The Iraqis were routed from Kuwait, and America’s national pride soared. With the stunning success of Operation Desert Storm came instant acclaim for the ebullient man who overwhelmed Saddam Hussein: the Commander in Chief of U.S. forces there, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Prior to the Aug. 2 invasion, Schwarzkopf was well-known, but only in Army circles. In Vietnam, where he had received two Purple Hearts and three Silver Stars, and later in Grenada, he had earned a reputation as an aggressive yet compassionate commander with an explosive temper and an intolerance for inefficiency and ineptitude.
But now Schwarzkopf’s skills are no longer a military secret. On April 21 he came home a superstar. Photo ops with President Bush and Queen Elizabeth were already on his agenda, while more than 700 interview requests awaited him.
After a 35-year hitch in the Army, Schwarzkopf, 56, says he will retire from his $101,829-a-year job this summer, but already he is being offered multimillion-dollar book deals and countless jobs. He denies having political aspirations but concedes he could develop them.
One thing about which Schwarzkopf is unequivocal: his joy at returning home to wife Brenda, 50, children Cindy, 20, a college junior, Jessica, 19, a college freshman, and eighth grader Christian, 13, and Bear, his black Labrador. In the family’s four-bedroom home on the grounds of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, the 6’3″, 240-lb. strategist can unwind in his favorite recliner and indulge his passion for mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, Wagner operas, Cheers and America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Even so, admits Brenda, a former TWA flight attendant from Timberville, Va., it will seem “strange when my husband doesn’t get up and put on a uniform.” Here, the woman who knows him best reflects on her 22-year marriage to America’s No. 1 hero.
Norman and I met in 1967 at an Army football game at West Point. Afterwards, at the Officers Club, some friends of mine who were stationed there said to me, “We have a bachelor friend we’d like you to meet.” A little while later I saw this person walk into the room. He was very good-looking. I’ve always been attracted to the bigger frame fellas. And I liked the way he carried himself. He walked with confidence. I thought, “Gee, it would be nice if that’s who they’re going to introduce me to.” And it was.
I found him very easy to talk to. There wasn’t any strain, any put-on. Once we began dating, I didn’t go out with anybody else. Norm just seemed to have his head on straight. He was 33 and I was 26 when we met. I wouldn’t consider either of us shy, but we had learned from watching other people’s mistakes, and it made us more cautious.
When we met, I didn’t know much about the military. Before we were married, Norm sat down with me and explained that being a military wife is a little bit different; there can be a certain amount of stress to it. You can pick up your roots at any time; the children cry because they have to move, and then there’s Norm saying, “I have to leave, I don’t know when I’ll be back, and I can’t tell you where I’m going.” He didn’t scare me away, and almost everything has happened that he predicted would happen. I just try to smile and use one of my favorite expressions: Hang in there. Norm has to do what he has to do, and my staying calm lets him do a better job.
To tell me about each move, he wouldn’t show up with flowers. He would show up and there would be a different expression on his face. I would know it, before he would even say anything. One time we had been at this place just seven months, and he walked in the door that evening, and I looked at him and thought, “That’s that look.” But I thought, “It can’t be, we’ve only been here seven months.” I kept looking at him, and he was talking to the children. All of a sudden he said, “Brenda, let’s take a walk.” Sure enough, he’d gotten notice that we were going to be moving.
Our first move came less than a month after we were married. From West Point we were sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kans., where Norm was enrolled in the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. There he informed me that he would really like to volunteer to go back to Vietnam. He had done one tour before we were married. He felt that’s where he should be, so I said, “Right on.” I saw him just once that year; I was still flying and met him for eight days in Hong Kong.
Six months later he was wounded in a minefield. A fragment had hit him in the chest. A young captain who had been a company commander for Norm was coming home, and Norm asked him to stop by and give me the news. He said it wasn’t anything I needed to worry about. Of course I did worry. We had only one or two phone calls during that entire year. It was one of those, “Hi, how are you? Over.” And I would say, “Fine, how are you? Over.” You know the operator can listen in, so it’s a very strained conversation. Instead we’d send tapes back and forth, which was great because I could hear his voice, and we’d write. He would never describe anything gory. He’d say he saw someone I knew or tell me to try to keep the checkbook balanced. I never could.
Norm doesn’t talk a lot about what happened in Vietnam, although it’s vivid in his mind. It was only through newspaper articles that I learned the details of how he had saved one of his soldiers. He is closed about that war, so I don’t probe into it.
In July 1970, after he came home from Vietnam, Norm went to work at Fort McNair in the Washington, D.C., area. The girls were born there. Then in October 1974, he was made deputy commander of the 172nd Infantry Brigade at Fort Richardson in Anchorage. That’s where the outdoor adventures started for my children. We got a pop-up trailer, and we’d go camping, fishing and hiking.
Norm loves the outdoors. There’s a trail you can drive to from Anchorage called Resurrection Pass Trail. It can be dangerous. Someone was planning to hike it with my husband, but the fellow had to cancel out, so Norm went alone. It was on a Friday afternoon that the girls and I drove him to the starting point, out in the middle of nowhere. He put on this huge backpack with his tent, food and all and said I should pick him up on Sunday.
I went home, and that night the heavens opened up. It wasn’t the best of all weekends to be on that trail. Sunday afternoon I put the girls in the car, and we went down this road. And we went and we went and no Norm. I finally came to a restaurant and went inside and said, “I’m supposed to be meeting my husband.” The man said Norm was down the road about a mile. So I put the girls back in the car and we went off, and there was Norm, leaning up against his backpack, smiling like mad. He was barefoot, and his feet were bleeding from tramping around in wet shoes and socks. I’m thinking. “Oh, geez, what a mess.” But he thought it was the greatest thing in the world. All the way home he told us about seeing the moose. He had camped next to a big lake, and in the middle of the night he heard this plop, plop, plop. He said it sounded like a bear walking right across the lake to his tent. But it was a moose. He made the story very exciting, and the girls thought it was great.
When he comes home from any trip, one of the first things he likes to do is share the experience with us. He’ll give minute details—on the flight we did this, we had this to eat—so the whole family feels like we’ve made the trip with him. His stay in the gulf was so long, we’re hearing about that by chapters.
All Norm ever wanted was to be a good soldier. He’s very patriotic. He loves parades and rituals of all kinds. Take Christmas. We put the gifts under the tree in a certain order so that they’re given out in a certain order. When he sent gifts home last Christmas from Riyadh, they were in color-coded wrapping and came with a list of how to give them out.
I had already sent him all the fishing and hunting magazines I could get my hands on. He had also asked for relaxation tapes with the sounds of wildlife or ocean waves. So for Christmas we just sent him little things that we thought would amuse him, some books, a funny desk calendar, pictures of the children and of Bear. And of course we sent sugar cookies, peanut butter fudge and shortbreads. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.
Norm was a gourmet cook when we met. He loved Gourmet magazine, and he would have dinner parties for two or three couples and do all the cooking. He’d make Senegalese soup, which is a cold chicken curry soup, and mandarin oranges with almonds and pistachios over ice cream, flaming.
He doesn’t often do things like that now. We all enjoy eating, and we have to constantly watch it. Norm has workout equipment in the garage. On weekends, it’s tennis or skeet shooting with Christian. He doesn’t like to lose. We all love to play games—Trivial Pursuit; Win, Lose or Draw—but we don’t like to play with him, because he always wins. Then he brags about it to the kids. They always say, “Dad, why don’t you go on Jeopardy!? You could make lots of money.”
When Norm sets his mind to do something, he always does it well. He’s a terrific magician. When he was young, it was little card tricks. Then when the children were born, he’d go into Washington to a place called Al’s Magic Shop and get bigger things: scarves, the bunny to pull out—not a real bunny, you shake it and make it look real. One of his favorites—I hate this one—it’s an arm cutter that’s like a guillotine thing that you stick your hand in. I’ll never forget: About three years ago Norm was performing at the Boy Scouts’ Blue and Gold Banquet. He asked for a volunteer for that trick, and a young man got up. The mother, of course, is having a stroke, wondering if this guy knows what he’s doing. To make it more dramatic, Norm first puts a carrot in and slices it in two. He asked me to do it with him at home, but I wouldn’t. Later I saw him practicing on Christian and the girls.
Norm is not one to bring work home. There’s so much he can’t discuss. He watches the news and reads the paper. Norm doesn’t wash dishes or clean. He does take the garbage out, and he does spend quality time with the children. He’s done that ever since they were babies. He would change diapers, bathe them, play with them. Any time the kids had swim meets or soccer games, he was there.
We have rules and regulations around the house. There’s study time, which means between 7 P.M. and 9 P.M., no phone calls, no TV, no music. When the girls date, we like to know whom they are going out with and we like the young man to come to the house. But something like whether their rooms are clean doesn’t bug Norm. He’s more interested in their studies and if their heads are on straight.
He does like to have things organized. He doesn’t throw his clothes on the floor. He’s really a very neat person. I’ll put all the papers and letters and this and that into piles all over the place, and he’s usually very patient about it. But then one day he’ll say. “Brenda, do we have to have all of these piles all over the place?” I don’t like the piles either, but they just seem to get there.
He’ll give advice even if it’s not asked for. And he doesn’t like walking by a mistake. If he sees someone out of uniform in an airport, he will remind them of the way it is supposed to be. Once, we were in a parking lot at a post exchange, and a soldier threw a soft drink cup on the ground. My husband said to him, “You know, wouldn’t it be a good idea if you picked it up. because if you don’t, another soldier is going to have to.” It’s the principle of the thing he gets angry about; it isn’t the person. And he doesn’t hold a grudge.
He has a romantic side too. But it isn’t something he shows publicly. He’s not a person to go around holding hands. He did start a charm bracelet for me when we got married, and he has brought me charms for each one of the children’s births, an Alaska charm, a Bahrain bull, a Khanjar dagger from Saudi Arabia and so on. That bracelet has special, meaningful things on it.
I don’t think Norm ever thought he was destined for greatness. His success doesn’t surprise me, because I always thought he was great at what he did. The only thing different about it now is that the world knows it too. But Norm would be the first to tell you that he isn’t a hero, that it’s everybody who was over there who are the heroes.
Of course, he is my hero. He is a tower of strength for me. He is my best friend.