In 1991, Army 1st Lt. Mark Esper was hard-charging young officer who took time to listen to the troops in planning and carrying out a risky air assault into Iraq deep behind enemy lines.
Esper, now 55, rose from his post as secretary of the Army June 24 to become acting defense secretary upon the departure of acting secretary Patrick Shanahan; President Donald Trump has signaled his intent to nominate Esper as the permanent office-holder. But nearly three decades ago, during the Gulf War, Esper was already distinguishing himself, his former battalion commander told Military.com.
"[Esper] was always listening, always taking in as much as he could" on the thoughts and concerns of noncommissioned officers, retired Col. G. Thomas Greco said. He'd then apply the insights he received to decisions that had to be made as part of the swift offensive that drove Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait.
Esper was never shy about offering his own opinion on tactics and operations, Greco said, but had a way of giving expression that was both "tactful and compelling."
He was "innately intelligent and had excellent insights into risk management and decision making," Greco said.
Esper's "soldiers' first" attention to detail was one of the reasons Greco said he wanted the young lieutenant to return to the 101st Airborne Division as it prepared for deployment in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
Then-Maj. Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, commander of the 101st, had asked Greco if there was anyone he wanted to recall to his unit for the deployment.
"Absolutely. Lt. Esper," Greco said he replied. "This is the guy I want to come back."
Greco said he called Esper, who had previously departed the 101st, and told him to talk it over with his wife, Leah, before making a decision.
"Sure, we'll be back," Esper responded, according to Greco's recollection.
In a phone interview Friday, Greco also sought to correct some misinformation that has occasionally crept into biographical accounts of Esper's Army career. Some of the accounts listed Esper as a platoon leader in the 101st, part of the legendary "left hook" through the Saudi desert to cut off Iraqi forces.
Greco, who was then a lieutenant colonel, said Esper was instead an assistant training and operations officer in what would become Task Force 3-187, the famed "Rakkasans," of the 101st Airborne Division.
Esper's Pentagon biography says only that he "served in the 101st Airborne Division and participated in the 1990-91 Gulf War with the 'Screaming Eagles'" of the 101st.
In UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters, the 101st carried out an air assault into Iraqi territory well north of the "left hook" on the ground to prevent against a counter-attack, Greco said.
The mission was to block Highway 8 into Basra and "not let anything come down from Baghdad," Greco said.
It was Greco who recommended Esper for the meritorious Bronze Star he received for his efforts in Desert Storm. Esper's other military awards include the Legion of Merit, the Kuwait Liberation Medal, Kuwait Liberation Medal-Saudi Arabia, and the Combat Infantryman Badge, according to his Pentagon biography.
Following Desert Storm, Esper commanded a rifle company in the 3-325 Airborne Battalion Combat Team in Vicenza, Italy.
In his first overseas trip as Acting Defense Secretary this week, Esper cited his time in Italy at a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels to underline his familiarity with alliance issues.
Esper graduated from West Point in 1986, the same class as current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2007 after spending 10 years on active duty and 11 years in the National Guard and Army Reserve.
"He's served in all three components [of the military], he's served in large corporations in support of defense, he's walked in the boardrooms and on the front lines," Greco said. "It's hard to imagine anybody with more experience."
But it's that very boardroom experience that raised concerns from the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain during Esper's nomination hearing to become Army Secretary in November 2017.
After leaving active duty, Esper was chief of staff at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, held staff positions in the House and Senate, and was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Negotiations Policy at the Pentagon in the administration of President George W. Bush.
Before being nominated for Army Secretary, Esper was the $1.5 million vice president for Government Relations at defense industry giant Raytheon Company, according to records he submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee for his nomination hearing in November 2017.
At the hearing, McCain, then the committee's chairman, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, cited Esper's experience at Raytheon to question what they said was the Trump administration's overreliance on defense industry executives to fill top positions at the Pentagon.
Defense industry expertise in the past had failed to prevent major Army programs from going bust, wasting billions in taxpayer funds, McCain said, citing the RAH-66 Comanche helicopter and XM2001 Crusader self-propelled howitzer programs.
"Let me just tell you now that is not acceptable," McCain told Esper. "We do not want any more of these failures. You lose credibility with the American people."
Esper did not waver, stressing that he wanted a closer relationship with industry to streamline acquisitions.
"I believe my broad private sector experiences, especially as a senior executive at a major defense company, have provided me a good sense of the Army's acquisition challenges," Esper said.
Echoing numerous Defense Department nominees over the years, Esper said the acquisitions process needed to be reformed, adding that "there also needs to be greater engagement with industry, and a closer partnership with the commercial sector, to ensure that the weapons and equipment our soldiers need are delivered on cost and schedule."
At his confirmation hearing for the role of Army secretary, Esper was on a panel of five nominees under consideration and received little personal scrutiny from the Senate Armed Services Committee. But that will not be the case after Trump formally nominates Esper for defense secretary, a move expected this month.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.