Killed in Afghanistan: Natural-born leader became 2-star general

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Bright eyes and bow ties: Harold F. Greene, 85, took down this portrait of his three boys from a living room shelf in his Guilderland home. He did not want to be photographed himself but he and his son, Steven, at right in the picture, spent a moment yesterday, remembering when the portrait was taken. His eldest son, Harold, is in the center, with Jonathan to the left.

— From the Department of Defense

Major General Harold J. Greene

GUILDERLAND — Major General Harold J. Greene, who was shot and killed in Afghanistan on Tuesday, was, from a young age, someone who could command a crowd.

His father, Harold F. Greene, recalled to The Enterprise the days in the hospital just after his son’s birth, 55 years ago.

He was born at the Richard House, in Boston, which was the teaching hospital for Harvard University at that time.

The idea of breastfeeding on a systematic basis had just been introduced, said Mr. Greene, and nurses were bringing babies to their mothers every four hours to establish a feeding cycle.

“It worked well for most babies, but not for one baby,” he said. “I bet you can guess which baby I’m talking about.”

His son, he said, wanted to feed on demand, and, when he was hungry, he would emit a “loud and piercing cry.”

“He would wake up all the other babies and soon you’d have 20 or 30 babies crying right along with him,” Mr. Greene chuckled.

The staff at the teaching hospital was split in its reaction to baby Harry’s effect on the nursery.

The “older generation of nurses” was, according to Mr. Greene, not thrilled with it, and referred to Harold using language that his father called “not quite professional.”

The younger generation, however, discovered through experimentation that, as soon as Harold was picked up and held, he would pipe down and be quite a charmer.

“There were basically two reactions to him and they have continued for the rest of his life,” said his father. “You either thought he was the best thing around or you described him with language that’s not fit to print.”

Throughout his childhood, Harold continued to display an easy leadership.

His father also remembered his son building a “neighborhood” in the back of their housing development, using trees and cardboard boxes, and, before long, he said, all the other local kids were rounded up and contributing to the project.

In high school, said his father, he was a junior-varsity wrestler at Guilderland High School, but managed to draw a bigger crowd at his matches than the varsity wrestlers did.

“He was one of the most popular kids in school,” said his father.

His ability to command garnered him one of the highest ranks in the military — a two star general.

He was in Afghanistan to train Afghan soldiers in the use of field equipment and help Afghanistan develop an infrastructure that could carry on after the United States withdraws from the country.

Major General Greene’s visit — along with other high-ranking officers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — to a military training academy outside Kabul on Tuesday, was part of that development process, said his father.

“An individual believed to be a member of the Afghan security forces fired into a group of coalition troops,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby in a press briefing on Tuesday.

Major General Greene was the only American killed, though at least 15 others were injured, sustaining serious to minor injuries, Rear Admiral Kirby said. 

“The assailant was killed,” he said. 

“The coalition troops were on a routine site visit to the Marshal Fahim National Defense University,” said Rear Admiral Kirby.

100 percent-dedication

Mr. Greene said his son entered the military “kind of by accident.”

Major General Greene attended Guilderland High School for three years, and in his fourth year, he went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, for a combined year that earned him college credits as well as his high school diploma.

At RPI, at that time, said Mr. Greene, they had physical requirements, which could be fulfilled by playing intramural sports, taking a physical education course, or participating in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, commonly referred to as ROTC.

“ROTC did more interesting things, like whitewater rafting trips,” said Mr. Greene. “So, of course, he joined that.”

Incidentally, Mr. Greene said, his son and several other ROTC members nearly drowned on one of the rafting trips, and were saved by a Marine.

“He wound up as the cadet commander and, after his first year, he was offered a full scholarship,” said Mr. Greene.

While at RPI, Major General Greene earned a bachelor’s degree in materials science, and a master’s degree in industrial engineering.

He went straight from graduation into the military, said his father.

“It bothered his mother more than it bothered me,” said Mr. Greene. His mother, Eva Shediak Greene, died last year. Mr. Greene went on, “I put in a short time in the Army; I knew what it was about.

“While it carries risk, we also knew the majority survived, and, there is the possibility for end of life at any given time,” he continued.

Mr. Greene said he didn’t think he would describe his son as being passionate about the military.

“He was one of those characters who had a lot of interests, and, once he plowed into something, he gave it 100-percent dedication, as required,” he said.

With the full scholarship that had been provided to Major General Greene as a member of ROTC, he almost felt like he owed the Army something, said his father.

“Actually,” laughed Mr. Greene, “his first few evaluations in the military were not so good, because he had a tendency to treat those beneath him as his peers; but, he learned.”

One of Major General Greene’s first assignments was as a NATO project engineer in Turkey, followed by serving as NATO’s resident engineer in Greece, at a time when Turkey and Greece were “at loggerheads,” said Mr. Greene.

“He gained experience working cooperatively with two governments and was, in essence, a go-between,” said Mr. Greene.

It was also at the height of the Cold War, when Russia was threatening to invade Europe, and one of his major functions was to “help the Turks build and man and learn to use defense mechanisms that could be converted into offensive weapons as well,” said Mr. Greene.

Following his stints in Turkey and Greece, he put in a period as a normal company commander in Germany, where he met his wife, Susan Myers, who was also serving in the military.

After Germany, he was brought back to the United States, where he was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri, to develop field equipment.

“The Army had a pattern where, at the mid-career stage, they would send budding commanders back to school to get master’s degrees,” said Mr. Greene.

Major General Greene already had his master’s degree, so he went to the University of Southern California, and got a Ph.D. in materials science, focusing on the electronic properties of composite materials, a new field at the time.

While in California, Major General Greene and his wife welcomed their first child, Matthew. They went on to have a second child, a daughter named Amelia. Both children are now in their early 20s and the family lives near Falls Church, Virginia.

His wife, said Mr. Greene, retired “a few years back” at the rank of colonel.

Major General Greene had also submitted his retirement papers when he was asked if he would reconsider retiring if he were promoted to general.

“They told him they wanted him to take back his retirement papers,” said Mr. Greene.

Most of Major General Greene’s recent assignments, he said, involved researching and developing new equipment, particularly equipment used for battlefield communications.

As part of that process, he “put in short periods of work on virtually all the foreign wars,” said his father.

“They were not long assignments, but long enough to learn how the equipment was being used, if it was working, and how to improve it,” said Mr. Greene.

His next assignment, he said, would have involved putting together a composite program, linking different branches of the military together to work on materials projects.

The timeline of the program, Mr. Greene said, was dependent on the military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“This was a project that will be cut short by his death,” said Mr. Greene.

Mourning

Mr. Greene said his first reaction upon hearing of his son’s death was “numbness.”

“It’s that numb feeling where you wish it would go away, but you’re realistic enough to know that it won’t go away,” he said.

He said he knew, though, that this outcome had always been a possibility.

“We know, from a statistical sense, that the odds are it won’t happen to you, but you can absolutely never rule it out,” said Mr. Greene. “I knew that, he knew that; we all knew it.”

His second reaction to the news was to find out how Colonel Myers was handling the situation and he said that her family was rallying around her.

Mr. Greene will arrive at the Dover Air Force Base today, Aug. 7, to greet his son’s remains as they are returned to the United States.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Maj. General Harold Greene’s family, and the families of our soldiers who were injured today in the tragic events that took place in Afghanistan,” said Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno in a statement on Tuesday. “These soldiers were professionals, committed to the mission. It is their service and sacrifice that define us as an Army.”

Major General Greene will be interred in the Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia, following a funeral at Fort Myer.

The services will take place “sometime next week” said Mr. Greene.

It is, he said, a far cry from what he had originally planned for next week.

His son, he said, was scheduled to arrive home next week for a two-week leave. As part of his leave, he had committed to spending two days with his father, helping him clean and organize his house.

He had also arranged to spend time in Boston, watching his favorite baseball team, the Red Sox, with his family.

Major General Greene had blocked off a number of hotel rooms in the Boston area and extended family members from all over the country were supposed to join him for a mini reunion.

“I think that is the part that I will never get over,” said Mr. Greene. “That he was supposed to be home just next week.”

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