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Posted February 11, 2012 | comments Leave a comment

A civilian once again

Central High grad retires from Army as lieutenant general

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

WOODSTOCK -- Forty years, three wars and three stars after entering the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley is returning to civilian life.

The 1971 Central High School graduate and his wife, Susan, are staying with family north of Woodstock while they plan the next chapter in their lives.

Looking for a structured environment after high school, Freakley, now 58, sought admission to Virginia Military Institute, The Citadel and West Point. He graduated from West Point in 1975.

"I fell in love with it and never looked back," he said of Army life.

He has had a key role in the U.S. war on terror, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in his most recent role as commander of the U.S. Army Accessions Command.

Freakley spent the last 41⁄2 years in Fort Monroe and Fort Knox leading recruitment operations for the Army and the Reserve Officers' Training Corps and Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps. His command stretched from Germany to Korea.

During Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Freakley was commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force-76. In that role, he worked with various agencies, including the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the CIA and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"Afghanistan is as complex an environment and issue that I have ever seen in my lifetime," Freakley said. "It's a landlocked country that's influenced by every one of its neighbors. Inside, they're rife with tribal rivalries and competition. The government is weak."

Freakley said the country's military and police force are becoming more and more capable, which gives him some hope for stability and peace there after the U.S. pulls out in December 2014.

But, it's a bleak nation, with a 22 percent literacy rate, a life expectancy of 43 years, where the average annual income is about $800, and where 20 percent of women die in childbirth and one in five children doesn't make it to their fifth birthday, according to Freakley. The country has many population pockets that are so isolated that he was once mistaken for a Russian by people who thought the nation was still under Soviet rule.

Still, it has "magnificent" agriculture and a good supply of water.

"I think the effort's hugely worthwhile," he said. "The Afghan people deserve a better opportunity and a better environment."

Millions of Afghan children are back in school -- including more than 2 million girls by the time Freakley left.

Several years earlier, Freakley, who also fought in the Gulf War, helped direct the invasion of Iraq. It resulted in 25 million people no longer being oppressed by a tyrant, he said, and the opportunity for the U.S. to have an ally in the Middle East.

Freakley's illustrious military career has also taken him to England and Germany, as well as the Pentagon and the National Military Command Center in Washington D.C. Those positions saw him reporting to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the defense secretary and the president. He never foresaw how far he'd go in his career.

"I just was proud to serve," Freakley said. "It's been a lifelong learning opportunity. I just tried to do my best and was honored to get to do what I did."

The father of five sons -- two of whom are leading platoons in Afghanistan -- still sounds like an Army recruiter.

"If you got out in the '90s, it's not the Army you think it is," he said. "The Army ... is better trained, it's better equipped, it's better led than any time in our history."

That has led to dramatically lower casualty figures. Many soldiers today have $50,000 worth of equipment on them, Freakley said.

"They just dominate on the battlefield," he said. "The training that the young people get really makes them very confident, very disciplined and values-based. I think it's a great place for young people to start."

But, with military funding being cut, America will become more vulnerable.

"We found ourselves, quite bluntly, at the start of this war too small for Iraq and Afghanistan," Freakley said.

That led to short breaks between deployments for soldiers.

"We've got to be strong economically, so I understand [the cuts], but we're taking risks," he said. "This is a very uncertain time."

Freakley cited the upheavals in the Middle East, a new leader in North Korea and a "bellicose" Iran.

"There's some real issues out there that could call for a military response," he said. "I'm one who believes we should use all of our outlets before we use military responses. We're going to have some issues with either size or unpreparedness by bringing down the Marines and the Army."

Should there be a need to lead another battle elsewhere, Freakley's ready to let someone else handle it.

"There are plenty of young people, plenty of bright minds coming along to serve our nation," he said.

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