Gen. William “Kip” Ward’s legacy seemed secure in March 2011, when he stepped down from his history making post as the inaugural commander of the U.S. Africa Command. Now, he's not so sure.
During a pomp-filled change-of-command ceremony at Sindelfingen city hall near Africom’s Stuttgart, Germany headquarters, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates presented Ward with the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, one of many honors the Morgan State University graduate has earned during more than four decades of military service.
“The first leader of any organization defines it more than any other,” Gates said. “In under three years, Gen. Ward has forged a command that ably protects vital U.S. interests, promotes stability and builds key capabilities among our allies.”
Marine Corps. Gen. James E. Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added an unusually kind cross-service plaudit. He said Ward “has been a soldier for over 40 years, a statesman, a commander — battle-hardened.” Cartwright continued: He and his wife have done “a fantastic job” at Africom. “It has been, and will be, their legacy.”
Troubling questions arise
Now, however, Ward’s stellar record of military service-- which allowed him to become the Army’s fifth African American four-star general and hold 13 commands -- has been marred by troubling allegations.
He stands accused of doing what top military leaders, who travel in their own planes and command huge staffs routinely do: Stay in luxurious digs, running up a lot of expenses. The allegation, questioned by some observers, is that he went too far.
A report by Department of Defense Inspector General accuses Ward of excessive spending during his nearly three years at the helm of Africom, the Defense Department’s newest combatant command.
The 99-page report says Ward used military vehicles to ferry his wife, Joyce, to stores and to spas. It also accuses the former commander of using Army staff to run personal errands. And, it says, he had his wife accompany him on trips even when she was performing no official duties.
Some claims disputed
During one of his many official trips across the Atlantic, he billed the government for an overnight refueling stop in Bermuda, where Ward and his wife stayed in a $747-a-night suite. Defenders of Ward say such accommodations are routine for top generals. Where should they stay, they ask, in an Econolodge?
The report also said that Ward’s advance staff — people who pre-plan his movements on the ground to ensure tight security and good coordination, just as staff do for other top generals and government officials -- spent a week and thousands of dollars on the sunny island preparing for the general’s brief stopover.
The report also says Ward routinely used motorcades and stayed at the plush Ritz-Carlton when he traveled to Washington. It also said that Ward and his wife Joyce, accepted dinner and Broadway play tickets from a government contractor during a trip on which he went backstage to meet actor Denzel Washington. It added that they and a group of staff members spent two nights at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, at a cost of thousands of dollars.
It is hardly a Watergate-level bombshell, but the report comes amid a rancorous national debate about public debt, government spending and impending cuts to the nation’s defense budget.
Ward speaks in own defense
Ward has defended himself in interviews with investigators and in a letter, parts of which are quoted in the report. He said that his travel was always for official business and that he did not realize that a military contractor had provided the theater tickets. He said the Bermuda stay resulted from a crew stop planned by staff members, who handle travel arrangements for the extensive travel his job required.
Moreover, Ward suggested, his level of spending and use of staff were in line with the practices of other top military commanders, who have wide discretion over their staffs and budgets. And going back to the days of George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, top commanders never have been known to be penny-pinchers.
Similar inquiries launched
It is not certain that Ward will face harsh discipline, for similar allegations have been raised against other high officers with mixed results. Claims of travel improprieties arose when Adm. James Stavridis, once in line to be Chief of Naval Operations, also fell under Defense Department scrutiny.
That investigation, by the Defense Department inspector general, was never concluded, and there is no indication when it might reach a conclusion.
Other well known commanders also fell under intense scrutiny.
More than three decades ago, Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, a former Army chief of staff, was embarrassed by news reports that his staffers had sent some of his golf gear from Georgia to Kansas on an otherwise empty military plane. Rogers ended up paying the cost of the flight, which he said he did not know about at the time.
In 2003, a Pentagon investigation found that Gen. Tommy Franks, who had headed the U.S. Central Command, had allowed his wife to attend classified briefings. The inquiry could not prove allegations that Franks failed to properly compensate the government for his wife's travel, and he retired later that year.
And while officials such as Marine Gen. Cartwright have acknowledged Mrs. Ward's contributions to the successful buildup of the Africa Command, no claim of security breaches or great personal impropriety has arisen from her participation.
Entourage not seen as unusual
For his part, Ward seems puzzled. “I would hear things about folks coming in with these entourages and anecdotally, some would comment, ‘Yours is a lot smaller than others that we see,’” Ward is quoted saying in the report. “So I didn’t consider mine to be — it just didn’t — did not raise a flag.”
Ward has filed his retirement request, but his departure from the Army is on hold pending a decision on his case by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Ward could face a demotion, which could cost him a big chunk of his pension, and he could be forced to reimburse the government.
As he awaits a decision, Ward is working in the Washington area in an administrative position, a role for a two-star general. Army rules require a general not working in a designated four-star post to be reduced temporarily in rank, but that automatic action does not necessarily determine the rank at which he or she eventually will retire.
A 40-year career, well regarded until now
The report now hangs like a cloud over the Ward’s otherwise stellar military career, and is deeply troubling to his many supporters.
Ward, 63, is a Baltimore native. His father was a combat engineer during World War II, a sergeant who served in an Army where segregated assignments and segregationist attitudes sharply restricted the career mobility of blacks in uniform.
But rather than be turned off by that disturbing past history, Ward decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. At Morgan State, Ward not only completed two years of Reserve Officer Training Corps instruction, then mandatory for men at land grant institutions, but also found he could excel. Ward took to the discipline and challenge of the military, and decided to continue his ROTC participation throughout his undergraduate years.
He was commissioned into the Army as an infantry officer in 1971, but even then Ward thought he would just serve his four years and go on to law school.
“But as the years went on, it became clearer that serving my country and taking care of my teammates was a pretty fulfilling undertaking … in a way I saw my dad do it,” Ward said at his review ceremony in April, according to the American Forces Press Service.
While serving in the Army, he went on to earn a master’s degree in political science from Pennsylvania State University. Ward also took courses at the U.S. Army War College, among other institutions.
Postings spanning the globe
Ward also has traveled the globe. He has served tours in multiple hotspots: Korea, Egypt, Somalia, Bosnia, Israel and Germany at the fall of the Soviet empire. He also has served in a wide range of posts across the United States. He was also deputy commander of the U. S. European command and deputy commanding general and has served as chief of staff of the U.S. Army Europe, and before that, as chief of staff of the U.S. Seventh Army.
Along the way, he earned a fistful of awards and badges, including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster); the Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal (with two Oak Leaf Clusters); and the Legion of Merit (with three Oak Leaf Clusters).
All of that was capped by his command of Africom, where he helped stand up the military’s first command focused on the African continent, beginning in 2007.
Establishment of the command, one of the Defense Department's six unified geographic commands, faced some opposition from African leaders with memories of the excesses of European colonial domination. Thus, Ward's first crucial task was winning hearts and minds on the continent, working to convince Africans of the need for cooperation in the war against terrorism. The establishment of the command also was a way to protecting American interests in a part of the world where global competition for its vast natural resources is intensifying.
More than a military mission
As Pentagon officials describe it, the Africa Command's mission is more than a military one: the command also works closely with the State Department and its foreign-aid arm to provide humanitarian support.
Ward’s role at the top of the command put him in the military elite, as one of a small band of commanders who control huge budgets, are accompanied by large entourages on travel and wield broad autonomy to shape the U.S. military presence in the areas they oversee.
“I’ve worked with many generals, and they all have cooks," said Michael Lee Lanning, a former Army colonel, now a prolific military writer based in Texas. "They have drivers. They live in beautiful homes. They all have staff running personal stuff for the family,” said Lanning.
It remains to be seen how the investigation will proceed against the backdrop of Ward’s long record of achievement and what its affect on his legacy will be. But many say it hard to see how the report will outweigh Ward’s decades of contributions to both the Army and his country.
“You don’t become a four-star general unless you’re damn good,” Lanning said. “It is a very competitive, very tough field. Some might say that a thousand attaboys are nullified by one 'oh sh--'. But the bottom line is that he still has a thousand 'attaboys'.”