LI home to a dozen U.S. Army generals

Five Major Gen. who grew up on Long Five Major Gen. who grew up on Long Island. (R-L) MG John Rossi, of Smithtown, MG Patrick Higgins, of East Meadow, Francis Mahon, of Northport, Thomas Vandal, of Smithtown, and John Ferrari, of Plainview. (May 10, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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Maj. Gen. John G. Rossi, a former Smithtown High School West football player, huddled with members of his staff in his office at the Pentagon.

Rossi has the responsibility of developing recommendations for how the U.S. military should change over the next four years, as it tries to juggle spending limitations, troop downsizing and new challenges posed by terrorism and rogue regimes.

At that moment, in a Pentagon basement room crammed with secure telephones and encrypted computers, about a dozen subordinates of another product of Smithtown schools peered intently into banks of video screens. Should President Barack Obama require information about Army activities around the world, he would turn to Smithtown native Maj. Gen. Thomas S. Vandal.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tovo, Smithtown East '79, had just met with Army helicopter instructors at an installation near Kabul. Tovo is commanding a joint NATO force responsible for training Afghan soldiers so that U.S. troops can withdraw from Afghanistan after more than a decade there.

Long Island has been home to 12 of the Army's 320 active-duty generals -- and three attended schools in a single district.

"I was really surprised," said Rossi. "I didn't even know the other two were from Smithtown until I stumbled across it in conversations. At one time, we all were serving in Iraq at the same time, but I didn't know even then."

The absence of large military installations on Long Island would appear to make it an unlikely place for such a high concentration of top military leaders, Rossi and other military observers said. Brig. Gen. John G. Ferrari, a 1983 Plainview High School grad who also works at the Pentagon, said communities near the nation's big military installations -- where military families sometimes outnumber civilian ones -- would be more likely.

Ferrari and others said Long Island's high concentration of war veterans going back to World War II, police and other civil servants, enclaves that are home to black and immigrant strivers, along with strong public schools, could explain the high number of top military leaders who hail from here.

Ferrari's father worked on the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which opened in 1964 connecting Brooklyn with Staten Island, after emigrating from Italy in 1959, and still works construction jobs now that he is past 70.

"I think you can trace the values to right here -- schools, sports, diversity, hardworking, tight neighborhoods -- a sense that if you worked hard, you could make something of yourself," said Ferrari, 48, pointing to a map of Long Island on his office wall. "When I went to West Point, I was much more academically prepared."

Tovo is among seven Army generals from Long Island to graduate from West Point -- the alma mater of storied American officers from Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gulf War victor Norman Schwarzkopf.

"We all came out of a generation of kids who pushed hard and wanted to achieve something," said Tovo, who graduated from Smithtown East with high honors, and whose father was a teacher and principal in the Commack school district.

The three Smithtown generals each hold positions that are critical to Obama's intentions to end U.S. combat in Afghanistan and to downsize the U.S. military. Tovo commands the Combined Security Transition Command and NATO Training Mission (Afghanistan). Successfully training Afghan troops to take over the defense of their country is considered key to Obama's goal of ending U.S. combat in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Last Thursday, Tovo met with aviation support advisers visiting from Fort Rucker, Ala., to help develop the Afghanistan army's helicopter capability. The day before, he was at the Kabul Military Training Center, one of 126 such facilities around Afghanistan where 4,200 military instructors from 37 countries train Afghan troops under his direction.

Vandal, who attended elementary and middle school in Smithtown before his family moved to Rhode Island in the mid-1970s, is the Army's director of Operations, Readiness and Mobilizations. It is up to him to make sure that the Army's 1.1 million personnel are trained, fed, equipped and ready at any given moment. He leaves that post later this month to take command of 10,000 troops stationed on the edgy Korean peninsula.

Rossi, a police officer's son who attended Smithtown High School West until his family moved to Florida during his senior year in 1978, oversees a Pentagon staff that advises Army Secretary John McHugh on four-year plans for the Army's future.

"Make no mistake, his job is a big deal," said Steven Grundman, of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security in Washington, D.C. "It requires a multitude of talents and a particularly broad-scoped thinker, someone who knows military operations firsthand, but also can handle budgets and planning."

At a Friday gathering that drew five generals from Long Island into Rossi's Pentagon office, Maj. Gen. Patrick M. Higgins, a special forces soldier from East Meadow, said he is not surprised by the Island's bounty of military leadership.

"All these gentlemen," he said, nodding at the others, "are the best there is."

 

MEET LI'S 12 ARMY GENERALS

 

Maj. Gen. Thomas S. Vandal, of Smithtown

Director of Operations, Readiness and Mobilizations

Graduated: West Point

Maj. Gen. John G. Rossi, of Smithtown

Director, Army Quadrennial Defense Review Office

Graduated: West Point

Lt. Gen. Kenneth R. Tovo, of St. James

Commander, Combined Security Transition Command and NATO Training Mission (Afghanistan)

Graduated: West Point

Maj. Gen. Francis G. Mahon, of Northport

Director, Strategic Plans and Policies, U.S. Northern Command

Graduated: University of Delaware

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Maj. Gen. Philip Volpe, of Huntington Station

Commanding general, U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School

Graduated: University of Notre Dame

Brig. Gen. John G. Ferrari, of Plainview

@Newsday

Director, Joint Force Development, G8 (Resource Management), Army Staff

Graduated: West Point

Maj. Gen. Patrick M. Higgins, of East Meadow

Director, J8 (Force Structure, Resources and Assessment Directorate), Joint Staff

Graduated: Hofstra University

Brig. Gen. Mark S. Martins, of Valley Stream

Chief prosecutor, Office of Military Commissions

Graduated: West Point

Lt. Gen. John W. Morgan III, of Freeport

Commander, Force Command, NATO

Graduated: University of Delaware

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Maj. Gen. John Uberti, of Merrick

Deputy commanding general for Support and Chief of Staff, Installation Management Command

Graduated: West Point

Brig. Gen. Ferdinand Irizarry II, of East Northport

Deputy commanding general, U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center

Graduated: Johns Hopkins University

Lt. Gen. William T. Grisoli, of Bayport

Director, Office of Business Transformation

Graduated: West Point

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