From soldier to civilian and now returning to his military roots, Uniontown native Dr. Mark T. Esper is serving the country once more as U.S. secretary of the Army.
“It’s an honor, a responsibility, a great privilege,’’ said Esper in a recent telephone interview. “I feel I’m entrusted now with the care of our soldiers and the readiness of our Army and it’s a big task. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a great team of military officers and civilians to help me.’’
The son of Polly Reagan Esper of Uniontown and the late Thomas Esper was confirmed by the Senate and sworn in as the 23rd secretary of the Army in November.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis officiated at another ceremony on Jan. 5 at the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, followed by a welcoming for Esper by the Old Guard at Joint Base Meyer-Henderson Hall in Virginia.
Mattis talked about how Esper’s background prepared him for his current role, saying, “This is someone who has lived it, has talked it and has walked that in tough times.’’
Esper is a 1982 graduate of Laurel Highlands High School where he earned varsity letters in football, basketball and track and was inducted into the Laurel Highlands Hall of Fame in 2013.
He attended the U.S. Military Academy, graduating from West Point in 1986 as a dean’s list student and recipient of the MacArthur Award for Leadership.
Esper served in leadership positions in the 101st Airborne Division and deployed with the Screaming Eagles in the 1990-91 Gulf War. He was awarded a Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman’s Badge and various service medals.
Esper commanded an Airborne Rifle Company in Europe, served as an Army Fellow at the Pentagon and completed his master’s degree at Harvard University.
He left active duty in 1996 to become chief of staff at The Heritage Foundation. He also served more than 10 years in the Army Reserves before retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
Esper served in the Pentagon from 2002-04 as a deputy assistant secretary of defense. In 2006, he worked as executive vice president at Aerospace Industries Association. Esper earned a doctorate at George Washington University and taught graduate courses at a local university. He became an executive vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2008 and then vice president for government affairs for the Raytheon Company in 2010.
“I like to think I bring several things to the job,’’ said Esper. “First of all, 21 years of service in the military: 10 years of which in active duty and the remaining 11 in Guard and Reserve. Second, I have time on Capitol Hill so I have a good feel and understanding of what Congress expects of the military and service departments. I worked in the Pentagon before as both a political appointee and as a staff officer so I have a good understanding of how the Pentagon works and how to make it work optimally. Fourth is the private sector in the defense industry so I have a fairly good understanding of how the acquisition process works, what the challenges are with our procurement of defense items. Those four things together, I think, really helped prepare me for this role.’’
At the January ceremony, Mattis said of Esper, “What we have here is someone that we are confident will take the Army forward, that has the right value system, who understands that if something is not contributing to lethality, it’s going to the dustbin of history.’’
Mattis also acknowledged Esper’s family who attended the ceremony, including Leah Esper, his wife of 28 years, their three children, his mother and three sisters and their families.
During this interview, Esper spoke of his respect for Mattis, saying, “He’s a great leader, a great person and a great secretary so I’m very excited to be working for him. He inspires many people in the building. He gives us the ability, the room to really lead our departments so I’m very happy to be working for him.’’
Esper’s position puts him in charge of 1.4 million active duty, National Guard and Reserve soldiers, Army civilians and their families. In his first weeks on the job, Esper spent time meeting American soldiers throughout the world to re-acquaint himself with the Army and make his own assessment on readiness, equipment and training.
“My job is to get out and see the Army and find what the challenges are, what are our problems and what can I do to help fix them,’’ said Esper.
He talked about the most pressing concerns for the Army today.
“The big picture is we have troops still engaged in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time, we’re very conscious of what’s happening in Korea. While we hope for the best, we prepare for the worst,’’ said Esper, also noting, “We have longer-term issues with Russia and China that we are focusing on as part of the national defense strategy.’’
His immediate focus deals with Capitol Hill and the budget where Esper said, “We got very good, top-line budget number for defense for fiscal year ’18 and fiscal year ’19. Now we have to explain how we’re going to spend that money to ensure the Army is ready in the future that will occupy a lot of my time in the coming weeks on Capitol Hill.’’
Asked his hopes for his time as secretary, Esper said, “The immediate challenge is our own readiness. That means making sure the Army transitions to be prepared for what we what we call high-end conflict, that would be conflict with state-level actors as compared to the last 15-16-17 years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. So we have to prepare for that higher-end fight, which is much more demanding, much more complicated. What we’re looking at now is how we improve our training, how do we improve our maintenance, how do we reconfigure our formations? How do we update our doctrine to deal with that? That’s what I see in front of me.
“Longer term,’’ he continued, “how do we improve our personnel system so it’s based on more on talent and managing talent? How do we have a more modern force that can ensure we are capable of fighting and winning against potential adversaries in the next 10, 15, 20 years. And the third part is doctrine - what’s our doctrine’s underpinnings to support that future war fight?’’
Growing up in Uniontown provided Esper with many values that he continues to hold dear.
“I like to think coming from that area, we all bring a good deal of common sense, a practical approach to resolving issues, a strong worth ethic and the ability to work with others to get the job done,’’ he said.
“I’m reminded every day of Uniontown because you cannot walk into an office or down a hallway without seeing a picture, a portrait, a story of George Marshall,’’ said Esper of another Uniontown native, adding, “We are constantly reminded of Marshall and how he was the great architect of victory during World War II. His presence is all around us, and that’s both inspiring and humbling.’’