NORTHFIELD -- General John Abizaid, the commander of all U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, was once touted as the man who could sway the hearts and minds of the entire Arab world. In two months, the four-star general will travel to central Vermont and try to sway the hearts and minds of Norwich University's 2006 graduating class.
Abizaid is slated to give the commencement address at Norwich's graduation ceremony on May 14, a university spokesperson confirmed last week. However, due to the general's unpredictable schedule, Abizaid's engagement cannot be confirmed for another few weeks.
Abizaid, 54, is a West Point graduate and holds a Master's degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard. He was also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, attended the University of Jordan in Amman, and speaks fluent Arabic. In July 2003, Abizaid took over as the head of U.S. Central Command, a vast region that spans from the Horn of Africa to central Asia. He succeeded retiring General Tommy Franks.
Norwich Director of Communications Tony Venti said that preparations and security reviews for the general's arrival are already underway, though he doesn't expect antiwar protests to occur during the graduation ceremony. "I would hope not at a commencement, but you never know," he said.
Abizaid comes to Vermont at a time when the U.S. military is facing its most severe recruitment difficulties since the Vietnam War. Norwich, the nation's oldest private military college and birthplace of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC, will graduate between 320 and 375 students, most of whom will pursue careers in the armed forces.
Venti cannot say how many Norwich grads are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the Pentagon doesn't release that information -- though the number is likely in the hundreds. But, like other military academies, Norwich has felt the sting of the long and bloody conflicts. At least two Norwich alums have been killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003.
On October 13, 2004, Major Charles Robert Soltes, 36, a 1990 Norwich graduate and former class president, was killed less than two weeks after arriving in Iraq when an explosive device hit his convoy in Mosul. Then on September 17, 2005, Mark Dooley, 27, a Vermont Army National Guardsman and 2002 Norwich alum, was killed by an improvised explosive device during a routine patrol in Ramadi.
The Global War on Terrorism has had another impact on Norwich. In 2003 alone, 20 undergraduate and 12 graduate students were called up for active duty. Another 12 postponed their graduate studies at Norwich due to overseas deployments, according to university sources.
Abizaid's presence in Vermont is likely to boost not only student morale, but also the university's coffers. Norwich is currently engaged in a $100 million capital improvement campaign; $55 million will be raised through private donations. Infrastructure improvements will include new dormitories to hold an additional 250 beds, a new campus center and a military history museum, which is expected to open in October.