Hard-Charging Air Force General Heads Saudi Operation
RIYADH, Saudia Arabia (AP) _ The biggest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War is run out of a cramped room in a downtown office building by a gregarious general called in from South Carolina.
″Just what you thought for the commanding general, right?″ Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner said with a laugh as he pointed around quarters about 12-by- 20 feet.
The sound of the Moslem call to prayer, which is piped into the modern building, reverberates through the room.
Horner, 53, head of U.S. Central Command Air Forces at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C., is a down-home fellow whose life has been running at fast- forward since he was tapped to oversee Operation Desert Shield.
Horner hasn’t ventured into the field yet, but he’s hoping that will change soon when Gen. Norman Schwazkopf arrives to assume the helm. Schwazkopf is head of the central command, which is responsible for U.S. forces from Pakistan to Kenya and is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.
In desert boots and regulation camouflage work pants and shirt, Horner, a beefy, Davenport, Iowa, native, is indistinguishable from his troops - except for his authoritative tone, the three stars pinned to his chest and a $3 watch with Arabic numerals.
″A gift from a mujahedeen,″ explains Horner, referring to the fierce anti-communist rebels in Afghanistan.
Horner arrived even before President Bush announced Aug. 8 that U.S. forces would be deployed in Saudi Arabia. He accompanied Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to plot the defense of the oil-rich nation with King Fahd four days after Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait Aug. 2.
When Cheney returned to the United States, Horner stayed behind to start the wheels in motion for the arrival of more than 40,000 troops and 500,000 tons of materiel.
″Secretary Cheney looked at me and said, ‘Good Luck, Chuck,’ Horner recalled in an interview. ″I swallowed hard.″
Since then it’s been adreneline-charged, 15-to-18 hour days as the decorated fighter pilot manages the most important assignment of his career.
His command post is in the capital about 200 miles from Dhahran, the gulf city where most of the U.S. troops and materiel are arriving.
Logistics - and dealing with Saudi officials - are major components of the job. Desert Shield is a cooperative venture with the Saudis; the forces operate essentially as a joint command.
U.S. military and diplomatic officials say the movement of weapons, personnel and equipment has gone off without major glitches.
With more than 4,500 hours of flying time, including 41 combat missions over North Vietnam, Horner is itching to get into the cockpit of an F-15. ″I love to fly,″ he said.
Horner has known and worked with the American-trained top Saudi air force generals for years. He finds the Saudis bright, energetic, hard-working - and different.
″The toughest thing is you have to accommodate to their customs,″ he said.
They don’t like to say ″no″ and would rather postpone a decision than risk a confrontation, he says.
″You’re charging and trying to get things done,″ while the Saudis have a more indirect manner, he said.
″He’s a gruff, take-charge kind of guy who is not taken to flowery speech,″ said a Pentagon spokesman. ″He is not a timid politician.″
The hours are also a switch. Saudis take time off during the heat of the day and often work until 1 a.m., with vital issues raised late in the evening.
Despite the challenges, Horner said even generals get a little homesick. He misses his family. Horner’s daughter is entering college, and she wrote him several letters telling of her anxiety about the choice of which sorority to pledge.
Horner concludes an interview when his driver Col. Samir Turki, whom Horner calls Sammy, summons him for a meeting.
″Tell the people we are in good hands,″ Turki says.