War tasks envelop CentCom staffers
By PAUL DE LA GARZA, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- After waging a war in Afghanistan and crafting a war plan for Iraq, is the staff of the Tampa-based U.S. Central Command tired?
The answer is yes, and no.
Immediately after Sept. 11, CentCom took center stage in the war on terror. Since then, the workload often has been numbing, with senior staff sometimes going months without a day off, and staffers reporting to duty at 5 a.m. routinely finding themselves at their desk into the night.
"Make no mistake about it," says retired Adm. Craig Quigley, the CentCom spokesman during the early months of the war in Afghanistan, "there's just a lot of activity within that staff seven days a week."
CentCom's role -- overseeing military efforts from the Middle East to the Horn of Africa -- always has been vital, but never more than now. Rarely if ever has a unified command been charged with devising and executing such ambitious war plans back-to-back. After 17 months in Afghanistan, about 7,000 U.S. forces still remain. Another 225,000 troops are in the Persian Gulf region in preparation for a possible war with Iraq.
CentCom officials said that almost every military component at MacDill Air Force Base, including CentCom, the Special Operations Command, and the 6th Air Mobility Wing, is engaged in the war on terror. The challenge, however, does not end with Afghanistan and Iraq.
Retired Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, for example, the CentCom commander from August 1997 through July 2000, said that of the 25 countries in the command's area of responsibility, only the island nation of Seychelles in the Indian Ocean did not have a terrorist threat during his tenure.
"I know that they are really having to dig down deep and pull out extra reserves of energy," said Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Of course they're strained, and it's the strain that's apparent from the tension that builds on the eve of war."
Since becoming CentCom commander almost three years ago, Gen. Tommy Franks has had his hands full. In October 2000, less than four months after taking over the command, he was thrust into the spotlight with the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. The attack, linked to Osama bin Laden, killed 17 American sailors and wounded 39.
A year later, Franks led U.S. forces into war in Afghanistan. Almost simultaneously, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked Franks to fashion a war plan for Iraq.
Franks, 57, is constantly on the move, shuttling between Tampa, Washington, and his area of responsibility, including Qatar, which would serve as CentCom headquarters in the event of war with Iraq.
"It's a very aggressive pace," Quigley said, "because there is constantly a lot of stuff."
Quigley, however, and others familiar with military operations, point out the obvious: War is what the military trains for.
Fatigue, therefore, is not a factor, they said.
That is not to say, Quigley said, "that this is not hard work, and people feel the effects of the pressure and the long hours."
Dr. Robert Ursano is chief of the Department of Psychiatry and director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, School of Medicine, the military medical school in Bethesda, Md.
He said that austere and high-stress environments, and boredom, all induce fatigue. "All of these elements are part of combat, whether in a headquarters setting or in the field," Ursano said.
The result, he said, is the inability to process as much information, or process information as quickly, increasing the "risk factor in decisionmaking."
But Quigley said the CentCom mission "fuels your energies to a considerable extent."
CentCom officials, meanwhile, said fatigue is not a problem. They insist they're working under a well-designed "battle rhythm," with plenty of time for chow, personal time and sleep.
"Yeah, I'm tired. So what?" said Lt. Col. Martin Compton, a CentCom spokesman who has been working 11 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, since Sept. 11. "It's also my job."
Compton said the message from the CentCom leadership is: "Work when you have to, but when you can take a break, take it."
Ursano said that to avoid fatigue, it's crucial to fall into a pattern, which includes work, rest and a "refueling cycle." Refueling, he said involves a change in environment, spending time with friends and family, for example, away from work.
Compton, Ursano said, could go on indefinitely because his schedule fits a pattern.
Ursano cited studies that show that people can restore 90 percent of their energy with only four hours of sleep over long periods.
Franks is known for waking up in the wee hours, hitting the treadmill while listening to country music, and reporting to work by 5 a.m.
He's out by 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., but in emergencies, Quigley said, "all bets are off."
Quigley said Franks regularly operates on four or five hours of sleep. To "recharge his battery," he will often take an hour or two to walk the neighborhood or go home for dinner -- activities Ursano recommends to refuel.
For CentCom, there's another wrinkle, which, Quigley said, affects the battle rhythm: the differences in time zones between Tampa and its area of responsibility.
Between Tampa and Afghanistan, for example, the time difference is 91/2 hours. Between Tampa and Qatar, the time difference is seven hours.
Usually, Compton said, CentCom headquarters in Tampa totals about 1,000 staffers. In the aftermath of Sept. 11 and with the crisis with Iraq, he said the Tampa number has doubled, with another 1,000 deployed in Qatar.
Often, Quigley said, to find a middle ground between Tampa and the area of responsibility, Franks would schedule a video teleconference or conference call about 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. Tampa time.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO commander of U.S. forces in Kosovo, said fatigue takes a back seat during war. He said exercise and three to four hours of sleep is good enough to reboot a soldier.
He said war, or the possibility of war, makes soldiers focus like nothing else.
He likens a soldier's state of mind at times like these to working in a cocoon.
As a result, Clark said, even if Franks were tired, he wouldn't know it, and it won't affect his performance. "You're up," he said, "because you believe in what you're doing."
"They are professional warriors," he said. "I am fully confident they can do the job."
What tires during war is family, Clark said.
Tension brews when a parent who serves in the military starts skipping out on everyday life -- missing, for example, a soccer game or an appointment with a teacher. "It's day-to-day living that wears you down," Clark said. "It's not the war."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
local news desks