Col. William J. Butler
US Army (Retired)
Director of Operations, U.S. Army Cadet Command
Iraq ’03-’04 – Afghanistan ’04-’05 and ’09-‘10
US Army (Retired)
Director of Operations, U.S. Army Cadet Command
Iraq ’03-’04 – Afghanistan ’04-’05 and ’09-‘10
Bill Butler was born in Long Branch, New Jersey during his father’s first tour in Vietnam where he served as a field artillery battery commander. On his second tour, and he was a Special Forces officer (’72-’73). The family was living in Cincinnati when his dad returned from his second tour and that is where Bill spent most of his childhood. He entered parochial school in the first grade and graduated from Archbishop McNicholas High School in 1986 where he was a member of the football and wrestling teams. Bill recalled having a very tight knit group of friends while he was growing up and he loved being on teams.
Bill’s father earned a law degree, became an assistant county prosecutor, and remained active with the Army Reserves in the 11th Special Forces Group. Bill would accompany his father on the reserve weekends and spent a lot of time in the woods, sometimes acting as part of the opposing enemy force. It was also a thrill to watch his father jump from planes at the Dayton Air Show. Growing up hunting and fishing, watching his father in the reserves and always being part of a team, Bill was drawn to the military. When he entered Eastern Kentucky University, he was part of the ROTC and a member of the Ranger Club. In his freshman year the ROTC had a competition called the Ranger Challenge Team. He tried out and made the team and, in the process, earned a three year ROTC scholarship. One summer Bill attended the Army Airborne School and the summer before his senior year he attended the Army Ranger course, which is very challenging with a graduation rate of less than 50%. Bill completed that course and at the end of his senior year he graduated and was commissioned in the Regular Army as a 2nd Lieutenant infantry officer.
Bill reported to Fort Benning in Georgia for the Infantry Officer Basic Course and Infantry Mortar Leader Course. In December of 1990 Bill reported to Fort Drum, in Watertown New York having completed his airborne qualifications and having earned his Ranger Tab and Expert Infantryman Badge. Bill was assigned to the 3rd Battalion 14th Infantry, also known as the Golden Dragons. A little known piece of military trivia is, at that time, if temperature was not below -20 degrees, PT was performed outside. “If you can soldier at Fort Drum NY where it’s really brutally cold and a lot of snow, you can soldier anywhere. I learned some good but hard lessons.” Bill served as a rifle platoon leader and a mortar platoon leader. While at Fort Drum Bill was ordered to escort Ms. Mindy Howard, a friend of the company commander, to the Golden Dragon Valentine’s Ball. Bill tried to get out of this assignment citing prior bad experiences with a blind date. That made little impression on the company commander, so he then tried, “Sir, that is an unlawful order.” In the end, Bill obeyed the order and took Mindy to the Valentines Ball. The Army knew best, and Bill and Mindy have been married for 30+ years and have two amazing adult children.
Bill applied for assignment to a Ranger Battalion in the 75th Ranger Regiment. He was selected and assigned to the 3rd Ranger Battalion at Fort Benning, GA. He spent two years with the Rangers, and he described this as “an infantry officer’s dream…the quality of the officers, NCOs, and Rangers…is the best of the best and everyone wants to test their mettle.” During this timeframe Somalia was a world hotspot and George H. W. Bush sent troops to assist in the Humanitarian efforts. Task Force Ranger deployed to conduct kill / capture operations against the Somali warlord, Mohammad Fara Adid. B Co, 3/75 was deployed as part of Task Force Ranger. Bill was in Charlie Company and did not deploy but described the events, of ‘Blackhawk Down’, as a seminal moment that left a lasting impression on him, his peers and their families.
Bill completed his tour with the Ranger Regiment and was promoted to Captain. He then attended the Infantry Officer Advanced Course at Fort Benning graduating in February of ’95. Upon completion, Bill, Mindy and their new daughter, Bailey, headed to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii where Bill was assigned to the 25thInfantry Division. Bill served six months as a Brigade Staff Officer and then was sent down to 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry, Cacti Blue, as an Assistant Operations Officer. He was fortunate to command Charlie Company, 2-35 Infantry for 18 months. Bill was drawn to the excellence of the Rangers and his personal goal was to be Company Commander of a Ranger company. He wanted to train and lead Rangers for combat and prepare Lieutenants to become company commanders. Bill applied to go back to the Ranger Regiment and was selected but he would be serving as a staff officer at Regimental Headquarters at Fort Benning. “Nobody’s dream job as an infantry officer but it was a foot in the door. Most people would say ‘I’ll be a janitor and sweep the floor of the Ranger Regiment Headquarters if that gets me in.’” In retrospect it was a great step professionally. He learned the administrative human resources aspects of the Army which would become more important as his career progressed.
In the summer of 1999 Bill was assigned as the commander of Alpha Company, 3/75. The mission of this company was to conduct in extremis combat operations to achieve national security objectives like the U.S. invasions of Grenada and Panama or the combat operations in Somalia. After 18 months Bill was promoted to Major in January 2001 and was selected by a centralized board to attend the Command and General Staff College, at Ft. Leavenworth, KS. Here officers are prepared to be staff officers at the division and corps level and battalion and brigade as operations and / or executive officers.
While waiting to attend the Command and General Staff College Bill worked as the Regimental Public Affairs Officer for the 75th Ranger Regiment and helped with the production of the movie Blackhawk Down. The Army wanted the movie to be an accurate portrayal of the battle. To accomplish this the Rangers provided military technical expertise including some of the stunts such as fast roping from helicopters. The filming took place in Morocco and for 30 days the Rangers were housed in a sea-side cliff retreat overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It seems this may have evened out the assignment in human resources.
Bill described his time at the Command and General Staff College as academic without any direct command responsibilities which gave him a chance to recharge his batteries after multiple years in command and troop assignments. On September 11th, 2001, his class took a break around 9am. Bill and his classmates walked past a TV and saw the smoke billowing from the first tower. They watched the second plane hit and both towers crumble to the ground. Classes were cancelled for the next two days. Bill went back to classes lamenting that the Ranger unit that he had just left jumped into Afghanistan on October 6th. The conventional wisdom at the time was, Afghanistan would end quickly much like Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield and Bill had missed the chance to deploy to combat.
After Command and General Staff College, Bill interviewed with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and was selected. Bill and Mindy and their 7 year old daughter and 4 year old son packed their belongings and left Fort Leavenworth Kansas headed for Vicenza, Italy located between Venice and Verona and at the foot of the Alps. Vicenza “was a bit of a culture shock.” They all had to learn a new language, new customs and get accustomed to stores being closed on Sundays and a much slower pace of life. “It was like 1950’s America.”
Bill was a ground maneuver planner for the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force (SETAF). The 173rdhad responsibility for Noncombatant Evacuation Operations in Africa and the Rapid Reaction Force for Europe. Kosovo was a hotspot at the time and the airborne troops would make their presence known from time to time. The planning for the invasion of Iraq took place here. The tempo of work was high and demanded 7 day work weeks. After a year in this role Bill rotated into the role as Executive Officer of the 1stBattalion, 508th Infantry (Airborne) which is part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Now Bill had his chance to deploy to Iraq. He was based at Bayonet Base on the Kirkuk Air Field in northern Iraq. “It wasn’t especially kinetic or lethal at the time. We were doing operations….to determine where enemy forces were located, if they were anywhere. It was a lot of patrols and a lot of engagements with Iraqi security forces…the Kurdish militia, the Turkomen…”. “You have this amalgamation of ethnicities, different religions, tribes, clans and sub clans.” I asked Bill if these groups were able to get along. “When it’s convenient.”
This was the school of hard knocks for Americans thrown into a foreign country. It was very difficult to know who to trust and how not to offend people. The Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Harry Tunnell was shot during an ambush and seriously wounded. Bill organized a Quick Reaction Force to medevac him out and he did not return. I asked Bill if it was common for someone with that high a rank to go out on patrols. “Yes. Absolutely. You have to lead by example.” The company relocated to the northern Iraqi town of Tuz and conducted operations from there until Bill’s 10-month deployment ended in March 2004. As Bill walked from the plane onto the tarmac back in Italy, he learned he would become the Brigade XO for the 173rd Airborne Brigade and he would be leaving for Afghanistan Operation Enduring Freedom VI within a year.
The next year was full of planning and training generally with weekends off unless they were away for training. With no training areas near Vicenza, Italy the men were traveling for training and gone from their families 7 days a week. In April 2004 Bill and his Brigade arrived in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The Brigade’s area of responsibility was all the southern provinces in Afghanistan, Regional Command South. “We were spread really thin.” After 90 days Bill was assigned to the Combined Joint Task Force 76 (CJTF76) Headquarters that had responsibility for NATO military operations in Afghanistan. Bill was the deputy operations officer. CJTF76 conducted military operations throughout Afghanistan.
Bill recalls during the summer of 2005 being in a briefing to rescue Marcus Lutrell from the compromised mission, Operation Red Wings (basis for book and movie Lone Survivor). The danger of the job really hits home because “Men and women are out there doing really dangerous operations and in many cases the enemy gets a vote and it can be disastrous.”
Bill talked about dealing with death during deployment. When a solider is killed the remains are sent back to the United States within 24 hours of their death. There is a formal ceremony that takes place at Bagram Airfield. There is a formal procession with the flag draped caskets carried in Humvees from the mortuary to the flight line. Typically, everyone stops what they are doing to pay their respects.
After a year Bill returned home. Returning home is always challenging for servicemen and women. Having been away for a year or more families adjust to operating without one family member. Reintegrating into the family requires all members to learn how to interact with another parent in the family dynamics. The family has adjusted to doing things a certain way and when the service members return to the family unit it can result in a lot of interpersonal friction and stress. The Army recognized this and rather than simply grant 30 days of leave, they created a reintegration process. Soldiers would spend the first week working half days taking care of the numerous medical tests required, scheduling behavioral health appointments for those who felt they needed it and other medical and dental needs “since you haven’t been necessarily taking care of yourself for the past year.”
Bill recounted his own personal reintegration experience. He was at home having his morning coffee, reading the Stars and Stripes newspaper while his 3rd grader and 6th grader were arguing, and the dog was barking and adding to the general chaos. Bill tuned everything out while he enjoyed his pre-work routine. His wife, not the slightest bit impressed by Bill’s finely honed concentration capabilities said, ‘Hello!?’ ‘Hellooooo!!! Do you see me struggling here with the kids and the dog?? I could use some help here!’ Bill said, “You were so used to being in an environment where you have to tune everything out so you can concentrate on what you are doing, and I was doing that to her.”
Shortly after arriving back in Italy, Bill received orders to United States Military Academy at West Point, NY as a Military Science Instructor in the Department of Military Instruction. Bill was selected to be the Chief of Military Training. This entailed managing the Cadet summer training for the development of 4,000 cadets. It also entailed the assignment of cadets to the various military occupations that the Army needed. They did their best to match the choice of the cadets with the needs of the Army, but that didn’t always happen. Bill’s group also ran the Sandhurst Competition. This is a two-day military skills competition held at West Point and attended by teams from all the military academies, ROTC programs, as well as teams from the Australian, British and Canadian militaries. The teams conduct a series of physically demanding military tasks including zodiac boat maneuvers, obstacle courses, marksmanship, land navigation and more. This was a 2-year assignment and with the abundance of potential activities available, his children that were 4 and 5th grade and 7th and 8th grade, had the time of their lives.
At the conclusion of this assignment Bill was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was assigned to 173rdAirborne Brigade to command the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne) in his home away from home, Vicenza, Italy. Bill was now commanding more than 1,100 men and women and was responsible for their training, safety, health and well-being. Over the next 12 months the battalion trained to deploy to Iraq. Ultimately the orders were changed to deploy to Kunar Province in Afghanistan. The Battalion began arriving in November 2009 and they were at full strength in December. Two weeks after they arrived Bill had his first casualty as a commander.
Sgt. Luke Beachnaw was killed in action while participating in a company operation in the Ganjgal Valley, a particularly nasty valley along the Pakistan border. Luke was beloved by the men in the battalion and his death profoundly impacted many of the paratroopers. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions engaging the enemy while wounded in action. In April, the battalion suffered their second KIA, Pfc. Nick Cook. Nick was killed while trying to engage the enemy at great risk to himself. For his actions he was awarded the Silver Star, our nation’s third highest valor award.
Six months after assuming responsibility for most of Kunar Province, Bill’s battalion was ordered to move to FOB Airborne in Maidan Shar in Wardak Province. There they conducted missions for 6 months and in November of 2010 Bill returned to Italy. Bill found himself asking if he had done all that he could do to put his men in the best position possible to be safe and succeed. The camaraderie and concern for your fellow soldiers runs through the ranks to the top of the chain of command.
In 2011 Bill was assigned to the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany. His family would be adjusting to another culture. The mission here was to work with NATO allies to train and evaluate the various units prior to their deployments to Afghanistan.
After receiving a promotion to Colonel, Bill and his family moved to Carlisle Barracks, PA where Bill attended the United States Army War College. For the next year Bill was in an academic setting learning about strategic issues in the military and applying lessons learned from his career in the Army. In 2013 Bill was reassigned to Fort Benning, GA to the Maneuver Center of Excellence and was the Chief of Leader Development for 5 months before he was selected to be the Deputy Commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry School.
In 2015 the Secretary of Defense decided to open all combat arms branches to women. In strategizing how to best set these women up for success, the Army decided to take a deliberate approach to integrating the women and setting them up for success. They did this by opening the U.S. Army Ranger School to women. Bill worked on the project to open the program to the first class of women.
The men who go through the infantry basic training school develop relationships with mentors that help them along. The Army needed to address this issue for the women. At the time 3,000 women were eligible, 300 expressed interest, 36 went to the course and 3 graduated. “There were a lot of skeptics….a lot of hate going on.” Bill thought the commanding general, General Scott Miller adeptly handled the situation. He brought in “gray-beards”. Retired, influential leaders in the infantry and Ranger communities, many whom were in the Ranger Hall of Fame. General Miller told them the Army wanted to set the women up for success and asked them to drop in on the training. They observed the training and when the course was over, they all said, “you didn’t cut any corners, the women met the same physical and training standards expected of the men and they didn’t get any freebies. .” Bill recounted a story that two male candidates shared at a press conference. One Ranger, who was a machine gunner, said during a portion of the training he was at his physical breaking point, and he asked a buddy if he could carry the machine gun for a while. His buddy said no because he was physically exhausted, and this continued through the next several Ranger students until he got to Shay Haver. She said she would take it. Having these male students attest to the quality and ability of the females in the group went a long way with the media to dispel the notion that women weren’t up to the task of meeting physically and mentally demanding standards of the Army’s premier small unit tactics and leadership course.
In August of 2015 Bill became the Director of Operations for the U.S Cadet Command at Fort Knox, KY. Here he was responsible for planning the summer training for the tens of thousands of Army ROTC cadets across the country. An especially complex endeavor that required thousands of cadets and cadre to travel to Kentucky from across the country to plan and execute the seminal training for all cadets.
In early 2017 Bill started to receive unsolicited interest in his qualifications to join organizations in the civilian world. After considering these opportunities and weighing those against staying in the military until he completed 30 years, he decided the time was right to move on. April of 2017 Bill retired after 26 years and 10 months of service to our country.
Since retiring Bill has held several positions. His first job after retiring was as the Deputy Director for Training and Exercises at U.S. Army Africa, headquartered in Vicenza, Italy. It was a wonderful job. He and his wife were empty nesters and they finally had the time and opportunities to experience Italy and other European destinations without having to miss family trips because of pre-deployment training requirements or deployments.
While he was at the Senior Executive Fellowship, one of Bill’s former platoon sergeants committed suicide and it hit Bill particularly hard. Bill wanted to understand why this happened and what he might be able to do to help. Bill saw a posting on LinkedIn for a position at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus, Ohio which had opened its doors four months earlier. Bill was familiar with Lt. General Ferriter, the museum CEO from his time in the military. Bill was invited to interview for the position and when he toured the museum, he saw photos and stories of paratroopers that he knew from Afghanistan. “For me it was almost like a sign. This is the place for me.” Bill is now the Chief of Staff at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus, Ohio.
Bill’s son is a Captain in 1st Ranger Battalion following in Bill’s footsteps. His daughter wanted serve others and is a nurse at the Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati, where she is saving the world one child at a time.
“It was a great ride and I loved being in the Army and serving with America’s greatest treasure, the young men and women who raise their right hand and swear allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. The people that you get to meet and serve with, I don’t think there is another profession like it in the world.”
Thank you, Bill, for a long career of leading and shaping men and women to do the hard work of defending a nation and protecting our way of life. The sacrifices made by you and your family allow the other 97% of the U.S. population to enjoy safety and freedom to which we are all accustom.