HEIDELBERG, Germany - A decade ago, Carter Ham was just another colonel.
He’d had an interesting career — tours in Europe, time advising the Saudi Arabian National Guard, liaison to the 1984 summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, assistant inspector general.
But by 2001, after achieving brigade command, Ham was looking to retire. He and wife Christi, an educator, bought a house in Georgia near their grown children as he planned one last assignment at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.
But 9/11 changed all that.
Ham, Jesuit-educated and a soldier for a quarter-century by then, believed deeply in the idea of service. So he went to Kuwait.
Then, in 2003, he was promoted to brigadier general and put in charge of the Army’s first two Stryker brigades. Gen. Eric Shinseki, then Army chief of staff, pulled him aside at an event, Ham told The Tacoma News Tribune in 2004, and said: "Don’t screw this up. I’m giving you my two Stryker brigades. As you might’ve noticed, these are very important to me.’"
Ham forgot about retirement then, he said.
Now commander of U.S. Army Europe and one of only 11 four-star generals in the Army, Ham is the one the Pentagon has chosen to study the most defining and divisive social issue facing the military today. The general, 58, is leading a yearlong review into the effects of revoking "don’t ask, don’t tell," which would allow openly gay men and lesbians to serve in the U.S. military.
He and Jeh Johnson, the Defense Department’s top lawyer and an appointee of President Barack Obama, are to assess the planned policy change’s impact on benefits, housing, retention and morale. The study is also thought to be a way to smooth the transition — "to minimize disruption and polarization within the ranks, with special attention paid to those serving on the front lines," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month.
Ham’s appointment to lead the study is all the more striking in light of his just-completed duty. In January, he was tapped to head a study into the Fort Hood shootings that left 13 soldiers dead and an Army psychiatrist who’d become increasingly interested in radical Islam charged with 13 counts of murder.
Ham’s report on that matter recommended disciplinary action against six people, most of them at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who, according to Ham’s report, ignored clear signs of the psychiatrist’s increasingly "aberrant" behavior."
Ham declined to be interviewed for this story.
He’s not on record anywhere about his opinions on the suitability of gay troops, even as polls show that a majority of Americans believe gay people should be allowed to serve openly and other top commanders have started to make their opinions known.
But in a talk last year to top-ranking sergeants about the benefits of diversity in the force, Ham said that in his view the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy was likely soon to be changed.
"We must prepare soldiers and leaders for that change," Ham said, according to the NCO Journal.
The Pentagon declined to discuss why Ham had been chosen to lead the study beyond praising his experience and "wisdom," as Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it. But those who have worked with him, and his own personal story suggest he brings a judicial temperament, flexibility and credibility to the table.
Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling was commander of the Germany-based headquarters unit in charge of part of Iraq when Ham became USAREUR commander.
"General Ham was probably picked for a variety of reasons," Hertling said in an e-mail, "but from my view — having worked for him and seen his style up close — likely his calm demeanor, analytical ability and skills in understanding an issue, and thoughtful approach in listening to all sides were the most important factors."
Additionally, Ham’s repeated "joint" jobs working with other military branches and his extensive combat experience "also contributed to him being the choice for this tough mission."
Both things provide Ham with credentials to speak to an issue that cuts across all branches of the service and is said to be most problematic for combat troops.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, who met Ham in Iraq six years ago, also praised Ham’s thoughtful, balanced approach.
"Carter impressively blends tactical competence and strategic vision," Dempsey’s e-mail said. "He is a champion for soldiers and their families. I admire him."
Ham is the highest-ranking officer among a very small group to talk publicly about his own difficulties and anxiety after his year commanding a task force in northern Iraq. During his command, a suicide bomber blew up a mess tent, killing 22.
"The worst day of my life, hands down," Ham has said.
The weight of command, the ordering of young people into harm’s way and knowing they’d die, month after month, took a toll, he said.
In interviews, he and his wife discussed how he’d become distant, irritable, jumpy, sleepless when he returned home — and how he had resolved his difficulties after some months and his wife’s urging, by talking things over with a chaplain he knew. The Hams said they wanted to encourage other soldiers to feel free to seek help.
Ham also seems to take being a family man to heart. He once said it troubled him that his post-Iraq stress had temporarily made him a worse husband and father.
His former son-in-law told a reporter that Ham still meant the world to him.
"Both my parents are deceased, but he and [Christi] really took me in as a son," Staff Sgt. Clinton Miller told the Tacoma News Tribune in a revealing 2004 story about Ham. "I’ll always hold him in very high regard, no matter what."
Ham can also be self-deprecating. After being promoted to brigadier general, he told the News Tribune, "We decided that every year the Army selects one guy to give the rest of the Army hope. I think I was that guy: If Ham can make it, anybody can make it."
Ham’s father, a Navy officer who’d served in John F. Kennedy’s PT boat squadron, saw his career cut short by injury when he was a lieutenant commander, Ham told the News Tribune. He taught for a while at the Naval Academy in Newport, R.I., where he met Ham’s mother, then worked for General Electric. The family — Ham is one of five children — moved frequently, he said, eventually settling in Cleveland.
Ham enlisted in the Army and served in the 82nd Airborne Division a couple of years after graduating from high school. He had little idea of what to do with his life, he told the News Tribune. But why, exactly, he chose to enlist, is known only to his friends and family. It’s an interesting question.
When Ham enlisted, the country was exiting Vietnam after a long, bitterly disputed war. It was just a few years after the assassinations of Sen. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., after widespread rioting, and after National Guard troops shot and killed four Kent State University students. Military and civilian leaders had lost credibility with a significant portion of the country.
The Army, military historians say, was also in disarray, with rampant drug use in the enlisted ranks, and underperforming junior officers.
Sexual harassment and violence, as women were encouraged to join up to swell the new, volunteer force, was also a significant, though largely ignored problem. Racial animosities were common. Almost no one "celebrated diversity."
But Ham found a calling at Fort Bragg.
"I found that being in the Army is what I really liked to do," he told the News Tribune.
What made him go "Green to Gold" and become an officer? According to Ham, it was all because of his sergeant major.
Ham was the driver for the sergeant major who, impressed with the then-specialist’s soldiering and smarts, applied for the ROTC program for him. Ham was one of just 50 soldiers selected, but he still balked at going until the sergeant major basically ordered him to, according to soldiers who’ve heard Ham tell the story.
Ham enrolled in John Carroll University, a small Catholic and Jesuit and Catholic school near Cleveland, where more than 70 percent of students are Roman Catholic.
A Jesuit education by reputation is rigorous, steeped in the humanities and aims to craft a "whole person," developed spiritually, intellectually, artistically, socially and physically. Jesuits teach the idea that people are to be respected and loved as unique individuals with their own needs, circumstances and concerns, gifts and insights. They emphasize service, and openness to change.
Ham’s world expanded. He’d found a purpose; now he found a wife. Christi was a year ahead of him at John Carroll, and the daughter of a World War II veteran who felt little love for the military, according to the News Tribune story.
Ham graduated in 1976 with a political science degree and was commissioned, a Distinguished Military Graduate, as an infantry lieutenant.
Three years ago, he told a group of ROTC cadets at Fort Knox, Ky., that he had rediscovered his faith at John Carroll. It’s clear that for the Hams their alma mater remains meaningful. Last May, the couple held a reception for John Carroll’s president when the priest was visiting Europe.
Whether he and his fellow ROTC cadets were viewed positively by other students during that era, Ham has never publicly said. But, another Jesuit-trained general, Army Chief of Staff George Casey, recalled his experience in the late 1960s at Georgetown University at a speech there last year.
"It wasn’t very pleasant to be in ROTC during that time, wearing a uniform around campus," Casey said. "You weren’t well received."
After his year in Iraq, Ham’s career, by then buttressed with a master’s degree, graduation from numerous prestigious military schools, battle command and the right connections, continued to flourish. He went to the Pentagon and the Joint Staff for a year, then commanded the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan.
Before coming to USAREUR, Ham, who speaks fluent German, spent another year at the Pentagon in a top spot — as operations director for the Joint Staff, and solidified his reputation.
Ham also impresses soldiers lower on the chain of command. "I have been on staff for other generals, and General Ham’s staff was, by far, my favorite," said Sgt. 1st Class Mellissa Novakovich in an e-mail from Afghanistan.
Ham is a kind and patient man, she said. "But the thing I appreciate most about General Ham is he genuinely cares about soldiers and weighs everything against how it will affect them.
"He is a charismatic and humble leader," the sergeant said, "which is not a common combination."