Army Gen. Mark Milley has been a lightning rod for scrutiny and controversy as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But, strangely, the nation he has served for more than 40 years doesn’t know much about the man who so often finds himself in the crossfire of a red-hot culture war.
Until now, few people knew Milley once ran across a minefield in Iraq to stop an M1 Abrams tank seconds before the vehicle rolled over an IED. Almost no one knew that one of his soldiers put Milley up for a valor award for his actions that day.
It was April 2, 2005, and the war in Iraq was in its second full year. Milley was a colonel charged with commanding the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team in Baghdad, Iraq. The brigade’s area of operations swelled in recent weeks, encompassing the town of Sabaa Al Bour along the Grand Canal, the Baghdad International Airport, Abu Ghraib prison, and all the space in-between and further out. In short, the unit found itself overseeing a large swath of ground in the capital city of a country enduring an active insurgency underway against the Iraqi government and U.S. troops.
That evening — at 8 p.m., or thereabouts — a call came over the radio that there had been a vehicle-borne explosive device, or VBIED, attack on a patrol with the 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry regiment. The explosion had damaged a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and injured two soldiers near Abu Ghraib prison.
As Milley and his security detail arrived at the site of the explosion, gunfire echoed in the distance, punctuated by the deep thud of explosions coming from the West. Unbeknownst to them, insurgent forces were launching a coordinated attack against Abu Ghraib prison. The VBIED strike was the opening shot, an attempt to interdict U.S. forces and hamper their response to the assault on the prison.
As radio chatter began to come in and lift the fog of war, Milley and his team received more troubling news. A nearby bridge on the brigade’s main supply route had been booby-trapped.
Milley, bearing the call sign Commando 6, and the 20 soldiers who made up his security team and command staff moved 300 hundred or so meters to the bridge and attempted to get a handle on the situation. What they found were half a dozen anti-tank mines, believed to be Italian-made, that had been laid out along the bridge to block both lanes of traffic. Comms were quickly established with a contingent of soldiers from a military police unit in the area, who set up a cordon on the far side of the bridge to ensure nobody crossed over and set off the explosives. Milley and his team did the same on their end and waited until engineers and explosive ordnance disposal technicians could deal with the munitions.
The bridge was out of commission, right as an enemy attack was underway, and a bottleneck had formed as patrols and convoys converged and left unable to maneuver.
Then the unexpected: a pair of M1 Abrams tanks slipped into view coming from the opposite side of the bridge. The tanks were evacuating wounded from an earlier firefight.
“As we’re monitoring the net, it’s becoming very apparent that this unit has no clue what the situation is on the ground,” recalled Ross Davidson, Milley’s operations officer at the time. “We have no direct comms with this unit moving up and we have all these anti-tank mines and anti-vehicle mines strewn all over this bridge and it’s past midnight now. It’s a freaking goat rope. We’ve got trucks backed all the way up. And now we hear the tanks coming.”
Unaware of what lay ahead, the tanks breezed right past the MPs on the far side of the bridge, straight toward Milley, his men, and the waiting mines. If the tanks made it onto the bridge, they would likely trigger the mines, and the result would be catastrophic.
Knowing this, Milley turned and ran toward them. Right across the bridge. As his feet pounded on dust-caked steel, the EOD team’s sergeant followed close on his heels. They made their way past the first mine. Then the next. Then the one after that.
“Hey, what the fuck is the boss doing?’” Davidson said, watching in disbelief at what was happening right in front of him. Milley physically placed himself between the tanks and the mines, stopping them seconds before they reached the bridge.
“The man saw what the only solution was to prevent catastrophe and he took action,” Davidson said. “No hesitation.”
Once the tanks had stopped, Milley directed the Abrams to wait while EOD finished clearing the mines, which they detonated in place. Afterward, the convoy continued along its way.
Two months later, Davidson submitted a recommendation that Milley be awarded an Army Commendation Medal with “V” for valor. Milley’s actions were one of the bravest things Davidson had seen on that deployment. But Milley was Davidson’s superior, and the award had to pass his desk before being sent higher up the chain of command for review. Moments after submitting the paperwork, Milley came to Davidson’s office. He refused to be seen as the type of officer who padded his chest with medals.
“Ross, we can’t submit this,” Milley told Davidson at the time. “There’s no freaking way. That’s just what we do, that’s how we roll. Those kinds of awards are for soldiers.”
Milley exited a black GMC Yukon and his shiny black Corfam shoes click-clacked on the pavement as he made his way through a gated entryway at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field for the 2022 Army-Navy Game on December 10. A gaggle of staffers and advisors followed. Among the group: a Marine, Gunnery Sgt. Randy Bascom, was tasked with lugging around a black canvas bag stuffed to the brim with approximately 700 challenge coins — which equates to roughly 43 pounds — for the chairman to hand out during the game.
Milley stopped, and turned to a different aide, “Hey, what’re we doing?”
As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Milley is the top-ranking service member in the United States military; a four-star general who’s held the ear of two presidents and several defense secretaries; a combat-proven infantry officer and Green Beret upon whose shoulders rests immense power. But when it comes to public events — dog and pony shows, as they’re pejoratively called among the rank and file — he is not the master of his destiny. A staffer-in-tow holds that responsibility.
Satisfied with the answer he received, the 64-year-old soldier straightened himself and kept walking. His wife, Hollyanne, came up to join the entourage as the gaggle of click-clacking dress shoes moved toward a group of grey-uniformed West Pointers — his first stop of the day.
Among high-ranking government officials, meet and greets are deliberately arranged and time is painstakingly accounted for, with so many minutes here, so many there, all dolled out according to some calculus known only to the official in question and their staff. So much so, that in the case of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his entourage had made several traversals of the stadium grounds the day prior, tallying the precise amount of time it would take to get from one interview or media function to the next along a zig-zagging route through the stadium’s 15 acres. A few minutes were set aside here and there for brief breaks and deviations, or the inevitable trip to the bathroom — certain restrooms with heating had been noted in advance, given that the weather that day was in the 30s.
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But no plan survives contact with the enemy, and when it comes to the chairman’s schedule, the enemy is none other than the chairman himself. You see, Milley likes to talk — a lot. This is known as “Milley time,” among those who work for and with him.
“He can definitely be a little long-winded, but his speeches are brilliant,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, the service’s top enlisted leader. Milley once interviewed Grinston to serve as his sergeant major when Milley commanded the 10th Mountain Division. Milley hired someone else. “I think it worked out,” Grinston now says.
Regarding the chairman’s gift for gab, he blends a mix of self-deprecating humor with light-hearted jabs, delivered in his customary Boston accent, as his default gruff expression softens momentarily to a smile that curls slightly at the edges, before being tugged back down into a resting half-frown.
“He’ll go in and he’ll find dirt on folks, especially when they’re doing a change of command and it’ll leave you cracking up,” said Grinston. “You may be standing there for a while listening, but it’s really funny.”
At the football game, the chairman approached a group of Cadets and immediately began a good-natured grilling on who was graduating in what year. He then pivoted to interrogating each one about their favorite sports team.
“I mean, I’m a Patriots fan,” Milley said, before noting matter of factly that if you’re from the area “your loyalty should remain in Boston, I expect that.”
“I’m Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics,” he continued. “That’s how we roll, right? That’s how we all roll. You can take the kid out of Boston, but you can’t take the Boston out of the kid.”
After the sports talk, Milley moved to waxing on about the riveting topic of modernization. In this case, by going over the capabilities of the Army’s Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle — a tracked vehicle with a 105 mm main gun that the Army refuses to call a tank. The idea of anyone excitedly talking about a weapons development program may feel like a stretch, but this is Milley, a man who once enthusiastically expounded for 1,000 words about how the advent of rifling can be directly tied to every major tactical and strategic development among ground combat troops for the last several hundred years.
Finally, with his captive audience of West Pointers, Milley launched into a discussion of the topic his term as Chairman might be longest remembered for: his views on the Constitution.
“You got the Constitution that says, ‘We the people;’ that’s what you got to take an oath to graduate,” Milley told the soon-to-be graduates of West Point. “So, on graduation coming up, that’s what you’re going to swear to protect and defend, no matter what the cost, right?” he asked the students rhetorically. “You’ve got to stay true to that all your life, okay?”
Though 12 of the 19 Chairmen before Milley attended West Point or the Naval Academy, Milley did not. As a top student in high school, he considered it, but timely intervention by his father stopped him. Alexander Milley had fought in World War II as a Navy Corpsman alongside Marines at Saipan, Kwajalein, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. He did not want his son to don a uniform. As the story goes, during a tour of the campus, the elder Milley enlisted a cadet to give Milley an unvarnished tour, with a heavy emphasis on the regulations, long days, and the generally uptight nature of a service academy.
Milley went to Princeton instead, making him the first Chairman to have spent his undergraduate years on an Ivy League campus (he earned his commission through the school’s ROTC).
Still, Milley connects easily with the young West Pointers. But he brightens again when he spots a tent manned by Special Forces soldiers.
“There’s my Green Berets!” Milley boomed. He beelined past his staff toward the half-dozen special operators, who were all doing their best to both maintain a respectful posture, feet wide set, hands crossed at the front or behind their backs, while also stamping their feet and bending their knees to stave off the cold.
Milley’s insistence on cutting a path toward the nearest group of operators continued throughout the day: After the Army and Navy parachute teams landed on the field before kickoff, he found them in one of the interior walkways and asked “Where my SEALs at?” and “Where are my Army Rangers, Green Berets?” before handing challenge coins to each one he could find.
Back at the tent, one soldier is singled out immediately: Sgt. 1st Class Louie Cruz, a tank-of-a-man clad in green and brown multicam with a low fade, a strong jaw, and a clean shave, which Milley remarks upon instantly.
“He’s grown his hair long,” Milley tells his wife Hollyanne, before turning back to Cruz and jabbing a finger toward the soldier, who begins to crack a smile. “Where’s your beard?” Milley asks rhetorically, before giving a nod of approval and noting that “no beard is good.”
Milley and Hollyanne frequently visited the wounded at Walter Reed. They met Cruz back in 2020 after the latter was injured in Afghanistan.
“Throughout our time there, we had a couple of minor issues within Walter Reed and Gen. Milley was there to help support us and get things taken care of for us,” Cruz recalled, adding that Hollyanne spent time with the other service members spouses while their soldiers recovered.
After a round of interviews with broadcasters and sports anchors ahead of the game, Milley and his team made their way into the interior of the stadium — with the inevitable pauses and stops along the way to talk to families and vets, soldiers and sailors, and a 10-minute detour to look at a range of small arms and optics laid out on a static display of the arms and equipment fielded by Army infantrymen. It’s unclear if the day’s schedule, so carefully crafted by Milley’s dedicated staff, had accounted for that.
Once Milley is ushered inside one of the stadium’s foyers, he’s guided to a service door and into the stadium’s interior, then out onto the field for a lengthy walk to the other side, stopping here and there for more photos, quick chats, glad-handing, more photos, a couple of waves to the crowd and the cadets at the front, before reaching a gauntlet of TV cameras and stands manned by hosts and sports anchors.
What followed was a half hour of rapid-fire back-to-back interviews, including one last-minute television spot with a host who approached Milley’s staff and asked for a few minutes with the general, before leaning back over to ask who Milley was. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley is the highest-ranking member of the U.S. military, but to most Americans, he’s no more recognizable than a C-list celebrity.
A short while later, after the pre-game festivities had wrapped up — the West Point cadets and Naval Academy midshipmen had marched around the field, the Army and Navy’s parachute teams had sailed through the skies and landed neatly on the gridiron, and the final verses of the National Anthem belted out by the crowd, Milley took to the sidelines to watch his seventh Army-Navy game in a row.
His first, however, took place more than 60 years ago in front of an old television back at their home in Massachusetts.
“I have a clear, distinct memory of it,” Milley said, clearly nostalgic. “It was a big deal. It still is a big deal. It was something my dad watched every year.”
You can take the kid out of Boston, but…
Born June 20, 1958, in Winchester, Massachusetts to Alexander and Mary Milley, Mark Milley was the youngest child of three. He grew up in a family of blue collars, which was not uncommon in Boston back then.
“Neither one of our parents went to college,” Milley said. “My father probably made maybe at the most $10,000 a year, or something like that. He didn’t have any money. My father worked as a telephone operator when they used to have actual operators.”
Like his children, the elder Milley didn’t come from means either.
“He used to shine the shoes at the Harvard gates,” Sandy Milley, Gen. Milley’s brother, said. “He’d go over and take the Harvard kids’ shoes and shine them. He’d give them to his friends to wear for three days, and then he’d charge three different guys.”
As boys, Sandy and Milley would play outside and whenever able, sneak indoors to watch television, presumably on that same old black and white TV where Milley had caught his first academy game, with preference given to shows like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Hogan’s Heroes, and Combat!
“He loved the Army ever since he was a kid,” Sandy said. “We both played Army men in the backyard. That’s all we could do. They wouldn’t let us go anywhere else. We were hostage, so we played Army in the backyard, and Mark used to play with my father’s souvenir flag, and he would sit, and we used to watch Sarge Saunders on Combat! on TV.”
Separated by six years, Sandy and Milley did their best to fill the hours at home in a way that aligned with their parent’s expectations, and the family’s financial limitations.
“My father said, ‘No girls, no car, no money. Period. End of it. I’ll get ya’ sticks and a skate sharpening, the rest is up to you guys,’” Sandy recounted.
And the two made good use of the skates and hockey sticks, playing in their adolescence, on through high school, and later in college, with Sandy attending Harvard and Milley going to Princeton, both through the use of financial aid.
In college, the two continued to play sports, particularly hockey, and within a minute of broaching the topic they immediately fall into a back-and-forth repartee common among siblings.
“I have a record that can’t be broken at Harvard,” Sandy boasts, prompting Milley to interject and declare “Then he rode the pines the rest of the year.”
For Milley, his time on the ice was formative in that it instilled a decisive nature early on — the ability to not only react to a rapidly evolving situation but to think critically, often at a breakneck pace. He also got very used to taking hits.
Despite, or perhaps because of the beating he took on the ice, “he was a heck of a defenseman,” Sandy said, approvingly. “He really covered the ice laterally. Front of the ice, in front of the net. He was a tiger.”
“I lost four teeth, broke my jaw in three spots, I’ve got stitches all over. You don’t see them anymore,” Milley said nonchalantly when asked about his hockey war wounds. “I’ve got a hundred stitches in my face.”
Milley shares a background in hockey with Gen. James McConville, the Army Chief of Staff. Like Milley, McConville was born in Massachusetts, and played hockey in college, though the two never crossed paths on the ice.
“The thing about hockey players is, it’s good life skills development because you’re used to getting knocked down and getting back up,” said McConville.
Among the Milleys, athletics was one of two core pillars in the family, the other being academics.
“He’s an avid reader which, I don’t know if people think of a young infantry soldier as reading a book or two a week but Mark has always been a reader,” Hollyanne said of her husband. “And he always talks to the athletes about combat and the sports that they do, and he can explain it much better, but how fast and dynamic and how you have to think quickly.”
Milley’s balance of books and the hockey rink eventually led him to Princeton. It was there that Milley’s path began to diverge from what his parents — particularly, his father — may have had in mind when he joined the University’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).
Both of Milley’s parents served during World War II; his mother as a nurse with the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service); and his father as a Navy Corpsman who saw heavy combat in the Pacific theater, from Saipan to Iwo Jima in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.
The war instilled two things in Alexander Milley: One was a love of Marines — a loyalty that he passed down to his youngest; the other was a deep distrust of officers.
“Oh, he hated officers,” Milley said of his father. One notable exception was his company commander, with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, who appeared to hold a place of rare esteem in the elder Milley’s enlisted heart.
“He said, ‘All you officers ever do is lie to us and we do all the bleeding and you guys pin medals on each other.’ I said, ‘That’s not true, Dad,’” recalled Milley, who noted that this view existed before he joined ROTC, and continued long after.
“My mother, too, by the way, wasn’t a big fan of officers,” Milley said. “She was Navy enlisted.”
That disdain may have been a source of some friction between Milley and his parents, particularly his father. However, his parent’s views also appeared to have been influential when it comes to Milley’s leadership approach.
“One of the things my dad said was, and this is not a negative comment about anybody from World War II, but he said none of his officers, except that one company commander, ever talked to him,” Milley said. “That was just one of those things. So he never ever saw a general officer or any of that kind of stuff. It always stuck in my mind to make sure that you circulate and get out there […] because it makes a difference. They see you as a human being.”
By 1980 Milley had graduated from Princeton with a bachelor’s degree in political science, received his commission as a second lieutenant through the college’s ROTC program, and began his career as an Army infantry officer.
The brave men of the Green Beret
Milley never intended to make the Army a career. It’s something he’s said over the years, and that day at the Army-Navy Game, wearing four stars on his collar and standing before the stands of roaring cadets and midshipmen — would-be officers among whose ranks there might be a future chairman of the Joint Chiefs — he repeats it.
“I took the military in essentially five-year chunks,” he said. “And anyone who gets commissioned the second time … I would counsel and advise them to focus on their current job, try to do the best you can at your current job, and then, at most, you might think about your next job. Try to do the best you can, make sure you take care of the material you got, the weapons and equipment, and focus on the training and the mission at hand. And everything else will take care of itself.”
For Milley, that first five-year “chunk” in the Army began with his first billet as a second lieutenant, when he served as an assistant battalion maintenance officer in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. By his second year in the service, now as a first lieutenant, Milley set his sights on Special Forces.
After Milley graduated from Special Forces training in 1982, he was on the captain’s list, meaning his next promotion was in sight. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group as the commander of ODA 543, a 12-man combat diver-qualified Special Forces team. As he made his way to the team room for the first time, he found one soldier inside sitting at a desk.
It was the team’s senior enlisted leader, Master Sgt. Henry “Hank” Beck. Beck remembers that first meeting well:
“Who’s in charge here?” Milley asked.
“Well, I am. I’m Hank.” Beck replied.
“Don’t you stand when a lieutenant’s present?”
“Let me tell you something,” Beck remembers saying. “This is Special Forces and this is run completely different than the Army. You’ll get all your due respect of the salutes and the hurrahs when we’re out in front of people. Here, your main job is to keep the man off my back”
With the ground rules established, Beck gave Milley a quick lay of the land, including what to say at meetings with the battalion commander, and how to say it — absolutely no profanity and should one of the unit’s leaders suggest something that sounded like a bad idea, Beck suggested saying “It sounds reasonable, but I’d like to look into it.”
He explained to Milley that, as the small unit’s senior enlisted leader, he needed the team’s sole officer to be someone who didn’t make waves, didn’t make their lives harder with their superiors, and who could provide top cover when it was needed.
“He took everything under his belt and he walked back out and came back in and goes ‘Hi, I’m Mark, who’s this?’ And right after that, we hit it off real good,” Beck recalled.
Over the next year two years, the pair worked together constantly, enduring a breakneck training cycle, which included days at the range, 80-pound ruck runs, jump training, requalification courses, and nights out in the field where they’d split a canteen cup of MRE coffee and cocoa — MoCo, they called it. They grew to be inseparable, and to this day remain in touch, with Beck attending every one of Milley’s promotions from when he picked up his first star, to when he was named chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
With combat experience that spanned multiple tours downrange during the Vietnam War, one of which involved a harrowing firefight that would later see Beck awarded the Distinguished Service Cross — which Milley pinned on him during a ceremony in 2017 — Beck was both an advisor and mentor to Milley. He saw a capable officer with a promising future in the force in Milley, so Beck took every opportunity to help him along, from that initial unofficial counseling session to helping Milley prepare for the Combat Diver Qualification Course in Key West, Florida.
“He came to the team assigned to me, to 543, as non-scuba,” Beck said. “And he came to me non-scuba qualified because I couldn’t get an officer — they’d failed pre-scuba, every time.
“And pre-scuba is, ooh boy,” he added with a whistle and a long exhale to emphasize the point. The seven-week course is infamous for its grueling training and high rate of attrition: one out of every three candidates fail.
To help Milley prepare, Beck, along with the team medic, measured his height and weight, and gave him the basic physical to find out where he stood.
“And he was in very good shape,” Beck said. “I told my team medics, I said, ‘this is Mark, he’s going through pre-scuba. We need to get his mindset and his heart ready to go.’ And they went ahead and put him on a diet and gave him exercises, because pre-scuba, oh boy, they smoke you. They smoke you worse than a cheap cigar. It’s designed that way. It’s to get the guys — the guys who wanna quit — to get them out before they go to Key West because once you’re in Key West, that costs big money to the Army.”
The training paid off. Milley passed, earning the coveted dive bubble — he made it through on his first try.
The course, which served to solidify Milley’s place with the scuba-qualified ODA team, also put his life on a new trajectory. When he returned later for additional training, he met his wife, Hollyanne.
“We were at Key West, Florida on a prequalification and we were, somewhere — I forget where we were, but we were coming back to where we were bivouacked and we saw Hollyanne and her mom, her mom was a nurse,” Beck recounted. Milley looked at Beck and then looked at her.
“Gosh, that’s the girl I’m going to marry,” Milley said as he pointed to Hollyanne.
“You don’t even know her,” Beck replied.
Milley introduced himself and arranged a date.
“And next thing I know, when we get back to the team room, he’s going back and forth to Atlanta, Georgia,” Beck said of Milley’s commutes from Fort Bragg to visit Hollyanne in Atlanta, where she grew up. It wasn’t long before Milley asked Hollyanne to be his wife.
Milley ended up making captain and would lead two Special Forces teams during his time at 5th Group. Despite the tough training and breakneck pace of special operations, Milley looks back on that time fondly.
“Well, the spirit and the camaraderie and the tightness — cohesion of the units — for me, those were formative years,” he said.
Hearing Milley, and others, speak about the intimacy of those early days of command, whether it be with Special Forces, or later with line infantry units, it’s hard not to get the impression that Gen. Milley likely has moments that he misses as a young captain back then, still at a level that he could spend the day on the range, or out training as just another one of the guys.
As that first five-year block ended and bled into the next, Milley continued to move upward and onward in his career, attending training course after training course and knocking out deployments as they came, like a stint in Egypt in 1987 with 5th Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division (Light), followed by another deployment with the same battalion, this time to Panama in late 1989 and into 1990 as part of Operation Just Cause, which marked Milley’s first time under fire.
By the decade’s end, Milley was a young husband and father of a growing family. Mary, his eldest, was born around that time, and his youngest, Peter, was just a few years away. He was a Ranger-tabbed Special Forces captain, a graduate of the Combat Diver Qualification Course, with a host of other accolades and badges ranging from jump wings to his combat infantryman badge. After running through a few more training courses — Foreign Area Officer Training Program in Bogota, Colombia, and spending some time as a student at Columbia University in New York as well as at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California — Milley found himself in upstate New York at Fort Drum with the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division (Light). It’s a unit that he’d return to repeatedly throughout his career.
And while Milley may go out of his way to greet every operator within line of sight, that particular unit — 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division— seems to hold a special place for him, so much so that it’s etched on his skin.
“I have a tattoo on my arm, upper arm,” he says. “It is a tattoo from my 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. I’m very proud of that brigade.”
By 1993, Milley, now a major, was serving as the brigade’s operations officer, and it was there that he met then-Maj. Mike Ellerbe, the operations officer for the Brigade’s 2nd Battalion. The two hit it off immediately.
“From the first encounter, it seems like we’ve always been friends,” Ellerbe said of Milley, who he lived next door to at Fort Drum, and who he spoke to multiple times a day for years on end. They were both at the same point in their life, each married with kids, and they were also at similar stages in their military careers, an early middle ground where they’d moved away from a small unit or company but were still at the operational level. Like all soldiers, each had plenty to gripe about at the end of a particularly grueling day.
“We probably talked every day, four, five six times a day. Some of it was related to operations, some it was just related to two majors bitching,” Ellerbe said. “We talked about lots of stuff. We talked about family, you know, and raising kids and teaching our kids,” Ellerbe added. “I mean, we were young and we had young families at the time and we had the challenge and problems of young fathers who were not around a lot and we had, you know, great families to shore us up, and that’s really what happened because we were gone a lot.”
During the three years from 1993-1996, the brigade endured a rigorous operations tempo, with non-stop operations and training exercises even though the current era of decades-long wars had yet to begin. Ellerbe himself deployed to Somalia for seven months immediately after arriving at Fort Drum. Upon returning from his Somalia deployment, he immediately went through another round of predeployment training and shipped out to Haiti in 1994 for Operation Uphold Democracy alongside Milley for another seven months, and on and on the rotations went, he said.
“We were there, probably in garrison, for three months,” Ellerbe said, adding that it was during this cycle he and Milley grew particularly close and came to lean on and trust one another.
“You need to have that release, and this really talks to Mark as an individual — you know when you have a best friend in an organization, and no matter what happens in life, you can always trust him? That’s who he is,” Ellerbe said. “He’s that guy, who no matter how screwed up shit gets, he will stand behind you.”
Ellerbe recounted how after their deployment to Haiti they returned stateside and moved into new roles, with Milley becoming the brigade’s executive officer, and Ellerbe moving into the former’s old role as the brigade’s operations officer. Following that transition, they headed to Fort Riley, Kansas for a command post exercise.
“We went out — two majors went out to have a beer,” Ellerbe said. “We didn’t know that when we walked in, it was a biker bar. And what we didn’t realize, was that in this biker bar, the bikers didn’t appreciate the fact that I was there, because I was Black. There was almost a very large altercation, in which this biker group, gang, guys, whatever — it was one of those times where the kids were about to throw down.”
“Not very many people know this story, but the only guy in there who I knew was Mark Milley, and Mark was like ‘Okay, I guess this is gonna happen, but this is what we’re gonna do together: If we’re gonna fight this fight, we’re gonna fight this fight together.’ And I never forgot it.”
Fortunately, the situation quieted down after a group of enlisted soldiers who’d been sitting in the bar stood up and joined Milley and Ellerbe.
“They all stood up and said ‘Well, if you’re gonna go after our officers, you’ve gotta go after us, too.’ And at that point, the biker gang stood down and we ended up having a beer,” Ellerbe added. “The message, or the lesson, the nugget if you will — and this goes back to understanding who’s standing behind you — that’s kind of a reflection of who Mark is at his core. It doesn’t really matter how bad it gets, he’s the best friend you could have.”
But that grizzly infantry officer that Milley appears to be to those who serve under and alongside him, and even today, to the millions who know him only as the barrel-chested Boston-accented general at hearings broadcast on cable news, may give a false impression of bravado. Though his confidence certainly appears genuine, it may not have always been so easy to maintain.
“What’s so funny about it, is that Mark was probably always the best of us,” Ellerbe said. “And throughout his career, he’d always doubted whether he was good enough […] He was and is the Renaissance warrior that all of us would like to think we are, but he was it, and he actually did the work that many of us did not do.”
By the mid-90s, Milley had finished his time at 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain, and was on his way to his first battalion-level command with 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, an air assault battalion in South Korea.
That command, which Milley took over in 1996, would mark the last time that he, a leader who insisted on earning the trust of his soldiers face-to-face, would be in a role where he maintained close proximity to the rank and file.
“I would argue that battalion command is the last place where you get that really close personal touch as a commissioned officer,” Milley said. “You’re looking at an organization that’s between five and seven hundred depending on that type of battalion. So that’s really the last point at which you have a lot of personal interaction. So the lower you go, the higher the personal interaction. The higher you go, the less personal interaction. You really have to work at it.”
In the ensuing years, Milley would continue to work at maintaining that connection. That effort was most apparent in Baghdad, Iraq in 2004 where he once again found himself assigned to the 10th Mountain Division, this time as the commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
The Forever War
The workup for Milley’s first Iraq deployment began as many did in the early days of the Iraq War: It was a clusterfuck.
Originally slated for Afghanistan to begin training the Afghan National Security Forces, those orders were changed, and instead, the brigade received orders to Najaf, a city in central Iraq.
They had 45 days to prepare.
Milley and his command staff, which included Ross Davidson, the brigade operations officer, deployed from Fort Drum to the area of operations they’d be overseeing ahead of their deployment; a standard practice and one designed to give incoming leaders a chance to see the area they’d be charged with, and get a feel for what’s in store for their unit when the main element arrives.
After 10 days in-country, Milley and the other brigade leaders returned to Fort Drum to finish planning. Milley was so anxious to start fine-tuning their plan that, in the middle of the airport in Germany, Milley gathered everyone around, and started drafting up a gameplan for the upcoming mission, which Davidson hastily scrawled out on the only thing he had: A pile of napkins.
But it was all for naught. Shortly after returning home and with their deployment date looming, the orders were changed again: They would not be heading to Najaf. Instead, they were going to Baghdad, and to get there, they’d have to push through Kuwait to the capital, and along routes that were likely prime targets for ambushes. And, they’d be doing it in second-hand vehicles, many of which were “shot to shit” and half of which needed “a major maintenance overhaul,” Davidson said.
Davidson recalled Milley’s response was to give a resigned shrug and say “Okay.”
Despite the abrupt changes in plan, the convoy into Baghdad went off without a hitch and by September 2004 the brigade was firmly established and operating, ostensibly, out of Forward Operating Base Liberty, near Baghdad International Airport. Though the Brigade’s headquarters moved throughout the deployment, it didn’t matter much to Milley and his staff: They were rarely there.
“Mark Milley is the kind of leader, where he is not going to sit in his command post in some protected headquarters divorced from his battle space and merely taking reports daily,” Davidson said.
Milley, Davidson, and the other soldiers assigned to brigade headquarters spent most of their day riding around Baghdad in their four up-armored Humvees throughout their year-long deployment. Often working at night, they’d don their PVS-7 night vision goggles, flash on their Humvee’s infrared headlights, and make their way to each battalion in the brigade. Milley rode in the passenger side of the second Humvee, alongside the driver. Davidson sat in the back left seat, with another soldier in the security detail to his right, their radios and comms gear creating a berm of wire between them and the awkwardly dangling legs of the Humvee’s turret gunner — nicknamed the “Trunk Monkey” after a series of television commercials in the early 2000s.
“Operationally, we ran all the command and control from our Humvees,” Davidson explained. “Felt like every day, but probably 5 days out of the week, we were out.”
While a full-bird colonel showing up to far-flung outposts to press the flesh with rank-and-file soldiers isn’t uncommon, to those who don’t get to leave said outpost, the visits can, at times, come off as performative: An attempt to be seen being there, in the shit, rather than being in it.
By Davidson’s account, this couldn’t be further from the truth in Milley’s case.
“He is, and was, and clearly demonstrated at this point in time, a boots on the ground, out on the front lines with his soldiers in their mission areas, kind of leader,” Davidson said.
“And I am telling you, man, we put some miles down.”
That time out traversing the brigade’s sprawling area of operations also had a practical purpose with a strategic aim: To put pressure on insurgent forces who had managed to seize the initiative in the area.
“We had a belief and I believe it was a correct one, that the former units that had the battlespace we were in, kind of bunkered up and ceded a lot of initiative to the insurgents out West of Baghdad,” Davidson said. “I believe that to have been validated by the spike and increase in IED attacks along the main supply routes, the increase in small arms fire attacks, the increase in indirect fires coming into the Baghdad International Airport, a critical hub there in Baghdad. You see this increase in indirect fire attacks of all varieties coming in there. And [Milley] was determined to put a stop to that, and was like ‘we’re gonna go hard and we’re gonna take the initiative back. And that was job one.”
Taking the initiative back came with increased risk.
“I’ve been personally blown up with Mark Milley by IED strikes nine times,” Davidson said. “We’ve been shot at in firefights rolling into some of the most horrific things you’d ever want to see. He literally would move to the sound of the guns. It was nonstop. I would say on average we spent more time out in the battle space than we did in our own command post. If there was a major attack or something happening, it’d be ‘saddle up, we’re going.’”
By the end of the tour, the pace caused Davidson to look back and remark “Holy fuck, how did we do that?”
However, the deployment took its toll. According to Davidson, 29 soldiers with the brigade were killed in action, and a further 400 were wounded during their 2004 to 2005 tour in Iraq. Their deaths weighed on Milley, as did the loss of others throughout his career.
“He cares so deeply about these men and women,” Former Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said. “I mean, over half a dozen years in combat, [he’s] lost 242 soldiers under his various commands, so it’s his family. It’s his life.”
The brigade’s experience in Iraq was well documented, ranging from reports by journalists embedded with the brigade to anecdotes by fellow soldiers.
“I think what set him apart is, first of all, he leads from the front. He would never ask his troops to do anything he would never do,” Gen. James McConville said. “What you find from great combat leaders is that when things get really hard, they’re very cool and calm under pressure and they move to the decisive point on the battlefield and they’re not afraid to take the same risks as their subordinate soldiers are doing. He’s someone you can trust, he’s someone that will be there for you and he is courageous, and he’s incredibly competent. He has tremendous character and he does really care about his troops.”
After his deployment to Iraq, Milley left Fort Drum and headed to the Pentagon, serving first with the Global Force Management Division, then as the military assistant to the secretary of defense.
Within a few short years, he was overseas once more, this time to Afghanistan as the deputy commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division. He was well on his way to picking up his first star — which he pinned on in June 2008
For that 15-month deployment, the 101st Airborne’s area of operations was Eastern Afghanistan, responsible for what “was basically the size of Pennsylvania plus another state about that same size,” said retired Maj. Gen. Jeff Schloesser, the commanding general of the 101st at the time and Milley’s direct superior on that deployment.
To get a sense of how operations were unfolding on the ground, as opposed to how they appeared to be within the confines of the sprawling Joint Operations Center at Bagram, Milley would regularly travel to remote outposts. On several occasions, Schloesser said, Milley would return from a trip and give a frank assessment of how things were going, including stating flatly that they were not, in fact, going well.
On one occasion, “He came back, and at the time it was a National Guard base, and he said ‘Boss, you need to go on out there, but I need to fix some things beforehand, it’s a shit show. They haven’t had decent food in a lengthy period of time, they haven’t showered, they don’t have enough ammo, their crew-served weapons are in the wrong spot. If they needed mortars they wouldn’t be able to use them,’” Schloesser said. “And he said ‘You go out and check it out in about two or three weeks,’ and he said ‘Meanwhile we’re gonna get it fixed.’ And three weeks later I went out and I was almost gonna give a medal to the mortar team because they had, in two weeks, just changed things over. There was food, hot showers, the weapons were placed the right way.”
“I got used to this,” Schloesser added.
That kind of feedback was invaluable when it was available, and sorely missed when it wasn’t, Schloesser noted.
“In hindsight, I think the thing I wish I’d done was send Milley out to Wanat in the first two days or so, and I think I would have been able to have a much better idea of what in fact was happening and what had not happened on the ground prior to that,” Schloesser said.
“We lost nine U.S. soldiers in the space of about two hours and when I was told about it,” Schloesser said. “It was about 5:30 in the morning and I went immediately to our joint operations center where Milley was basically running it and being very concise, very targeted about the questions he had, that we needed to know how we could help resource the reinforcement of the place.”
Milley’s focused approach during that battle is far from an outlier, but the norm, Schloesser said.
“I would just say that he tends to be very deliberate and calm under extreme stress,” Schloesser continued. “He’ll tell jokes, and you can see that sometimes. His mannerisms, he tries to come across as a rough-hewn guy, your proverbial hockey player or something like that, yet he’s much more polished than that. He’s nuanced, he’s historic, in the sense that he has a sense of history and a great deal of knowledge about it, and he applies it to just about everything he does, including combat operations.”
Following that tour, Milley left the 101st and returned to D.C. once more, this time to serve as the Deputy Director for Regional Operations from June 2009 until November 2011. He picked up his second star in March 2011. The following year he’d get his third when he assumed command of III Corps at Fort Hood, which sent him once more to Afghanistan. By the time he returned and left Fort Hood, Milley had donned his fourth star, which he wore as he headed to Fort Bragg, North Carolina to serve as the head of United States Army Forces Command from 2014 to 2015.
On August 14, 2015, Gen. Milley — relatively unknown, as far as the American public was concerned — was selected as the Army’s chief of staff, a role he held until 2019. On December 8, 2018, he was nominated by then-President Donald Trump to be the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He was confirmed by the Senate 89-1 on July 25, 2019, making him directly responsible for advising the president, secretary of defense, and the national security council. Despite all that he’d been through at that point in his career, his life was about to dramatically change.
A quiet professional thrust into the spotlight
Milley has long been a passionate advocate for an apolitical military, but the past few years have tested civil-military relations in ways this country has not seen in decades. In an age defined by hyper-partisanship, Milley has been criticized by both Republicans and Democrats.
On January 31, 2020, President Donald Trump declared a public health emergency in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19. On March 13, 2020, he declared a national emergency, with widespread lockdowns implemented across the country in the following days. On May 25, 2020, with the world still embroiled in a worldwide pandemic, George Floyd Jr. was murdered while in police custody in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide civil rights protests, and in some cases, violent riots. A week later, on June 1, protests continued across the country, including in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Square.
At approximately 6:33 PM, “violent protestors” began throwing projectiles “including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids,” according to a National Park Service statement. Police responded with tear gas and began pushing the crowd back. Almost 20 minutes later, Trump concluded a speech in the Rose Garden addressing the ongoing unrest in response to the Floyd murder. At 7:01 PM, Trump departed the White House on foot, with a variety of administration officials in tow.
Among them, was Milley, dressed in military fatigues.
The president and his entourage crossed the North Lawn and walked into Lafayette Park, where protestors were cleared less than a half hour prior. At 7:06 PM, Trump arrived in front of St. John’s Church and posed for photos, Bible in hand.
The controversial spectacle sparked outrage among the president’s critics, and many questioned why the chairman of the Joint Chiefs took part.
“I should not have been there,” Milley said in a video addressing his appearance. “My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I’ve learned from.”
According to NBC News, Milley considered resigning over the incident, going so far as to draft a resignation letter to the president, obtained by The New Yorker, stating, “It is my belief that you were doing great and irreparable harm to my country. I believe that you have made a concerted effort over time to politicize the United States military. I thought that I could change that. I’ve come to the realization that I cannot, and I need to step aside and let someone else try to do that.”
The letter was never delivered.
The Lafayette Square incident may have been the pinnacle of the chairman’s controversial highlight in the public eye, but far from the only one. His first notable controversy preceded his time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs when he was still the Army’s chief of staff. The topic in question? The color of a beret.
In 2017, the Army’s new Security Force Assistance Brigades were still in their infancy. The units were controversial as they were seen as a Special Forces-like unit, and the criticism grew even louder after images leaked online of the unit’s new beret, which looked too close to a green beret for comfort.
“All of these decisions — beret color, patch, flash, crest, name, etc. — came from General Milley,” one NCO assigned to 1st SFAB told Task & Purpose at the time.
The controversy culminated in an online petition that gained over 89,000 supporters. In the comments section of an Army Times story on the matter posted to Facebook, Milley weighed in on the controversy:
“I want to assure everyone that the color of the SFAB Beret will be brown and will not be green or any shade of green,” Milley wrote. “There was no intent to dishonor or misappropriate the Green Beret of US Army Special Forces and all it stands for.”
After being appointed as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Milley started drawing fire from both sides of the aisle in Congress. Democrats criticized him for the Department of Defense’s response (or lack thereof, depending on who you ask) to the January 6 riots in the capitol following the 2020 presidential election results. Republicans criticized him after he rebuked accusations from Reps. Matt Gaetz and Mike Waltz that was directed at Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin concerning accusations the military was teaching Critical Race Theory, part of a narrative alleging a scourge of “wokeness” taking root in the Pentagon.
“I’ve read Mao Zedong, I’ve read Karl Marx, I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist,” Milley said. “So what is wrong with understanding — having some situational understanding about the country that we are here to defend? And I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned and noncommissioned officers of being ‘woke’ or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there.”
President Trump criticized Milley after authors Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reported Milley assured his Chinese counterpart that the United States had no plans to attack China in their book “Peril”. Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained Milley’s conversations with the Chinese as “conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability.”
“As a public figure, General Milley realizes he’ll be subject to public scrutiny,” Butler said. “He’s also proud to communicate with Congress, who are the American people’s representatives. What we are seeing over the past few years are personal attacks, name-calling, and otherwise that only lessen the quality of public debate.”
Even though the U.S. military and its leaders are charged with maintaining an apolitical posture, we live in an era of hyper-partisanship where 24-hour cable news hosts are always on the hunt for ratings via outrage. It’s no surprise that, After serving under both a Republican and Democrat president, history may view Gen. Mark Milley as one of the most controversial chairmen of the Joint Chiefs. It is not a distinction he covets.
“But I want you to know, and I want everyone to know, I want America to know that the United States military is an apolitical institution, we were then and we are now,” Milley told reporters at a 2021 Pentagon news briefing. “And our oath is to the Constitution, not to any individual at all. And the military did not and will not and should not ever get involved in domestic politics.”
Milley’s tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ends in October when he is expected to be replaced by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown Jr. The combat veteran who did not want to approve his own valor award has spent the past four years fighting a much different adversary: The erosion of the public’s trust in the military amid a toxic political climate.
His decisions as this country’s highest-ranking military officer will likely be the source of debate for years, but there can be no doubt that he spent his long career placing himself where the risk, both literal and figurative, was greatest, from a bridge in Iraq strewn with anti-tank mines to the halls of the Pentagon during civil-military strife. For Milley, the men and women in uniform deserved nothing less of him.
Although many critics will remember Milley’s time in the Trump administration most clearly, his time in the Biden administration may be the most consequential. Over the course of the summer of 2021, the phased withdrawal from Afghanistan began. Major bases were shut down, until eventually, the last American presence left was in Kabul.
On August 16, 2021, chaos enveloped the Kabul airport after the Taliban took the city. Images of desperate Afghans clinging to the sides of taxiing C-17s, and in some cases, falling to their death, reached American living rooms. For the next two weeks, the Kabul evacuation forced young American servicemembers and Afghans alike into a terrible situation, a hell that was unlike anything seen in America’s longest war up to that point.
On August 26, the terror of the evacuation reached a climax after an ISIS-K terrorist detonated a suicide vest at Abbey Gate, killing over 200 people — including 13 Americans. Three days later, on August 29, an American drone targeted what was believed to be those responsible for the attack. Instead, the strike killed 10 innocent civilians — seven were children. It was a deeply sad, disturbingly appropriate capstone to the two-decade American experience in Afghanistan.
On August 30, 2021, the last American C-17 departed Kabul.
Almost a month later, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie testified before Congress. They faced bipartisan criticism of how the Afghan evacuation was conducted, with Milley testifying the operation that evacuated 124,000 people was “a logistical success but a strategic failure.”
But the most notable moment of the testimony came after Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked Milley why he didn’t resign after the Biden administration didn’t listen to his advice.
“My dad didn’t get a choice to resign at Iwo Jima, and those kids there at Abbey Gate, they don’t get a choice to resign,” Milley said. “And I’m not going to turn my back on them. They can’t resign, so I’m not going to resign. There’s no way.”
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