Gen. Ray Odierno, Former Army Chief and Iraq Commander, Dies at 67

ray odierno army general iraq
Gen. Ray Odierno, then U.S. Army chief of staff, greets senior leaders of 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, during his visit to Camp Red Devil, Colorado, on July 24, 2014. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Mikki L. Sprenkle)

Retired Army Gen. Ray Odierno, who rose to be the top U.S. commander in the Iraq War more than a decade ago, has died, according to a press release from the Association of the United States Army. He was 67 years old.

He died of cancer, according to a statement from the family.

The height of Odierno's nearly 40-year military career was serving as Army chief of staff from 2011 to 2015, but the towering New Jersey native was most known for his service in Iraq, which mirrored the entire trajectory of the war itself.

Odierno helped lead the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was found hiding in a hole in the ground in 2003, and served as the top commander in the country until the war wound down in 2011.

In total, he spent more than 55 months in Iraq over three tours.

"Ray's legacy is like Ray himself -- it simply won't fit into the space behind a podium," former Defense Secretary Ash Carter said during a 2015 change-of-command ceremony for Odierno. "But let me characterize it this way: Ray Odierno's story is our Army's story. He's a consummate leader and more, the very symbol of the U.S. Army -- big, strong, capable, always willing."

Gen. Mark Milley, who succeeded Odierno as Army chief and is now Joint Chiefs chairman, called the 6-foot-5 Odierno a "giant of a man" and a "moral giant" at his retirement.

The search for Saddam in the months following the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a key point in the war, as the military worried he could fuel continued fighting if left free.

Odierno was commander of the Army's 4th Infantry Division during that time and recounted in a 2013 interview "getting the call" that No. 1, the military's code name for Saddam, had been captured.

"It was very important for us to capture him to make sure that he would never be able to come back and terrorize the Iraqi people," Odierno told interviewer Charlie Rose.

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However, imprisoning Saddam did not end the war. Instead, an insurgency grew over the next two years into bloody fighting for the military. Odierno eventually became a top backer of new counterterrorism tactics and a surge strategy.

"He educated himself and became the very best operational commander we have in conducting irregular warfare," retired Gen. Jack Keane, now chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, told the Los Angeles Times in 2008.

President George W. Bush announced a surge of more than 20,000 troops in 2007 to secure Baghdad and Iraq's provinces amid the violence. Odierno was the operational commander of that surge as commanding general of Multi-National Force-Iraq.

"We're doing this so we're able to give them [the Iraqis] the time necessary to mature as a government, to mature their security forces so we can move forward and allow them to take control of their own destiny as they all so much want to do, and we can then return home one day to our families," Odierno told his troops in a video message in 2007.

The controversial move coincided with a drop in sectarian violence in the country and eventually paved the way for the U.S. to withdraw under President Barack Obama in 2011.

As Army chief, Odierno was the top officer in the U.S. military's largest service branch when the Islamic State group overran northern Iraq in 2014, bringing a new era of violence and war to the country.

Odierno stoked his own minor controversy going into retirement in 2015 when he gave a stark warning that the continued fight against the terrorist group was at a stalemate, and that sectarian violence in Iraq still could split the country in two.

In retirement, he advocated for veterans. Odierno sat on the board of directors of The Mission Continues, a nonprofit aimed at helping vets adjust to civilian life, and was a member of the JPMorgan Chase Military and Veterans Affairs External Advisory Council.

"What I've tried to do is share the experiences I've had, the challenges I've had, the mistakes I've made," Odierno said in a 2018 CNBC interview when asked how his Army career translated into retirement.

"It's about getting people to come together to achieve extraordinary outcomes," he added.

Odierno was married to his high school sweetheart Linda, according to his service biography. He had three children, including retired Army Capt. Tony Odierno, who is a combat veteran.

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

Related: US Army Gen. Odierno Retires amid Controversy over Iraq Remarks

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