
But several officers said the idea that no general currently in the Army could be found to fill the chief's position is sure to rankle many in uniform. "Rumsfeld is essentially rejecting all three- and four-star generals in the Army," one senior officer said, "undermining them by saying, in effect, they aren't good enough to lead the service. But apparently he did not feel as comfortable with anybody else."
In response, a senior Pentagon official said that Rumseld considered "a lot of officers" and nominated the one he considered "the best for the job." The official added that several senior Army officers are being nominated for other high-level command posts.
Born in Michigan, Schoomaker graduated from the University of Wyoming, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in education administration and played defensive guard on the school's football team. Beginning his Army career in 1969 as an armor officer, he had joined the world of Special Operations by the late 1970s.
As a member of the Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment -- the highly secretive Delta Force, which specializes in counterterrorism missions -- Schoomaker took part in the failed attempt to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran. The 1980 mission, code-named Desert One, was scrubbed when a helicopter and a C-130 transport plane collided in a desert staging area. In later years he kept a photo on his desk of the downed helicopter.
Schoomaker stayed in Special Operations, holding several command positions, but he served one stint in the conventional Army in the mid-1990s as an assistant division commander for the 1st Cavalry. He took charge of Special Operations by Navy and Air Force as well as Army units, becoming head of U.S. Special Operations Command in 1997, a post he held for three years before retiring.
"His vision for special operations and his role in introducing some new capabilities while heading the command were legendary," said retired Gen. Henry H. Shelton, who preceded Schoomaker in the command and later served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "He's known as a guy who thinks outside the box."
At 57, Schoomaker is still relatively young for the chief's job. He has kept in touch with some of the innovations begun by Shinseki, serving on a recent panel of outside experts that reviewed the Army's Future Combat System -- an effort to field by 2010 a family of as many as 18 types of lightweight combat vehicles and robotic platforms, all linked under a common command network.
In another development, Rumsfeld has decided to nominate Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Marine Gen. Peter Pace for another stint as vice chairman, a senior defense official said.