Tom O’Connell, Col. Tom O’Connell that is, died last night of a “massive heart attack” in his bed. He was my best friend and my personal hero. He did so many incredibly brave things that I long ago despaired of keeping track of them all, and long after his body could no longer leap out of combat helicopters, march daunting distances or engage the enemy head to head, he went right on fighting for all of us.
He was the sort that you imagined dying in a gunfight. Instead, the good Lord collected him in a single stroke. I hope his dreams were happy, and I’m glad his fine wife, Pat, was with him.
His last official post was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict in the first George W. Bush administration, which made him one of the key players in the Iraq war. He wasn’t one of Rumsfeld’s favorites, because Tom was totally outspoken and fought very hard for his views. Rumsfeld did not always welcome that, although I’m sure he appreciated his good fortune in having such an extraordinary man on his team.
We met because our parents lived in the same retirement village in South Florida and at poolside our mothers would brag about their kids to each other. Inevitably, we were introduced during some holiday weekend, and became close, to our mothers’ delight.
He was both a man’s man and a perfect gentleman, capable of great violence on the battlefield and irresistible charm in almost any social setting. As any of us with strong convictions and a willingness to act on them, he had plenty of enemies. But everyone I know who worked with him developed enormous respect for a man who fought in Vietnam in some of the worst neighborhoods, led the 82nd Airborne Division in Grenada, and worked tirelessly on behalf of US Special Forces.
He was one of a handful of American officials who helped establish that the Iranians were killing our troops in Iraq. He ordered his men to track the serial numbers on the roadside bombs, and they found Iranian components. This information was not well received by many of the top policymakers, who did not want trouble with Iran. Tom and a very few others urged retaliation, at a minimum against the assembly lines for those awful weapons.
A tough, often gruff guy, and a great leader. The sort of man we so desperately need nowadays, and I’m furious that the next president won’t be able to draw on Tom’s wisdom and strategic vision. I’ve just finished writing a book with General Mike Flynn, and there’s a section in there about Tom’s leadership in Grenada in 1983, when he awarded a medal to a man he could have court marshaled. That worked out well; the man was Mike Flynn. It takes a good leader to sort out the talent from the bureaucratic swarm.
I already miss him, dammit. Soon enough he’ll be going to Arlington, where he buried so many of his buddies. They’ll no doubt welcome him with one of those Irish songs he so loved. His memory will be a blessing.