“If you think every day that when you go out that gate, you could be killed. I don’t know how you go out the gate.” If you’re like a lot of people, listening to this podcast with General George Casey, Jr, former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, will leave you with an overwhelming feeling of humility. From his selfless devotion to duty (“I really didn’t think about it…I had a job and I was going to do it”) to his joyous appreciation for everyday things like seeing his grandkids or riding his bike, we encourage you take a half hour out of your day to be inspired by man who spent most of his life facing mortality head on.
David Abend: Hi, I’m David Abend, founder of The Bucket and your host for The Bucket Podcast. Today, we are privileged to be joined by General George Casey, Jr. General Casey is a four-star general who served as the 36th Chief of Staff of the United States Army from 2007 to 2011. He served as commanding general of the multinational force in Iraq from 2004 to 2007. He has received the defense distinguished service medal and the army distinguished service medal, as well as many other military awards. He retired from the military in 2011 and is currently a lecturer at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, as well as a teaching fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. It is a privilege to welcome you General Casey.
General Casey: Thanks David. Nice to be with you today.
David Abend: I know you’ve had a long career in the military and we’ll definitely talk about that. But first, I was wondering if you could tell me what you’ve been doing since you retired. You must have had a lot of things that you were planning to do, so what have you been doing? .
General Casey: I’ve been dividing my time with teaching leadership at business schools and to businesses and doing some work on corporate boards, and then giving back to the military that I served so well with.
David Abend: Can you tell me what kinds of things you’ve been doing for that?
General Casey: Sure. I’m the chairman of board of the USO, which has a major military support organization. I’m on the board of Student Veterans of America, which works with our student veterans not only to help them graduate, but to ensure that they continue to contribute to their country. Then I’m on several other smaller boards that do things for veterans and their families.
David Abend: Oh, that’s really great and it must be very satisfying.
General Casey: Well, it’s hugely satisfying, you know, these young men and women who serve give so much to the country and I personally will never forget what they’ve given and their families.
David Abend: And so, what have you been doing for fun?
General Casey: For fun? Basically, hanging out with my grandchildren, playing a little golf and riding my bike.
David Abend: So, you’re a bike rider?
General Casey: Yeah, I was. I went over the handlebars December and cracked three ribs, so I’ve slacked off a little bit.
David Abend: How’d you do that? Where you are off road or were you on the road?
General Casey: No, I was actually finishing up a ride less than a mile from the house, just kind of cruising around the corner and my front tire blew and the bike stopped, and I kept going.
David Abend: Wow. How many months ago was that?
General Casey: That was June 20th.
David Abend: I just had a surgery on my elbow two, three weeks ago. I had a torn tendon, which was a chronic injury. It wasn’t like I just did it, but I finally had it taken care of, and I’m on the mend right now, but that’s a four to six-month recovery. One of the reasons I really wanted to talk to you is of course, because you’re a soldier, and at The Bucket our mission is to help people lead more fulfilling lives by acknowledging and even embracing their own mortality. For most people, this is more of a philosophical concept, but for you as a soldier, it must’ve been very real. What was it like to live like this?
General Casey: Well it’s interesting, you probably make it seem harder than it was. The reality is, what I found was that my almost three years in Iraq, I was really so focused on what I was doing that I, I didn’t really think about my own mortality.
I thought a lot about the mortality of the men and women that I was leading and when I made my decisions I always got into, you know, what the cost would be in terms of human life. That’s a really difficult decision for any leader.
David Abend: That idea of putting it out of your mind. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched the miniseries Band of Brothers, but there’s a scene where the Lieutenant Spears character advises a soldier that to be affective, he has to accept that he’s already dead. What is your opinion of that philosophy? Do you think that’s true? Or is it Hollywood?
General Casey: Yeah, I mean everybody’s different, but I’d say when I think about that I think that’s really Hollywood because again what I personally did is I really didn’t think about it. I had a job to do and I was going to do it. I suspect that’s the way most soldiers deal with it. If you think every day that when you go out that gate you could be killed, I don’t know how you go out the gate.
David Abend: Do you find though that afterwards you have a greater appreciation for the things that you’re enjoying now, the things you’re doing with the military still, the bike riding with your grandchildren? Do you find that’s something that, I know you can’t speak for anyone else, but it’s something that’s very sweet given what you’ve been through?
General Casey: You know I don’t know that it was that long term. I think it was Winston Churchill who said once, “Nothing is more exhilarating than being shot at without effect.” I must say there is a rush, an adrenaline rush after you’ve heard the crack of a bullet go by your head or a rocket or a mortar round explode near you and nothing happened. I guess I didn’t leave Iraq thinking, well I cheated death and everything’s going to be great now. I really kind of just got on with my next job.
David Abend: Right. Now, can you talk a little bit about your background? I believe you grew up in a military family. Is that correct?
General Casey: I did. I’m an army brat. My dad was in the military. I was born in Japan where he was part of the occupation forces after WWII. Then we bounced around the United States, and in Europe. We were over in Europe around the time I was in high school, so I wound up going to four high schools in three countries, then on to Georgetown University. When I went to Georgetown, that was the longest I’d been any place at one time in my life.
At Georgetown we were at war in Vietnam, and I thought it was my duty to serve. I was in ROTC and I fully expected to graduate, get my commission, go off to my training, then straight to Vietnam. But by the time I graduated in 1970 we were already starting to wind things down. I got sent to Germany instead of Vietnam.
David Abend: How long were you in Germany?
General Casey: I was there for about three and a half years, and then I went back and spent a long time in the States as I kind of worked my way through the lower level jobs in the army. Let’s see I basically commanded a battalion, which is really the first rung on the ladder, it’s about a thousand troops. After that, I went on to Washington, D.C. where I did a fellowship at a NATO Think Tank, which was a hugely broadening experience for me. Then I went on to work as a congressional liaison in the army, and I got to learn how Congress works and the importance of Congress, which was another hugely broadening experience. After that I commanded a brigade, which is about 3,000 folks, in Fort Hood, Texas. Then I went on to Germany, and as a Brigadier General, got involved in the Balkans operations in Bosnia. When I returned from my tour in Europe, I went on to the joint staff in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., where I had the Balkan desk. I was all Balkans all the time for about six years, include going back to Germany and having a two-star command where I had to prepare and send my troops into Kosovo. Following my return from Europe, I became the Director of Strategy and Policy in October of 2001, so a month after September 11th, and after that it was war on terror for the rest of my career. Worked on the war on terror at the Pentagon and in Iraq.
David Abend: So that was in 2007, you were the Chief of Staff of the Army. What did you do as part of that, where were you, were you in Iraq?
General Casey: No. In 2003 I got promoted. I got my fourth star and went to serve as the Vice Chief of Staff in the Army. That’s really the second in command of the army. I did that for nine months and was selected to command in Iraq. I went over to Iraq and took over the command in July of 2004 and I was there until February of 2007. And then I became the Army Chief of Staff in April of 2007.
The army chief of staff is basically the chief operating officer of the Army. I was the Senior Military Officer in the Army. My boss was the Secretary of the Army. I worked very closely with him and the Secretary of Defense. My primary focus during that time was trying to bring the Army back into a more balanced position because we were too small to support both the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We were forcing our soldiers to deploy for a year, come back for a year, and go straight back to combat. That was absolutely unsustainable. We had to work to put the army back in a more balanced position while we continued to adapt and prepare ourselves for what was a very different future after 2001 than it had been before that.
David Abend: That sounds really challenging. It sounds like it’s a lot of logistics, but it’s also a lot of human resources as well in terms of you’re talking about the deployments of people, deployments of soldiers and how much they could take. Is that true or is did that not factor into your decision?
General Casey: Absolutely. It was, in fact, probably the most significant thing that we had to do for our soldiers was to extend the time they spent at home between deployments. As I said, when I took over the Army, we had just gone to 15 months instead of 12-month deployments and they were only spending 12 months at home. We gradually increased the size of the Army so that they spent 18 months, and then by the time I left we were very close to them spending two years at home before they had to go back on another tour.
David Abend: Well, it’s such a dichotomy, the kind of machine of war and the strategy of war, and at the same time having to have so much concern for the soldier’s wellbeing in terms of keeping them effective and their psyche.
General Casey: Oh, for sure. Just so it’s clear, the Army Chief of Staff is responsible for organizing, training, and equipping the soldiers, basically preparing them for the employment by the field commanders. As the Army Chief of Staff, I didn’t have a role directly in the strategy in Iraq or Afghanistan, I provided my advice to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense and the President. But it was the commanders on the ground that actually developed the strategy for employing the soldiers that I prepared. On the first side, when I was in Iraq, I was benefiting from what the Army and the Marine Corps, and the other services were doing, to prepare their forces for Iraq. When I went back as the Army Chief, it was my job to prepare the troops to be as good as they could be for the commanders in the field.
David Abend: And every decision that was made was, as I talked about that dichotomy. But you’re dealing with the machine of war and the preciousness of life and how much you have to care about that.
General Casey: Yes, for us in the military, it’s mission and people, mission and people. You accomplish the job while taking care of your people. You have to do both.
David Abend: You’ve seen people go through this and you’ve been through it yourself, and they either sacrifice their life or they’re put in that position, how do you feel when you hear people fretting about lunch taking too long to be served or it’s a rainy Saturday and it’s terrible weather? Do you have to have patience for that, or you’ll go crazy or what?
General Casey: No, I don’t dwell on that. I’m sure soldiers, especially right after they come back from a deployment, could get frustrated pretty easily, but I think you get past that pretty quickly.
David Abend: I have a question for you. It’s something I’m curious about and our listeners might be as well, but it’s the idea of the thank you for your service that people say a lot and I’ve read different things about it. Some people say that it’s said so much that it’s actually an empty platitude and a way to be politically correct. Other people say, how can you not thank someone? Have you ever thought about that? Is that something that you have an opinion about?
General Casey: Sure, sure. All the time. And, then I hear that debate. I’ll tell you, I’m someone who went to college during Vietnam, and I saw what happens to the military when the country turns against the military, and it was awful. So, the difference between that and today when you’re walking down the street or in an airport and someone says, “Thanks for what you did.” I think that’s a pretty good thing. This is probably a terrible analogy, it’s almost like when you love to express your condolences to someone who’s had a loved one pass away and you don’t know what to say. You say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or something like that. I kind of feel that’s almost like how people feel when they see a soldier on the street and they don’t know what to say, so they say, “Thank you for your service.” That’s better than it was in the 60s and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. I understand what some people say, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
David Abend: Well, that’s good to know because I haven’t been sure myself of whether it is something to say. So now I know I’d also like to talk to you about your father General George Casey, Sr. He died on duty in Vietnam in 1970. Can you talk about how that affected you and your view of life?
General Casey: Yeah, it’s interesting. My dad was someone that I always looked up to. I always kind of thought that he was invincible, and when I got the call from my mom early July of 1970 and his helicopter was missing. She said his helicopter was missing. I said to myself, “Okay, he’s a tough guy. He’ll get through it.” And then a day later I had graduated from college and been commissioned by the Army, but I wasn’t on active duty yet. I didn’t go on an active duty until October. I was working as a lunch waiter in a restaurant in Washington, D.C. and I remember walking into work the next day and someone had left the Washington Post on the table and there was a picture of dad on the front page and with the heading that he had been found and was killed. So, that’s how I found out that he had died.
David Abend: Oh, what a terrible way to find out.
General Casey: Well, there’s no good way. So, I called my mom immediately, and she had been notified and she was in the process of trying to pull things together. That was a very difficult time. Then one of my dad’s closest friend was nice enough to think about me and I was able to go up to Dover to meet the remains coming home and escort them back to Washington for the funeral. It was a tough time for the whole family. I had three sisters and a brother and obviously my mom. It affected everybody.
David Abend: For you, did it at all change what you were thinking about for your future in the military?
General Casey: It did, but in an interesting way. I had originally been thinking about doing my two-year obligation and then getting out and going to law school. That was the plan. There was part of me that said, I didn’t know that I could stay in the military, that my dad was one of the leaders, I didn’t want to be seen as I was being dragged along and on my father’s coattails. I was thinking about just doing my obligation and moving on to something else. Ironically, it probably prodded me to stay in the Army and that is something that I really wasn’t thinking about doing before he died.
David Abend: Do you know why? What was it about that that changed your mind?
General Casey: One part of it, not all of it, but the fact that he was no longer in the army, and that really took away what could have been the perception that I was being dragged along on his coattails. But when I got to my first unit and I realized that these young men that worked for me depended on me, as a 22 year old, for their lives, and that’s a huge responsibility and it made me better. From that point on, everything I did, I always did with the mindset that I had to take care of my troops. I vowed to never to let them down. That was something that just grew on me as the Army continued to challenge me with difficult assignments. It was probably more in my blood than I knew. But after the first couple of assignments, I realized that I loved it. And, I decided to stay.
David Abend: Yes, because I could see how that tragedy in your family could have made you say, you know, this is not for me, I don’t want this to happen to me, and just getting out.
General Casey: Yeah. I don’t recall making that as a direct correlation to dad’s death as something that could have had a negative impact on me. Obviously, if you’re in the military, you could be called on to go to combat and you could put your life on the line. Everybody knows that when they sign up, they may not think it’s going to happen, but that’s something that’s always there. I think it’s very much individual how much people think about that. I generally didn’t think much about that. I was focused on doing the job and taking care of the troops.
David Abend: When we talked last month, you had a really interesting story that you told me about your dad, that he had just reupped. Isn’t that correct?
General Casey: Yes. He had been over there as an Assistant Division Commander of the First Cavalry Division, and he was selected to go back and command the First Calvary Division. So, they sent him home on 30 days leave. He’s basically doing back to back tours in Vietnam, but it was a huge job and something that he’d worked his whole life for. He made the decision to accept it and go back. He’d just been home and actually I drove him and my mom to the airport, and as I stood there with my mom, as we watched him all the way as you walked up the ramp, until we couldn’t see him anymore, I remember looking at my mother and saying, “You know, after all these years of separations, it must get easier.” Her eyes welled up with tears and she said, “No, it only gets harder.” And that was the last time that I saw him.
David Abend: Wow. I appreciate you talking about it because I’m sure even though it was many years ago, it’s still very difficult to talk about that moment.
General Casey: That moment especially with my mom, we’ve talked about it a lot, and I went off to Iraq for a year. It was supposed to be for a year and came back almost three years later. And, I know exactly what she means.
David Abend: A little transition here then, that’s tough to talk about. Let me talk a little bit about The Bucket. At The Bucket, we have this thing that’s called your Bucket Age, and it’s basically taking your statistical life expectancy, what Social Security says you’ll live to, and subtracting your current age and the result is your Bucket Age. So, my statistical lifespan is about 85, I’m 61, and my Bucket Age is 24. We use that to try to give perspective to people to how many years they statistically have left, to kind of be a little bit of a kick in the ass to say, how are you going to use these? What choices are you going to make to have these be fulfilling years. I guess my first question to you is, what’s your bucket age?
General Casey: Well, I had to go ahead to go look up and see what the average life expectancy was, and its 79.
David Abend: 79?
General Casey: For me, when I Google it, that’s what came up. And I said, “Wow, that’s eight years.” But then I did this thing and there’s an app called Sharecare, that they have something called real age.
David Abend: Right.
General Casey: You plug in all your, answer questions, you do that for about 20 minutes. It’s all lifestyle and things like that. I did it a while ago, but my recollection is I came up like eight years younger than my actual age. So, I figure I got somewhere between eight and 20, and I up it a little, because my mom’s 93 and I take pretty good care of myself. So somewhere between I’m saying eight and 20 is kind of what I figured I got left.
David Abend: Now, do you think that idea of calculating your Bucket Age might help people make decisions that will leave them with fewer regrets? Like saying this is how much time I’m going to make sure I get this done.
General Casey: You know, I don’t know. I’m kind of a live life to the fullest and make a difference every day. I don’t really think about it. I just came back from a 45-day trip to China where I met with four generals or three generals and an Admiral from the Chinese military, retired guys. There were three other Americans with me. Doing things like that and having the opportunity to do things like that, allows me to really live my life to the fullest and hopefully make a difference along the way.
David Abend: Do you think that has been influenced by your life in the military? Do you think that appreciation for life and living it to its fullest has anything to do with what you’ve been through?
General Casey: As I mentioned earlier, we moved around an awful lot and it wasn’t always easy. In fact, especially as a young preteen and teenager, you make friends and you think this is really great, and then all of a sudden, you’d move off and you don’t know anybody. So, you start all over again, but my mother would always say to us, “Make the best of it.” And, that really got ingrained in me. That’s really how I’ve lived my life. There’ve been good times and there had been bad times, but I always tried to make the best of it.
David Abend: That’s a great philosophy. If God forbid anything happened and you were on your deathbed tomorrow, would you have any regrets?
General Casey: Tomorrow, I’d have a bunch of regrets. I wouldn’t get to watch my grandchildren grow up and get married. If I do have a bucket list, it’s a bucket list of one, and that’s I want to dance at Will’s wedding. Will’s my youngest grandson. He’s four. He’ll be five in a couple of weeks.
David Abend: That’s great, but there’s nothing else that you’ve been putting off doing or something like that that you would regret not having done?
General Casey: No, I’ve lived a pretty full life. My wife and I have been fortunate enough to travel all over the world. I’ve watched my sons grow up to be wonderful husbands and fathers. I’m just now starting to watch the grandkids, we have three graduating from high school this year, watching them grow, it’s been pretty good.
David Abend: Wow. Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with me today and I really appreciate your time and I’m sure our listeners will as well. Thank you very much, General Casey.
General Casey: David, great to talk to you.
David Abend: Bye
General Casey: Take care. Bye. Bye.
David Abend: Wow. I don’t know about you, but it was humbling for me to hear what General Casey had to say about mortality from the perspective of a soldier and what he had to face throughout his career. I just love the “make the most of it” philosophy that he has. I really got a lot out of this and I hope you did too. To learn more about The Bucket, go to www.thebucket.com. That’s the bucket, all one word.com and if you know someone you think should be in a future bucket podcast, let us know at email@example.com. Thanks for listening.