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Ray Odierno, Army general who led troops through Iraq War, dies at 67

Ray Odierno salutes during his retirement ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson, August 14, 2015 in Arlington, Va. Odierno, who was the Army's 38th Chief of Staff, died on Friday, his family said.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Ray Odierno salutes during his retirement ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson, August 14, 2015 in Arlington, Va. Odierno, who was the Army's 38th Chief of Staff, died on Friday, his family said.

Ray Odierno, the retired Army general who led U.S. troops through the Iraq War and later served as the Army's chief of staff, has died of cancer at the age of 67.

Odierno's death Friday was announced in a statement by his family, according to The Associated Press. "The general died after a brave battle with cancer; his death was not related to COVID," the family said.

Odierno, a West Point graduate, served in the military for nearly 40 years, a decorated career that included three tours of duty in Iraq.

He began the war in command of the 4th Infantry Division, helping to orchestrate the 2003 operation that resulted in the capture of the country's ousted leader, Saddam Hussein.

"He was in the bottom of a hole with no way to fight back," Odierno said at the time. "He was caught like a rat."

Despite that early success, the U.S. mission in Iraq soon spiraled out of control. When it came time for a shift in strategy, Odierno would emerge as a key figure behind the surge of some 20,000 U.S. forces in Iraq launched in 2007 to help quell a deadly insurgency and deep-seated sectarian violence. At first, the rush of forces seemedto work, but nearly 15 years later, questions about the strategy's true effectiveness continue to cloud the war's legacy.

In 2008, the New Jersey native was tapped to succeed General David Petraeus as the top commander of the multinational force fighting in Iraq. It was a decision met with some criticism, stemming from Odierno's previous command earlier in the war of forces that were seen as overly aggressive and indiscriminate in detaining military-age Iraqi men. Those operations were blamed for alienating the local population in the Sunni Triangle region and fueling the very insurgency the U.S. was trying to mitigate.

"Odierno just didn't get it," Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, told NPR in 2008 of Odierno's strategy in the early years of the war. "He didn't understand what it means to win hearts and minds. He didn't understand local culture. ... He'd have his troops go through women's underwear in the house looking for arms."

The criticism didn't stop Odierno from establishing a legacy in the Iraq War as "the guy with the plan," Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, who was Odierno's chief of staff, told the Los Angeles Times in 2008.

"This tour will, in my view, eradicate anything that was [said] before, or at least give people second thoughts about what kind of guy he really is," Anderson said. "I believe he'll be [remembered as] the architect — the guy with the plan who turned this place around."

In 2011, former President Barack Obama picked Odierno to be the army's chief of staff. In that role, Odierno oversaw military decisions during the Ebola crisis, as well as the introduction of women being allowed into the Army's Rangertrainingprogram.

During his time in the position, the military was under growing scrutiny for the alarming increase in military sexual assaults. Odierno was adamant about addressing the issue. But he was firm in his stance that the process should remain within the military command structure, and resisted effortsin Congress to take sexual assault cases out of the chain of command.

"We must take a hard look at that system," he told lawmakers in 2013. "... We can't simply legislate our way out of this."

In 2015, Odierno retired from the military after more than 37 years of service.

Following news of his death, the Army shared its condolences in a message on Twitter.

"His love, respect and commitment to Soldiers & their families is his legacy. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family," the Army said.

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden called Odierno a "hero" in a statement released by the White House. Odierno had spoken at the funeral of the president's son Beau Biden in 2015 and awarded him the Legion of Merit; he was the commanding general when Beau Biden served in Iraq.

"When we think back on our time as Vice President and Second Lady, Ray was part of some of our most poignant memories—ones that will be with us for the rest of our lives," the Bidens said.

"We can think of no person who better encapsulated that basic creed of duty, honor, country than General Ray Odierno. He made our entire nation better, stronger, and more secure."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.