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From facilitator to warrior

In the Pacific, William Fallon made allies. As CentCom chief, he'll lead the Iraq war.

Published January 14, 2007


As head of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. William J. Fallon could well be the most traveled man in the military. China, Australia, Bangladesh - he has logged countless miles visiting countries in a region that covers half the globe.

Yet Fallon, based in Hawaii, still makes time for recreation.

"He took up surfing at age 60," said Warren Faulk, a boyhood friend. "He hooked up with one of those vintage surfer guys to teach him. He's quite willing to accept a new challenge."

The biggest one may be yet to come. President Bush has nominated Fallon to head Tampa-based Central Command and assume overall authority for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In some ways, the 62-year-old Fallon is an odd choice - the first Navy officer to head a command focused on the Middle East and traditionally run by generals from the Army and Marines. And he might not have been the first choice. Gen. George Joulwan, NATO's former supreme commander, told CNN that others were interviewed for the post and turned it down.

Fallon "is a terrific guy and he's done a great job at Pacific Command, which is where the Navy puts its best people," said Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. "The problem is, you're putting him in a job that really involves two major ground wars. What does he bring to this?"

Others wonder if in choosing Fallon, a Navy pilot, Bush is signalling to Iran that the United States is prepared to attack by sea or air unless the Iranians give up their nuclear ambitions and stop meddling in Iraq. Most military experts agree that Iran is far too big for a land invasion.

"Fallon is the perfect guy for Iran because that is mainly a naval and air power situation," said Jeff Huber, a retired Navy commander who served under him. "He's a brilliant man and his depth of experience and education are unmatched."

Fallon has made little public comment since his nomination, which is expected to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. If so, he will move from Honolulu to Tampa - far closer to Merchantville, the south Jersey town where he grew up in a Happy Days era when most Americans knew nothing about the Mideast.

"We played Little League baseball together, we marched in the Memorial Day parade," said Faulk, now a lawyer. "It was the '50s. It was Richie Cunningham and the Fonz and all that. It was good."

Hoops of fire

The son of a mailman, Fallon was the oldest child in a large Catholic family. He helped out by delivering papers and making cans at the local Campbell Soup factory.

"He came from just a wonderful family, and he willingly accepted the responsibilities," Faulk said. "He had seven younger brothers and one sister, and they all looked up to him. If you want to talk about leadership, he provided a whole lot from an early age."

Tall and lean, Fallon ran on the track team at Camden Catholic High. He also had a fascination with climatology, and papered the walls of his room with weather maps. Friends were impressed by his forecasting abilities.

With money tight, Fallon applied for a Naval ROTC scholarship to Villanova University. "It was a way for him to get to college," Faulk said. "Then he got in and enjoyed the discipline of the military and saw it as an opportunity to learn to fly planes."

While at Villanova, he met Mary Trapp, a student from Scarsdale, N.Y., who was a year behind him at a nearby women's college. As soon as she graduated, they married. Fallon couldn't choose among his brothers, so he asked Faulk to be his best man.

In 1967, Fallon completed pilot training in Pensacola and began flying combat missions in Vietnam. Over the next quarter-century he logged more than 1,300 carrier landings. If he had any close calls, he didn't discuss them.

"He's not one to talk about war stories," Faulk said.

"Fox" Fallon - his aviator's call sign - got his introduction to the Mideast in the 1991 Persian Gulf War when he commanded a carrier air wing. He continued to rise through the ranks, and in 2000 was named to the Navy's No. 2 job, vice chief of naval operations.

A year later, Fallon displayed his burgeoning diplomatic skills after an American submarine, the USS Greenville, accidentally ran into and sank a Japanese fisheries training ship near Hawaii, killing nine on the ship. Fallon volunteered to fly to Japan, a close U.S. ally, and apologize to family members and Japanese officials.

"He wasn't terribly familiar with Japan at the time but he did a marvelous job handling a ticklish diplomatic situation," said Adm. Dennis Blair, then in charge of the Pacific region. "He has good judgment and he learns quickly."

Mixed reviews

In 2005, after President Bush's first choice withdrew because of a procurement scandal, Fallon became head of Pacific Command. He is responsible for 300,000 U.S. military personnel and a region that comprises 43 countries and 60 percent of the world's people.

With Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, Fallon has often acted as ambassador-at-large working to shore up U.S. relations in the Pacific Rim. He was impressed by the spectacular economic growth of many countries in the region, but worried about the terrorist threat from poor Muslim nations like Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Despite an al-Qaida-linked bombing that killed 202 people, "there are signs that cause one to be optimistic about Indonesia," Fallon told Australian journalists in 2005. "It is a functioning, rough, though functioning democracy. It is significantly more moderate than many of the Islamic nations in the world. It is an opportunity that I think we have to take advantage of."

Fallon has called al-Qaida and its associates the main threat facing the United States today. (He was in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and helped in rescue efforts.) But he considers China the biggest long-term challenge.

To that end, he spent a week there last May trying to develop better rapport with its leaders and closer ties between the U.S. and Chinese militaries.

"The more they realize they are like us," Fallon said, "the easier it will be" to avert crises like the 2001 collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet. The Chinese released the crew but held the plane for three months, souring military cooperation between the two countries until Fallon's visit.

His effort to repair relations drew mixed reviews.

"He was asked to do a job and he did it well," said Bates Gill, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It led to a visit by Rumsfeld, which I don't think many people expected to see given some of Rumsfeld's early views about China."

Another expert says Fallon's trip underscored how thinly stretched the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the U.S. military.

"My sense is that Adm. Fallon confronted the reality of a rapidly expanding Chinese navy in his area of operations, so his priority was not to rile up the Chinese," said John Tcacik Jr., an Asia researcher at the Heritage Foundation. "He was going to play the diplomat rather than the hard-nosed warrior."

Will Fallon's experience help him at Central Command?

"His main task (in the Pacific) was trying to create an atmosphere of mutual interests and reassurance," Gill said. "That's a completely different job from what he's got now, which is prosecuting several wars."

One more lap

Despite his global travels, Fallon's roots remain deep in South Jersey.

His parents are dead but most of his family is still there. He attended his 40th high school reunion three years ago. And one July 4th, while head of the Atlantic strike fleet, he docked his ship in Philadelphia and invited aboard several old schoolmates - and two Catholic nuns.

"He's the same guy as he was, modest, unassuming," Faulk said.

Two of Fallon's four children have followed him into the Navy. One son is a pilot based in San Diego; daughter Christina, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, recently got her master's degree from Georgetown University.

"I actually feel some relief here," Fallon joked, patting his wallet pocket, when he gave a speech at Georgetown last spring.

Transcripts of that and other speeches show Fallon to be an enthusiastic talker. But in a conversation with Blair, the retired admiral, he didn't let on that he had just been nominated for the difficult CentCom job even though he is nearing retirement.

"We've all learned that you better be prepared for the unexpected," Blair said. "If you're asked to serve, you take another lap."

Susan Martin can be contacted at

Adm. William J. Fallon

Current position: Head of U.S. Pacific Command

Next assignment: Head of Central Command

Age: 62

Education: B.A., Villanova; master's, Old Dominion; Naval War College

Family: Mary Trapp Fallon, four children, one grandchild

Recreation: surfing, running


[Last modified January 14, 2007, 12:55:21]

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