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Gen. B.B. Bell, commander United States Army Europe, during an interview with Stars and Stripes in his office at Campbell Barracks in Heidelberg.
Gen. B.B. Bell, commander United States Army Europe, during an interview with Stars and Stripes in his office at Campbell Barracks in Heidelberg. (Michael Abrams / S&S)
Gen. B.B. Bell, commander United States Army Europe, during an interview with Stars and Stripes in his office at Campbell Barracks in Heidelberg.
Gen. B.B. Bell, commander United States Army Europe, during an interview with Stars and Stripes in his office at Campbell Barracks in Heidelberg. (Michael Abrams / S&S)
Gen. B.B. Bell and his wife, Katie.
Gen. B.B. Bell and his wife, Katie. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

He was just one of thousands of captains then, and assigned to command the worst troop in the squadron, in an Army in the middle of a notorious post-Vietnam malaise.

In that era, enlisted soldiers smoked hashish in their barracks. “Marginally skilled” high-ranking officers spent their time “producing statistical results, fearful of personal failure ... and determined to submit acceptably optimistic reports,” according to a 1970 study by the U.S. Army War College.

Nonetheless, he had a mission at Grafenwöhr — to qualify nine M551 Sheridans, a sort of tank-reconnaissance hybrid boasting the latest in technology, and “not worth a damn,” he said. “This thing was a piece of junk. It was dangerous.”

From these unpromising circumstances, Capt. Burwell Baxter Bell III learned the thing that helped assure his ascent to where he is now, commanding scores of thousands as one of only 11 four-star generals in the Army of the world’s sole superpower.

Bell, known as B.B., decided that the lowly L Troop would somehow qualify more Sheridans than any other troop.

“I felt I was very good at planning things,” Bell recalled in an interview last week in his office on Campbell Barracks in Heidelberg, Germany. “But trying to get people to help you accomplish what you had planned was not my strong suit. I could not finish,” he said.

“I just sat there and said, ‘We’re going to finish this … and come out of Graf the champions, with all the big guys, the hooah-hooah swagger guys, looking at us and going, ‘Damn, we want to be like them.’

“And we did it. We qualified six of nine of those things and two we missed by this much,” Bell said, indicating about an inch.

“And those sergeant lives changed. They felt good. … They knew they could do anything.”

“‘Finishing it’ became a driving factor in my life,” Bell said. “I am driven to finish it. That means to standard, to make people feel good, on the team, they like what they’re doing, they accomplish things they never dreamed of and they feel different than everybody else. That’s the objective.”

As Bell, 58, ends his three-year tenure as U.S. Army Europe commander to take up command of U.S. Forces Korea and become among the longest-serving generals in the nation, it’s interesting to note that it could have gone much differently.

In the middle of the Vietnam War, Bell was majoring in business administration at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Although he was the son of an engineer who had graduated from West Point and had worked on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tenn., Bell wasn’t all that militarily minded.

“I was going to work for the Provident Insurance Company,” he said.

But Bell joined ROTC, and, one day, there was a ceremony with all the cadets formed up to watch one of the instructors, Maj. Parish, receive a Silver Star for heroism for combat in Vietnam.

“I just looked at this guy and I thought, ‘What a guy! He was such a patriot,’” Bell said. “That affected me. ... That he had gone out and fought for his country. It didn’t make sense to me before that. There was a real guy who was standing there, and we were just all cadets.”

Bell, during his senior year, was considering a regular Army appointment and serving for four years. He asked his prospective father-in-law’s advice. “He said, ‘Don’t do it.’ ”

“I said, ‘I promise to bring your daughter back after four years and I will go to work for your company,” Bell said. The two men shook hands on it and now, at every change of command, Katie Fields Bell says to her husband of 36 years, “Are four years up yet?”

“Almost,” he replies.

Bell’s abilities served him well in staff and command positions over the years, but he always stood out as a commander, said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

“It’s interesting. Lots of the commanders I had working for me went on to three or four stars. All of them did several things (adequately) and one or two spectacularly,” said McCaffrey, a leading character in “Prodigal Soldiers,” a book about how officers like him, former Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, helped reform the post-Vietnam military into a disciplined, respected force.

Bell, McCaffrey said, seemed to do it all — maintenance, combat training, seeing to soldiers’ well-being — spectacularly. “He’s the best overall commander I’ve ever seen,” McCaffrey said.

One recent example involves the Southern European Task Force before it left Vicenza, Italy, for Afghanistan, to head up forces there.

“What B.B. had done was scoured USAREUR and put his golden assets, the best that he had, into SETAF,” McCaffrey said. “I knew it was coming out of his hide. He’s got to run a huge organization. But he was unstinting in putting the best he had into that unit.”

According to the woman who knows him best, Bell’s greatest quality is honesty.

“What he says to you right now he will say in front of everyone,” said Katie Bell. “He’s honest to a big fault.”

Look around his office, Katie instructs: Bell has put up no pictures of himself, no medals or awards. All the framed photographs on his walls are of his soldiers, on the job,” she said.

Bell credits his wife in helping keep him informed, and softening him.

“She has coached, taught and mentored me about my behavior,” Bell said. “She understands the human dimension better than anybody I know in the military. So her ability to remind me of the impact of decisions on the communities and the people in our ranks has been a very heartening thing.”

Shortly after the Bells arrived in Heidelberg from his former command of the III Corps in Fort Hood, Texas, the couple traveled to Landstuhl Army hospital and visited soldiers grievously injured at the beginning of the Iraq war. Katie Bell, in a letter she wrote home but which somehow ended up on the Internet, wrote that when one of them, who’d lost both his legs after stepping on a mine but still told Bell he was fine, with “nothing to complain about,” she burst into tears and left the room. By the end of the visit, she wrote, she wanted to “get home and go in my room and be by myself and thank God for these young men and women who are giving so much.”

But her husband had more to do. “B.B. collected the names and numbers of all the parents and two wives and came back and called them all,” she wrote.

At the beginning of the Persian Gulf War in 1990, Bell was a colonel — and executive officer to the war’s top general, Norman Schwarzkopf. It was the first U.S. war since Vietnam, and a remarkable time as the war began for those involved.

“There was a lot of pent-up energy,” Bell recalled. “There was a lot of technology that had been brought to bear … it hadn’t been used before. A huge force on the ground, and there was a sense by everybody in that room we could not let America down. And there was a bit of a sense of loneliness.”

Schwarzkopf defended the decision to end the Gulf War within nine months, without marching on Baghdad, in a way that some could feel sounds prescient today:

“... And, oh, by the way, I think we’d still be there,” Schwarzkopf says in a 1996 “Frontline” documentary. “We’d be like a dinosaur in a tar pit. …”

In the spring of 2004, as the Iraq insurgency grew vicious, Bell stood hip-deep in the midst of worried wives. Their husbands, soldiers with the 1st Armored Division and due to return to Germany after a year in Iraq, had just been ordered to stay put for several more months. Although the Army had abruptly canceled their plans, they, in many cases, faced a bureaucracy that seemed more hostile than helpful.

One helicopter pilot’s wife had quit her counseling job in anticipation of her husband’s return and upcoming assignment elsewhere. When she learned her husband wasn’t coming back yet, she tried to get her job back. The rules prohibited it, she was told.

“That’s bullshit!” Bell roared to a roomful of base officials and support staff. “You have to be bold and aggressive and take some risks,” he told them.

Bell’s response to the 1st AD’s Iraq extension was a signal event of his command.

He traveled from base to base, encouraging and ordering people to help the families with whatever they needed, giving out his staff’s e-mails for personal attention, making sure someone followed up. Nishonda James, a staff sergeant’s wife, said at the time: “Anyone has anything bad to say about General Bell, tell them to come talk to me.”

Families are owed a special obligation when they’re waiting for their soldiers in Europe, Bell said.

“There are no bands and apple pie and motherhood things like you get in downtown America. So we have to do that ourselves,” Bell said. “It doesn’t take much. They don’t ask for a lot.”

Bell’s most complicated task of the past three years was designing the plan to “transform” the Army in Europe, a plan to reduce two-thirds of U.S. troops in Europe while, Bell insists, increasing war-fighting capabilities. The decision to return to the 1st Armored and Infantry divisions to the U.S. had been made; the question was how to do it.

“The question is, do we want this just to be a withdrawal of forces from Europe, breaking contact with our European allies … and ask them to keep helping us?” he said. “Or could we find a true transformation?”

The restructuring, although it involved scores of German communities, was primarily an American decision, and some Germans wanted more information than was forthcoming. Moreover, German public opinion has remained staunchly against the Iraq war and other war-on-terrorism-related U.S. policies.

But Detlef Junker, the founder of the University of Heidelberg’s Center for American Studies, said everybody was impressed with Bell at his transformation speech last summer at the German-American Friendship Club.

“He was for us, almost the archetype of an American commander,” Junker said. “His argument was as clear-cut, I would say, as his hairstyle. He gave short, direct answers in a determined way.

“He was also very prudent or clever,” Junker said. “He said at the beginning he didn’t want to talk about politics. So nobody dared to ask about U.S. foreign policy.”

Bell’s next, and, most likely final, command, at U.S. Forces Korea, will find him again overseeing reduced and redesigned forces for the future, while facing a so-called rogue state that recently, most people believe, acquired nuclear weapons.

“I hope peace breaks out. … I really hope North Korea joins the community of nations. …,” Bell said.

“Having said that, it’s my purpose to ensure we can enforce the armistice agreement and that if, for some reason, conflict were to break out, we finish it, on terms agreed to by the United States and the Republic of Korea.”

“We’re in a strange business, the business of destroying one another,” Bell said. “If you went to the moon …, you’d say, ‘Can’t we find a better way?’”

When Bell arrived at U.S. Army Europe, his goal was to ensure that USAREUR’s units were effective. “I wanted to make sure we did that stuff right,” he said. “I think we have.

“You can argue about the merits of this war forever; feel free,” Bell said. “We should have debates. But we ought not to criticize our military. … On merit and on balance, the U.S. military has performed in the grandest traditions of our republic.”

author headshot
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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