Special to Veterans Advantage
Any newswatcher already knows Brigadier General Vincent K. Brooks has faced the crossfire of journalists’ questions throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom, but a deeper understanding reveals his calm and focused public demeanor comes in part from overcoming past personal obstacles.
Since the onset of what has become a swift and decisive military operation -- in the midst of supply line attacks, questions about whether troops are "pausing," panic over looting and political power vacuums -- Brooks stood as an unflappable source to the global press, often frustrating many of those who traveled thousands of miles hoping to get Schwarzkopf-like quotes.
Some would call him robotic, others say its grace under pressure.
"I might express some emotion every now and then just to let people know that I’m really not a robot, even though some people think I am," Brooks said in an interview with the National Newspaper Publishers Association.
"At the same time, I try to take it seriously and make sure that I’m being professional in my bearing on it because it’s serious business we’re talking about. There are lives at risk."
The 44-year-old West Point graduate - who got his First General’s star in 2002 - found himself in Doha, Qatar, after filling a robust military resume that runs through every hotspot of the globe: Panama, Europe, Korea, Middle East and Kosovo. Most recently, Brooks led the Army’s 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.
And as is the case in many military families, being raised as a "military brat" was a large influence. As a young man he wanted to be a doctor, but after witnessing the positive influence of military life on his older brother, he reprioritized how he wanted to live his life.
"Military academies have a tendency to change you a little bit," Brooks, says reflecting on an influential childhood experience, as he admired how West Point positively changed his older brother, Leo Jr., when he returned home for Christmas break. "Then it was I just wanted to be an army officer and go to West Point."
So off to West Point he went, and even today Brooks has left behind a lasting impact. He graduated first in his class, the first African-American to do it in the 177-year history of the academy.
He also was selected First Captain of the Corps of Cadets, West Point’s highest cadet honor shared by other military legends Douglas MacArthur, John J. Pershing, William Westmorland and Robert E. Lee.
First in any class is no small achievement, especially being mentioned in the same sentence with MacArthur and others, but for Brooks, life at the top presented challenges that did not arise for his predecessors. He received hate mail because he was black.
Looking back, he understands how deep racial prejudice could run in society.
"And it was a reminder then--as it remains a reminder now--that the work is not done that causes people to just be measured by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. There’s still work to be done. So, I carry that with me as well," he said.
The experience at the Academy was even foreshadowed in his younger years.
"Even at that early age - I think it was my sophomore year in high school - it was" ‘Why would I be discredited for achieving excellence?’ Not all saw it that way, but some did," he said.
It goes a long way in explaining the composure he demonstrates at Doha, especially in the early days of the war, when he calmly repeated each day that the war was proceeding "on plan" in the face of persistent questions and frustrations.
But with all the achievements, the composure, the dedication to excellence, surely he’s got to have a ‘human’ side, right?
"I hang out with my wife," he replies. "Quality time. I’m a hopeless romantic. Contrary to what it might seem - the hardened exterior - I’m truly a hopeless romantic. If quality time means sitting down and watching ‘Def Comedy Jam’ or watching the Lifetime Movie Channel - anything she’s interested in, it’s good enough for me."