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The Long Gray Line

By Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor

We gathered today at West Point for a farewell to Gen. Wayne Downing, with full military honors.  Posted below is what I wrote following Wayne's death. Today we gave our friend a fitting military tribute, accompanied by some great and heroic warriors.  Following his burial, after the sound of 17 cannon rounds were fired out over the Hudson River Valley, the stillness of the gravesite was broken only by the sound of a passing train -- on the very same tracks that carried Wayne Downing here for the first time on June 6th, 1958.

We hope you can join us for our broadcast tonight, from the grounds of the U. S. Military Academy.

The following is Brian's blog entry about his friend Wayne Downing from July 19, 2007

There's a long list of people who say they are alive today thanks to retired U.S. Army four-star General Wayne A. Downing, and my name's on it.

When his mighty heart stopped beating early Wednesday morning, America lost a warrior, a patriot and a public servant. I lost a traveling companion, teacher, protector and friend.

Word of his death unleashed a torrent of emotion from the ranks of the normally stoic community of warriors. Within minutes, postings to our blog started coming in, from members of the military and civilians alike, from men who had served with him and people who had never met him. To read them is to be inspired, truly, by the power and sway one individual can have over American life. Hour after hour, our electronic gathering place has become the guest book for those who feel the need to talk about a man of so many facets: a diminutive giant, gregarious yet discreet, a soldier who taught us so much about humanity. It's not so much a testament to the power of the Internet as it is to the power of a life in service to this country.

The biographical points of Wayne's life are these: he was the son of a soldier in World War Two. His father lost his life in one of the last engagements of the war in Europe. Wayne's mother depended upon government survivor benefits to raise the fatherless five-year-old boy in Peoria, Illinois. After graduating from West Point in 1962, Wayne served two tours of duty in Vietnam. His dozen or so combat decorations included a couple of Silver Stars, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, though we should quickly add that had all of his combat wounds been written up, he would have returned from the war with a chest full of purple. Recounting the time he was wounded by a Viet Cong soldier while filling his canteen with water for a Viet Cong prisoner, he once told me, "What war movies never get right is how angry you get when you get shot. It hurts. I went and got the guy." And the prisoner got his water.

From there, his career becomes a blur of passing years, advancing rank and multiple stars. It was capped off by his last title: Commander in Chief of U.S. Special Operations. The guys we used to call the Green Berets, the Seals, Delta Force -- if it operated under the radar, off the books or in the dark of night, Wayne ran it, at one point commanding over 30,000 U.S. personnel in uniform. It was Wayne Downing who accepted Noriega's surrender in Panama in 1990. It was Wayne Downing who was chosen by General Schwarzkopf to find and destroy the Iraqi scud missiles that were terrorizing Israel during the first Gulf War. Schwarzkopf famously emphasized that it was an assignment to be carried out not by Wayne personally, but by the spooky, stealthy and secretive men under Wayne's command. He threatened to demote Downing if he followed his men over the border into Iraq on the mission to destroy the missiles. He evidently knew Wayne very well.

Of all things, it was one of Mohamed Aidid's mortar shells in Mogadishu that came closest to ending Wayne's life. While it was a close call, it was almost impossible to shake him, and just as difficult to impress him. He retired after four stars and 34 years. At the time, everyone knew "retirement" was a euphemism.

They were right. Within weeks after 9-11, President Bush brought him back into Government service as Deputy Director of the National Security Council -- better known as White House Anti-Terrorism Czar. The title and responsibility spoke volumes about his experience and ability. That he never talked about why he left that job spoke volumes about his discretion.

In later years, Wayne slipped back and forth between the worlds of the private and public sectors with the ease of a Special Ops veteran. He would disappear from our lives for weeks at a time, and we would smile and say, "Wayne's gone to the dark side." He consulted for various companies, and that's where NBC News entered the picture, and Wayne entered our lives.

Wayne and I lived as part of the huge NBC News contingent in Kuwait City for weeks prior to the start of the Iraq War in 2003. His job was to provide expertise, intelligence and contacts. He put all three to work when the first bombs were dropped, and the first cruise missiles passed over our heads on the way to their targets deep inside Iraq.

If I told the story of how Wayne got us into Iraq during the start of combat operations, he'd come back from the dead to kill me. On one particular occasion, he talked me into going on a "day trip" with an Army Reserve Unit -- a flotilla of four twin-rotor Chinook helicopters on a mission we couldn't discuss. Each chopper carried a heavy section of a military bridge, flying slowly and at only 100 feet above the desert terrain. We were headed to the Euphrates River. It was the bridge that, once assembled, would carry the Third Infantry Division north to Baghdad.

Looking back at that day, I now like to say we encountered the first insurgents of the war. Wayne peered out of a plexiglass bubble window on board the chopper and was watching the terrain below as we flew. He said over the intercom system that it didn't "look good" to him on the ground. I now know what he meant: no U.S. forces had yet been where we were. This was un-patrolled territory. Not long after Wayne's warning, some men on the ground fired an RPG through the tail rotor of the chopper flying in front of ours. There was small arms fire. A chopper pilot took a bullet through the earlobe. All four choppers dropped their heavy loads and landed quickly and hard on the desert floor. Wayne never said aloud (to the young and relatively inexperienced crew) what we all knew to be true: he was the senior officer, by a long shot, retirement or not. He very soon took de facto control of our situation -- and when an American mechanized platoon came upon us, Wayne helped the young commander, a Captain and fellow West Pointer, set up a perimeter around those four big green birds, which at the time felt more like sitting ducks. Within hours an epic sandstorm later nicknamed "Orange Crush" moved in from the West with a gritty vengeance. We needed help and we needed fuel, and it quickly became apparent we weren't going anywhere for a while. The soldiers protecting us spotted two Iraqis approaching with an RPG on that first night, and killed them. Those days in the desert amounted to my first exposure to U.S. troops in this war. It was also my first exposure to Wayne Downing. I lived to tell the tale, and came away indebted, impressed and in awe.

He was the master of understatement (see "day trip" above) and the most resourceful man I ever met. He could build a Blackhawk helicopter from an Altoids box and a rubber band. The truth is, during those days inside our inert, sand-blasted Chinook, he was blissfully happy. The situation made him an infantryman again. He would wake up in the morning, empty two packets of instant coffee into a dirty half-liter bottle of water, shake vigorously and drink as if he was at Starbucks in the States. He enjoyed every MRE he ate (and often negotiated side deals with unsuspecting soldiers on my behalf, to help me acquire my favorite plastic pouch meal, spaghetti and meatballs) and every day in the desert. By night, we sat together on the helicopter ramp and watched the missile launches and bursts of light in the distance. We later learned we were watching the initial bombardment of Najaf, to our north. It was the Fourth of July for Wayne Downing.

When we arrived in Baghdad two days after the statue fell (another journey Wayne "facilitated"), we were just hours from Nightly News airtime. Working in the dark on the vast tarmac at the airport, surrounded by the noise and flashes of the war being fought around us, Wayne was in awe of NBC News producer Justin Balding as he hot-wired a portable satellite dish and made contact with New York. We established a television signal, but there was still the matter of lights. We crouched alongside an Army truck, and when I was introduced on the air by Tom Brokaw, my face appeared on the screen, illuminated by the headband flashlight worn by Wayne Downing. My co-workers in the New York control room remember me saying in the seconds before airtime, "Hit me with the sweet spot, General." It always struck me as a good title of a potential book someday. Wayne approached his task with military precision and gusto. We slept, in those days, on floors and in bunks and on rope seats in helicopters. We were a ripe bunch, in dirty surroundings while going days between showers...what gentlemen refer to as "close quarters."

During our trips to Iraq since that first one, and in all the thousands of miles I traveled with the General, I learned much of what I know today about the modern-day military. Wayne made our coverage better -- in part because he made me smarter. I can now easily spot a Combat Infantry Badge on the chest of an Iraq War veteran, and I know what it means. I watched Wayne carefully -- and watched those in uniform treat him like a rock star when he appeared in their midst. He trusted me with the U.S. war plan, he introduced me to his galaxy of friends in all ranks and branches of the service, and he gave me a primer in warfare that I will carry with me forever.

He loved his country and he loved his family. He agreed with my not-so-serious credo: never trust anyone who doesn't love a dog. Wayne loved his Labrador retrievers, and would never dream of a household with just one. He loved anyone in uniform and they seemed to love him. He remembered thousands of names, if not EXACT pronunciations. Speaking with his signature slight stutter that worsened with haste or fatigue, he had several names for our Producer Subrata De, including Subatra -- something akin to the Indonesian island nation of Sumatra. For her part, Subrata's favorite memory of the tough General is the advice he offered her -- as a father of eight children -- on how to potty-train her infant daughter.

Because I knew Wayne in his retirement years, I only knew him in plain clothes. There were no visible stars or battle scars, meaning that not all the fighting men and women we encountered knew they were talking to a retired four-star. Many just thought they'd had an encounter with a nice man who somehow seemed to know his way around a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

I can't tell Wayne's story as well as the e-mails can. These are the folks you should listen to. I just discovered that one of them is from my wife; she feels strongly about what Wayne did to keep her husband safe, and her nation safe. I've never been to Iraq without Wayne by my side. I know I've got to go back there, but right now I can't quite imagine going it alone.

Our textbooks will always contain the stories and images of this nation's iconic Generals and their carefully-chosen trademark accessories: Patton's shiny helmet and white gloves, MacArthur in Ray Bans wading ashore. I will remember forever the compact frame of the square-jawed General I came to know so well in Iraq: wearing the tan safari vest he purchased at Banana Republic. It was perfect. It was General Downing.