From 2004 to 2007, US Army General George W. Casey Jr. was commander of the multinational force in Iraq, living in a combat zone “during all the bad stuff,” as he wryly puts it. In 2007, General David Petraeus succeeded him, and Casey was named Army chief of staff, in charge of 1.1 million people and an annual budget of more than $200 billion.
In 2011, after 41 years in the Army, the four-star general retired and headed to one of his favorite spots on earth: Scituate. Casey’s father was from Allston, his mother from West Roxbury, and the family spent summers on the South Shore.
“When people ask where I’m from, I say Scituate,” says Casey, who turned 64 last week.
In 2007, he and his wife, Sheila, bought a rambling home a block from the beach, just behind his mother’s house. It is here that they spend their summers and their Christmas holidays. And it is here that Casey is training for his second Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC), where he will deliver the keynote address on Aug. 3.
“The people I saw in the Pan-Mass Challenge last year were doing something for someone else, and they felt like they were making a difference in the world,” says Casey. “That’s the kind of spirit you see in the US military all the time.” The Challenge raises money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through its Jimmy Fund.
Clad in khaki shorts and a blue PMC jacket, Casey recently spoke about cycling, his time in the military, and retirement. A compact, muscular man with an unassuming air, Casey has shed his military bearing, along with his uniform. Despite more than two dozen military awards, there is not a scrap of the service to be seen in his Scituate home; those things are in the family’s main residence in Arlington, Va..
Scituate is for fun, not business. “You have the marsh out there for kayaking, the beach, the golf course, tennis, biking — it’s all great,” he says. “When the grandkids are here, there’s a continuous Wiffle ball game.” Indeed, the backyard is dotted with balls and bats, lacrosse nets and boogie boards. An American flag flies out front.
Casey was an Army brat, literally from day one. In 1948, during the Allied occupation, he was born in Sendai, Japan, where his father, Major General George W. Casey Sr., was stationed. Young George attended boarding school in Rome, and when his father was on a Harvard fellowship for a year, he and his brother enrolled at Boston College High School. “Our father would drop us off in the morning and then we’d hitchhike home every day to Scituate,” Casey recalls. He did his senior year at BC High in 1966.
At Georgetown University, where he majored in international relations, Casey and his friends had fun. “George was in ROTC, and he’d get up in the morning, put his uniform on, go do his stuff, and then come back,” says roommate Christopher Muse of East Dennis, now a judge in Barnstable Superior Court. “The rest of it was pure unadulterated college. We had a great time. We were not subject to the pressures that college kids today are.”
Upon graduation in 1970, Casey was commissioned an Army officer. A month later, his father, 48, was killed in Vietnam, leaving his wife and five children; George was the oldest.
Last year, Casey rode the PMC with Muse and another college friend, Ray O’Hara of Worcester, and Mike Wilcox, a Worcester lawyer. They are “Team Pete,” and ride on behalf of Muse’s brother, Peter, a Milton lawyer who is fighting brain cancer.
When he first learned of the others’ plan to ride, Chris Muse sent the men an e-mail, saying how moved he was. “I can’t believe you guys would ride 85 miles for my brother,” he wrote.
“Lickety-split,” Muse says, “I got an e-mail from George that said: ‘You’re riding, too.’ I didn’t sleep all night. I got up at 5 the next morning and went into the garage, got my 30-year-old 10-speed out, pumped the tires, and started riding.”
Last year, the men did the one-day route from Wellesley to Bourne. This year, they are riding 111 miles from Sturbridge to Bourne, and have added three more friends to Team Pete. Casey also rides in memory of his sister-in-law, who died of breast cancer in 2006.
Like Muse, Casey is fairly new to cycling. In 2007, he had surgery on his left ankle after ripping out a tendon while scaling a fence in Baghdad. The raised scar, which masks a cadaver tendon, snakes six inches up from his ankle.
Back in Washington in 2009, he was out for a run and passed by the house of the Army’s surgeon general. The next day, the surgeon general called him: “General, I saw you out trying to run. Why don’t you buy a bike?” Casey laughs at the memory.
He bought a hybrid for $350 and started pedaling. On the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, he rode in the Ride 2 Recovery from Liberty Park, N.J., just across the river from ground zero. The group rode to Shanksville, Pa., where the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed, and then to the Pentagon. The ride, which benefits rehabilitation through cycling for wounded veterans, totaled 570 miles in eight days.
“The hardest day was 97 miles over two mountain ranges in Pennsylvania,” Casey says. “It was 45 degrees and raining. I’m going up a hill and a veteran who lost his right leg below the knee comes smoking up right behind me. He said, ‘C’mon, General, pick it up!’ I was cold and wet and feeling sorry for myself. I said, if that kid can do it, I sure as hell can get my old butt up the hill.”
In fact, one of Casey’s legacies was his commitment to improving the way the Army cares for its wounded soldiers and their families. “We have a volunteer force and if we’re going to sustain it, soldiers and their families have to believe we care about them and are there for them,” he says.
His own son, a member of the Army Reserves, spent nine months in Afghanistan. “When you’re over there yourself, you don’t think about it,” says Casey. “But when your child is over there, you think about it every day.” Casey and his wife have two sons and four grandchildren.
In 2005, Casey stirred up some controversy with his support of a troop reduction of 30,000 in Iraq, as he encouraged the Iraqis to take on more of their own security. “It made headlines,” he says. Though he chuckles about it now, he was publicly rebuked by President George W. Bush. Casey also supported the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gay service members.
His Army boss, retired General John Abizaid, calls Casey “one of the finest officers I knew. He was courageous, organized, and smart.” As a one-star general, Casey was instrumental in stopping the violence in Bosnia and Kosovo, says Abizaid, former commander of the US Central Command.
In Iraq, Casey organized elections, put Al Qaeda on the defensive, and helped bring Iraqi security forces to a level that allowed for transition to their control, says Abizaid. “He is also a Red Sox fan, which we don’t hold against him,” adds Abizaid, a lifelong Giants supporter.
In retirement, Casey follows the Sox — “a fan since I was 5” — and continues to write and speak on international security. He wrote a book on Iraq for fellow officers, and serves on the boards of several veteran-related nonprofits. He advises an educational technology company that helps vets acquire skills and jobs. He recently returned from Cairo and Tunis and is writing a paper on transition to democracy for a Washington think tank. After Labor Day, he’s going to Libya.
But his most important task right now is preparing for this weekend’s Pan-Mass Challenge (he trains on a coastal route to Hull and back). In April, he broke his wrist in a cycling fall, but no big deal, he says. He got into biking because of his bum ankle and says he’s staying in it because of the Pan-Mass Challenge.
“I think,” Casey says, “it will be an annual event for me.”