In this photo released by the U.S. Army, then-Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, left, talks about the status of Bagram Air Base to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, center, and others at the air base in Afghanistan on Jan. 17, 2007. COURTESY PHOTO
Freakley speaks at a meeting at Forward Operating Base Lumberyard in Afghanistan on May 7, 2006. COURTESY PHOTO
Benjamin C. Freakley
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, right, talks with Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley on board a C-130 cargo plane as they approach Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan, on July 28, 2006. COURTESY PHOTO
By Garren Shipley -- Daily Staff Writer
It's a long way from Central High School to Kabul, Afghanistan.
But for Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, it's a journey that began with a desire to serve and continues to this day.
Freakley, now the commanding general of the U.S. Army's Accessions Command, became interested in military service at an early age.
"I just fell in love with being a soldier," he said. That early interest led him to West Point, where he received his commission in 1975.
It's a decision that his time overseas in places from Germany to Afghanistan has reinforced.
"I love our country," he said. "I think anybody that's ever been a day or two out of America in any other country [has more] respect for what America stands for for the opportunities that our founding fathers created, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution."
The U.S. "really gives all people who live on our shores the phenomenal opportunity to achieve their potential as a human being," he said.
That liberty and opportunity is something Freakley has fought for in three separate campaigns.
During the first Gulf War in 1991, Freakley was a major responsible in part for drafting the war plan that saw coalition ground forces sweep Iraqi troops from Kuwait in just 100 hours.
"I wrote the battle plan, and during the attack I was coordinating the activities between ... artillery and armor units," he said. "It was four days, and then we stayed up in Iraq for 10 more days."
But it wasn't all flash and action. Operation Desert Storm was preceded by Operation Desert Shield. Coalition forces sat for more than half a year in the Saudi desert waiting on the order to head north.
"We were in the desert for seven months. It was very hard on the soldiers to be in 130-degree heat, eating the same food" day after day, he said.
Victory in 1991 is one of Freakley's enduring memories of war.
"We started marching out of Iraq back to Kuwait. We had a couple of thousand vehicles in our brigade. I don't know where the soldiers got them, but they tied American flags to the antennas," he said.
The job was done, and they were all going home.
"It was a sea of American flags, it was an enormously emotional experience to see all that," he said.
Freakley wasn't done in Iraq, though.
In 2003, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division as assistant division commander and assistant to Maj. Gen. David Petraeus who would later be the architect of the successful "surge" strategy in Iraq.
This time, U.S. forces faced not isolated desert warfare among the dunes, but street-to-street fighting in dense urban settings.
"We started fighting in Najaf, then we fought in Hillah, then we fought in Baghdad," he said. "We went across the breadth of Iraq."
After spending two years as the commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry School, Freakley was placed in command of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan in 2005.
Then in February 2006, he was the commander on the ground of all U.S. and coalition forces operating in the country, a post he held for a year before being promoted and placed in charge of Accessions Command.
Generals don't often pull triggers or drop bombs, but they carry the burden of knowing that if they make a mistake, a large number of the soldiers under their command may not come back at the end of the day.
"It's a huge responsibility. Any commander knows that the decision he's making will affect the lives of his own soldiers, and it'll affect the lives of the people where you're fighting," he said. "Taking a life is an enormous responsibility, and most soldiers don't take it lightly when they fight the enemy."
Sending fellow soldiers into harm's way is another enduring memory of war.
"In combat, one night we put in about 2,500 soldiers on a mission in Afghanistan," he said. "That was a long night."
"The next morning, to realize everybody was on their objective, all the helicopters put in" was a great relief, Freakley said.
Even for the generals standing over the maps and computer screens, there's nothing glamorous or glorious about combat.
"[Civil War Gen. William T.] Sherman had it right war is hell," Freakley said. "There's nothing romantic about fighting. It's hard work."
That's what makes the men and women who have served under his command so extraordinary, he added.
"They're resilient in the fight. They're strong physically, they're strong emotionally, they're strong spiritually. The American solider is a very strong human being, that woman or man out there."
Freakley credits that to the support they get back home.
"They come from strong families," he said. That's something Freakley has seen in his own hometown.
Following the death of fellow Central High School graduate Pfc. Thomas Wilson, of Woodstock, in Afghanistan in 2007, Freakley met his family and friends.
Meeting these "these incredibly strong families that stand behind their soldiers" was a moving experience.
It also underscores the burden of command.
"In combat as a commander you have to try and be as good as you can possibly be," Freakley said. "There's no day not to be your very best."
It's not a burden that commanders bear alone. From other generals all the way down to the lieutenants, sergeants and corporals, leadership is a team effort.
"Yes, it's challenge, and it's an enormous responsibility, but you also know that you have a terrific team that's undertaking this challenge with you," he said.
"I know that I have to be as good as I can be, I have to work hard, study our profession. Listen to my superiors, and to my subordinates, think hard about the problems that face us," he said.
"What's at stake is a life," he said.
NEXT WEEK: A Mt. Jackson man follows his family into the military.
* Contact Garren Shipley at email@example.com