MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

This Memorial Day, President Obama announced his choice to be the country's next top military advisor. He nominated Army General Martin Dempsey to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

(Soundbite of speech)

President BARACK OBAMA: With nearly 40 years in uniform, Martin Dempsey is one of our nation's most respected and combat-tested generals.

BLOCK: In addition to Dempsey, the President chose Navy Admiral James Winnefeld to be vice chairman. Both will have to be confirmed by the Senate.

NPR's Tamara Keith has our report.

TAMARA KEITH: The nation has been at war for the past decade, and General Dempsey knows that as well as just about anyone. He served in Baghdad and later led the effort to train the Iraqi military. More recently, he was acting commander of U.S. Central Command. That's the position that oversees combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

In making his announcement, President Obama highlighted this experience.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. OBAMA: For the first time, the chairman and vice chairman will have the experience of leading combat operations in the years since 9/11.

KEITH: General Dempsey is currently chief of staff of the Army, a job he's held for less than two months. In 2003 and 2004, he led the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad at a very difficult time. Retired Army Colonel Mark Olinger was one of General Dempsey's assistants in Baghdad.

Colonel MARK OLINGER (Retired, U.S. Army): Imagine a city whose entire government processes are just eliminated. There's no government at any level to speak of and the citizens can do what they want at will.

KEITH: And the insurgency was gaining strength. General Dempsey understood the need to win over the people and build trust and confidence with the Iraqis.

General JACK KEANE (Retired, U.S. Army): He was one of our most effective division commanders we had in Iraq throughout that entire time frame.

KEITH: That's retired General Jack Keane. Keane says Dempsey's experience sends the right signal to a military force that's still in the fight.

Gen. KEANE: If we're going to have a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during a time when we have been at war in the longest time in the nation's history, we just must have a general officer who participated in that war.

KEITH: But in General Dempsey, the president gets a little something extra.

(Soundbite of music)

General MARTIN DEMPSEY (U.S. Army, Nominee, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): So, this is a song by Frank Sinatra. Some of you have heard of him.

KEITH: That's General Dempsey behind the mic. The general can sing - and he's not afraid to use his voice to boost morale.

(Soundbite of music)

Gen. DEMPSEY: (Singing) And find I'm king of the hill, a-number-one, top of the heap, king of the hill...

KEITH: The showman in him gets at something else about General Dempsey. He knows how to talk to his troops. His friend, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, served as his deputy in Iraq and he tells this story: Some of Dempsey's soldiers were headed home, when he had to call them back and send them into battle. Dempsey sent Hertling to personally tell their families.

Lieutenant General MARK HERTLING (U.S. Army): When you're sending people home and then suddenly you're asked to stay a little bit longer and say, hey, not so fast, when you're dealing with individual soldiers, that's a tough thing to turn around. And I think General Dempsey did that admirably in Iraq.

KEITH: Here in Washington, if confirmed, General Dempsey will have a different audience - the president and his national security team. And there will be plenty to discuss: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and new pressures to cut military spending in the coming years.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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