July 19, 2007

General Wayne Downing (1940-2007)

General Wayne Downing
General Wayne Downing
United States Army (Retired)
Officer, Warrior, Leader, Gentleman and Friend

The general died at home on July 17, and so closes a chapter in American special operations. Most of us will never fully know of his contributions - most of his victories were won in the dark in lonely, far away places doing things that the public does not want to know about.

Wayne Downing, more than most, exemplified John F. Kennedy’s exhortation that we should ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. The general served for over three decades as one of the country’s most decorated officers in a field that at times was not appreciated by the senior echelons in the military – Special Forces. Not only did he practice the craft, he set the standards and went on to lead the nation’s Special Operations Command.

You don’t need me to tell you about the general’s contributions – it’s easy enough to type his name into a Google search and read about one of America’s heroes. Instead, let me add a few personal thoughts.

For the last four and a half years, General Downing and I were military analysts at NBC News and MSNBC. It was an honor to appear on the same set with him. We did not always agree, but he always respected my opinions and analyses, a welcome attitude given the differences in our retired military ranks. I was always amused at his wry half-smile as I launched into an analysis that I knew he did not agree with, that sort of “I’ll listen, Rick, but I’m not buying it” look. And yet, he never “pulled rank.”

Someone, a fellow retired Air Force officer, asked what it was like to work with General Downing. I responded with a parody of the MasterCard commercial: “New tie $35; frou-frou coffee at the MSNBC.COM-missary (yes, they actually call it that) $2.75; a day spent with a legend of contemporary American military service - priceless!

What struck me most was his unwavering willingness to serve the country. After a long and distinguished career in the Army, he agreed to serve again after September 11, this time at the White House, before coming to NBC News. When I last saw him, he was still traveling and talking to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I shall miss him. Farewell, sir.

PS - Colonel Jack Jacobs, my colleague at MSNBC, wrote an excellent piece on the general. Read it at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19838197/.