A look at the general tapped to head America's special operations forces
By Wesley Morgan | Special To The Washington Post | Published: January 7, 2016
It's a big week in the world of special operations: the Army's two most senior special operations officers, Gen. Joseph Votel and Lt. Gen. Raymond "Tony" Thomas, are the Pentagon's new picks to lead two of its most influential four-star headquarters. The moves are not yet official, but they would put Votel and Thomas in charge of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command respectively, both based in Tampa, Florida.
The Washington Post has profiled Votel, who will be leaving the latter command to lead the former. But Thomas, the heir apparent to SOCOM, is a more shadowy figure. Like Votel, he is a veteran of the Army's elite Ranger light infantry force. He has also held key posts in the top-secret counterterrorism unit popularly known as Delta Force.
Since last year, Thomas has headed up SOCOM's most prestigious component, the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, which oversees terrorist-hunting missions from North Africa to Afghanistan and beyond. As head of SOCOM, Thomas will no longer be directing the day-to-day activities of commandos and drone fleets in the field; the four-star command's role is to train and administer commando units, not employ them.
Asked to describe Thomas' personality outside the command post, one former subordinate would only say that the JSOC general is "business-oriented" and an avid hockey fan loyal to the Philadelphia Flyers. The red-faced, even-keeled officer is widely known for his candor and, by all accounts, inspires deep loyalty among his subordinates.
A 1980 graduate of West Point, Thomas completed a brief stint with a mechanized infantry unit before entering the elite Ranger battalions, where he participated in two combat parachute jumps, into Grenada in 1983 and Panama six years later, before trying out for Delta Force, the Army's super-secret counterterrorism unit. After commanding a squadron in Delta and leading Delta operators searching for war criminals in the Balkans, he returned to the Rangers as a battalion commander in time to lead the first Ranger contingent to Afghanistan three months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He never led an infantry battalion in the conventional Army, usually a prerequisite for Ranger command.
"He was the epitome, even as an officer, of what every young Ranger aspired to be," wrote Nate Self, a soldier who served under Thomas in Afghanistan in early 2002, in his memoir, "a no-frills operator, a former track star with strawberry-blond hair, piercing eyes, complex thoughts, and plain words." The first thing he did with new officers was take them on a five-mile run and give them assigned reading: "Gates of Fire," a novel about the famous last stand of 300 Spartan hoplites at Thermopylae, and a chapter written by a Navy SEAL colleague, William McRaven, about the 1970 Son Tay prison raid in North Vietnam.
Thomas spent much of the 12 years that followed in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq, serving as a senior JSOC staff officer and deputy commander before doing a stint as the top military liaison at the CIA. Stanley McChrystal, the retired general who was JSOC's longest-serving commander, waxed poetic in his book "My Share of the Task," gushing about Thomas' "amazing vision, unwavering loyalty, and personal courage."
The only year of the war on terror during which Thomas didn't spend time in Afghanistan was 2008, according to information Army officials shared with the press when he gained his third star last year and took command of JSOC. That was the year Thomas spent overseeing U.S. troops in Iraqi city of Mosul, where he survived a head-on attack on his armored vehicle by a car bomb.
"I loved working for him," said an Army colonel who asked not to be named because he served under Thomas in JSOC units. "When leaders say they provide top cover, some really do it and some pay lip service. Tony Thomas really does it. When I was working for him and I screwed up, what he expected me to do was come clean, tell him what I was doing about it, and he took care of the rest. That was liberating, especially in an Army that often has a zero-defects mentality."
"I think over the years he's been challenged a bit with some of his peers and superiors because of his candor and bluntness," the colonel added. McChrystal hints at that too, noting that when the two were captains together in the Rangers in the late 1980s, their "relationship was initially strained." In a 2008 blog post, former Ranger Andrew Exum, who served under Thomas in Iraq, remarked admiringly on the more senior officer's "reputation for pissing important people off."
Suggesting his candor, Thomas described some of his own frustrations as JSOC's commander in the war against the Islamic State, al-Qaida, and other extremists in a rare interview at West Point last spring. "From a leadership standpoint, if we can't explain to the nation, to subordinates, to the collective whole what we're trying to accomplish, then our strategy is by nature ill-defined and harder to achieve," the general told an interviewer from the military academy's Combating Terrorism Center -- a surprisingly harsh assessment from a serving commander, let alone the one at the helm of the shadow war.
"I'm told 'no' more than 'go' on a magnitude of about 10 to 1 on a daily basis," Thomas continued, apparently referring to missions for which JSOC sought but did not receive Pentagon approval. "I have to regulate my own frustration there to make sure it doesn't trickle down to the force."
"An Army that continues to promote this man is an Army that will win wars," predicted former Ranger Exum, who is now deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy, in his 2008 blog post. Thomas does not think the United States is beating various terrorist and insurgent foes today, however, he made clear in the West Point interview.
"We're losing across the board," he told the interviewer evenly, citing the Afghanistan-Pakistan, "ironically," as one relatively bright spot. "But across the board we're not winning."
Thomas' striking assessment - that the U.S. military is losing its wars at the same time that it is relying on special operations forces more than ever before --buttresses the argument that the commandos are a band-aid, used to patch over long-term problems with temporary fixes. This may be especially true with the "direct action" raid forces of JSOC, which draw more resources and more acclaim than Green Berets and other less classified special operators who specialize in training foreign armies.
But Thomas' promotion, if confirmed, would appear to affirm the primacy not only of special operations within the military, but of JSOC's hunter-killer units within the bigger special operations community. That trend began under the George W. Bush administration -- it was who Bush famously told the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, "JSOC is awesome" -- and has only intensified during the Obama years.
Thomas would be the third former JSOC commander in a row to head up SOCOM; the last time a career Green Beret held the post was more than 15 years ago, before the war on terror began, even though Green Berets account for by the far the plurality of SOCOM's special operators and are seeing increased use from Africa to Afghanistan as the military tries to shape the war efforts of allied militaries and irregular forces.
"Even more than other guys who've made the JSOC-to-SOCOM leap like Votel, Thomas has spent a disproportionate amount of his career in JSOC units," explained Sean Naylor, a journalist whose recent book "Relentless Strike" chronicles the hunter-killer command's rise. "If confirmed, it underlines how much senior leaders identify with the direct action side of special operations, as much lip service as they may pay to the indirect approach guys," like Green Berets. "No president has relied on JSOC as heavily as Obama has."