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Now let's learn more about the American officer in charge of the Libyan military operation - at least for now. He is General Carter Ham. And he heads the U.S. military's Africa Command - a job he started just 10 days before attacks against Libya began.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports on a general who is accustomed to tough assignments.

TOM BOWMAN: They say everything comes in threes. Well, here's General Ham's trifecta: A couple years ago the Pentagon turned to him to investigate the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas. Ham's finding: Army officers failed in their oversight of the alleged gunman, Major Nidal Hasan.

When that investigation was over, General Ham took on challenge number two: Assess the impact of gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. Ham's conclusion: It'll work.

Now he's got Libya.

JOHN SATTLER: I don't think trouble follows him. I think he follows trouble.

BOWMAN: That's retired Lieutenant General John Sattler. He served with General Ham in Iraq and later at the Pentagon. He's not surprised officials hand him these assignments.

SATTLER: I think when tough things come up, the folks who know him put him in there to go ahead and bring him to, you know, to some positive conclusion.

BOWMAN: Ham is a rarity among four-star officers because he started out as a private. He was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division in the early 1970s before going to college and then becoming a second lieutenant. Ask people about him and you get the standard answers - regular Joe, the kind of guy you can have a beer with.

Retired Army Major General Bob Scales says, well, it's true.

BOB SCALES: He's highly respected by soldiers simply because of his personality. He's probably one of the most un- general-like generals that we have at the four-star level in the Army today.

BOWMAN: Ham got his first combat command in 2004. He spent a year in Northern Iraq. During that tour, just before Christmas, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive inside a mess tent, killing 22, including 18 Americans. Ham arrived on the scene minutes after the blast. A couple of days later, he described what happened.

CARTER HAM: What we think is likely, but certainly not certain, is that an individual in an Iraqi military uniform, possibly with a vest-worn explosive device, was inside the facility and detonated the facility, causing this tragedy.

BOWMAN: Ham called it the worst day of his life. A few months later he returned home from Iraq. But he couldn't forget that day. He couldn't sleep. Loud noises startled him. He had mood swings. He talked about his experience on CNN a few years later.

HAM: I was withdrawn. I wanted to still be there. I felt like - that what I was doing was not important because - because I had soldiers who were killed. It's not a matter of letting go. I don't want to let go.

BOWMAN: This was unusual. Soldiers didn't admit to problems. Ham was among just a few senior officers who sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder. By going public, he showed the way for countless soldiers.

Again, his friend General Sattler.

SATTLER: They now have the courage to follow his example because he took the time to lay that example out there.

BOWMAN: These days, General Ham oversees the Libyan campaign from his headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. He has to translate political goals into practical military action. It's complicated. He says U.S. and coalition pilots have to protect civilians, but not become the Air Force for Libyan rebels.

HAM: These are situations that brief much better at a headquarters than they do in a cockpit of an aircraft.

BOWMAN: The United States hopes to hand off responsibility for the Libyan campaign soon. That doesn't mean Ham's tough jobs will end. He'll keep running Africa Command, which means everything from pirates to humanitarian missions, and eventually the aftereffects of the war in Libya.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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