MAJ. GEN. (Retired) Robert J. Brandt: The Cal Guard Flew Safely Beneath the Pinons of his Wings

He wasn’t the adjutant general, but Maj. Gen. (Retired) Robert “Bob” Brandt secured the California National Guard beneath his aviator wings as if he were the adjutant general.

The Master Aviator had more than 7,900 flying hours in more than 14 fixed and rotary wing aircraft during his 38 years of military and civilian flying. During his watch as Assistant Adjutant General-California Army National Guard, he: preserved the California National Guard’s Counterdrug Program; saved the 40th Infantry Division; kept Chinook helicopters from the Army restructuring chopping blocks; and memorialized military transparency. Affectionally known as one of the “gray beards,” for his National Guard patriarchy and experience, Brandt was recognized for his humility by the California media of his time, and for his friendship by the peers with whom he served.

I was graced with the good fortune of serving as Brandt’s public affairs officer when he was Assistant Adjutant General for the California National Guard, and witnessed his modesty that earned the trust of icon reporters of the era like KCRA-TV reporter Roy Stearns and KOVR-13 Reporter Jon Iander.  I scheduled an interview with Brandt after I escorted these respected reporters on whirlwind tour of our Counterdrug Operations on the Southwest Border in 1990s.

During the course of four successive 20 hour days, the reporters witnessed three teams of Cal Guard Counterdrug soldiers simultaneously discovering hundreds of pounds of Marijuana during separate vehicle searches at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry (POE); documented the only known live recording of Guardsmen manning a listening post/observation post (LP/OP) vectoring a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter and ground agents into intercepting smugglers backpacking illegal narcotics across the border in the dead of night; watched Guardsmen uncovering more than 200 pounds of cocaine during a vehicle search at the El Centro POE; and observed Border Patrol agents intercepting and confiscating unspecified amounts of cocaine and marijuana following a high speed chase between in the agents’ blazer on the North side of the border fence, and a jeep on the south side of the fence in a race for Interstate 10 near the end of the fence in a failed attempt to gain entry into the U.S. and elude capture.

Scenes that were snapshots of week’s operations. To this day, those unchoreographed series of events still seem surreal. An unbelievable tour that vividly illustrated the Transnational Criminal Organization (CTO) threat. An escort mission that would never have occurred without Brandt’s guidance to me, “no dog and pony shows.” What stands out as even more extraordinary in my memory are the two reporters’ perception of Brandt’s leadership style.

When the reporters interviewed the articulate, knowledgeable, and motivational Counterdrug Commander whose passion inspired the Counterdrug Operations design that remains the National Guard’s model to this day as well as his legacy, they found him believable, but his military bearing failed to sway their instinctive skepticism of the military. Brandt swayed this intrinsic media cynicism with his genuine, folksy demeanor. “He talks as if [we] weren’t in front of him,” each told me independently. “He looked past [us], directly into the camera, where viewers believe he is talking directly to them.” He doesn’t use a lot of big words, they said, or wear his rank in an imposing manner. This is the man who are viewers will believe and trust, they told me.

For that reason, the reporters used large chunks of Brandt’s interview for their multi-night television segments on the Cal Guard’s Counterdrug Program. For all practical purposes, Brandt became the California National Guard’s Counterdrug program talking head—or least the interview reporters most requested. His transparency fostered a friendly rapport with the media at a time when the media was skeptical and distrustful of the military. It was Brandt’s transparency that transformed pessimism into trust, and shaped public confidence in the Cal Guard’s Counterdrug Program.

Per his direction to be genuine,” I organized several “real live” Counterdrug missions with the Sacramento Bee, ABC Nightline, The News Hour With Jim Lehrer, the Los Angeles Times, and NBC news—the list goes on– despite the overwhelming public relations resources of so-called humanitarian groups, allegedly funded by CTOs, to humiliate and shame National Guardsmen into abandoning their mission in support of customs border protection (CBP) on the Southwest Border; and organized pot groups and Mexican Nationals vilifying Counterdrug troops in Northern California with false allegations of “black ops helicopters,” invading purported peace-abiding residents in sanctuaries of the “Emerald Triangle,” which coincidently doubled as illegal Marijuana garden havens. The aurora of Brandt’s humble messaging pierced such rumors and gossip with facts and simplicity that persuaded Congress to fund the Counterdrug Program and survive under tremendous public relations challenges under his watch.  

Brandt was neither intimidated by Army and Pentagon politics, nor adverse at going against the party line. When he elevated Brig. Gen. Edmund Zysk to commander of the historic 40th Infantry Division with the mandate: “Save the 40th,” it didn’t come without controversy and critics.  Zysk was not the typical “military career officer” who went along to advance along personal initiatives. With the Division’s future hanging in the balance, as was the case with the 40th and eight other National Guard Infantry Divisions under Army restructuring, it was a dangerous proposition for Brandt to trust its future to a non-careerist.

The Division’s plight was analogous to that of the soldiers at Valley Forge in 1777 when militia troops endured starvation, malnutrition, and disease to persevere through the winter. Although not nearly as extreme, the Division’s troops were deprived of essential training resources, having to dig into their pockets to fork out dough to fill up armored vehicles, trucks, and HUMVEEs to move and train in the field, use their own personal communication equipment for maneuvers, sometimes drill with no pay to survive cold military appropriation winters, and prepared to initiate state emergency missions in this way if called.

Careerists tend to ostracize gunslingers like Zysk who demand candor in Unit Status Reports (USR) out of fear that the Pentagon will justify trimming their budgets, rationalizing that subpar reports is a reflection of the leader’s inability to maintain readiness. Fudging USRs was the unspoken common practice if one wanted to advance. Zysk believed otherwise, demanding his subordinate commanders submit truthful USRs even at the risk of budget reductions. He was more concerned with retaining the 40th’s soldiers when he told the LA Times Reporter H.G. Reza that his troops would vote with the heels of their boots if training funds weren’t restored to operational tempo levels. He ignited a Congressional and media blaze when the public learned of the troops’ dilemma.”

And it was Brandt who shrug off careerists’ cries of “maverick,” “rebel,” and “loose cannon” sung to a chorus of “relieve Zysk” when the Division Commander’s soundbite sparked that political firestorm and media hurricane. Brandt’s faith in Zysk remained steadfast, confident the formula of Brandt’s transparency and Zysk’s guts would blend the desired outcomes. The formula worked. After the pair weathered the initial controversial public airing: the Army to restored the Division’s Optempo funding; the Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Dennis Reimer integrated the California National Guard as the flagship National Guard in the “One Team, One Fight, One Future;” this total force concept opened the doors for several National Guard Kosovo and Bosnia commands; the gamble saved the Division; and Zysk was awarded his second star in lieu of the reprimand naysayers anticipated.  

As he did with Zysk, Brandt expected subordinates to take charge without complaint. When a squad of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) public information officers swarmed onto a Chinook Helicopter Flight in an attempt to seize the narrative during the 1997 floods, Brandt pulled me aside and without hesitation ordered, “Take charge, and get our message out.” After the press was seated on the Chinook, I politely nudged the lead FEMA PIO to the side and announced, “ladies and gentlemen of the press, you are sitting on an endangered species, the Army is threatening to remove these Chinooks from the California Army National Guard inventory [under restructuring]. It was Chinooks like the one we’re sitting in now, that we recently used to evacuate marooned residents from Guerneville, [CA].”

Perhaps they were my words, but Brandt locked and loaded the messages that enabled me to candidly speak as if they were Brandt’s words.  Brandt’s on-the-spot order changed the trajectory of the Army Restructuring initiative, and kept the Chinooks in the Cal Guard’s inventory. Ironically, it seemed to change the course of the FEMA PIOs narrative, with rarely a peep or a soundbite from them for the remainder of the response; spiraling their alleged agenda to assume the lead in the flood response operations, and usurp the Office of Emergency Services (OES) as the voice for the flood response.

My peeks into Brandt’s legacy is an injustice to the man’s 45-year military career. Others know the scope of his career and breadth of his character much better than I do. The Master Army Aviator tells us of his combat heritage in his own words in the book he authored: Thunderbird Lounge – An aviator’s story about one early Transportation Helicopter company.  A book peppered with humorous anecdotes, exposes of the political realities, the fears, and veracities of courageous exploits of the 33rd Transportation Company/ 118th Airmobile Company, during two combat tours in the Republic of South Vietnam in 1962 and 63—the helicopter War. Many of those family and friends who know his story best, will be unable to gather in the wake of his death on April 3, 2020, or share them in a public congregation to celebrate the Master Aviator’s life because of Covid-19 funeral policies.

Although I can’t capture the magnanimity of Maj. Gen. Robert J. Brandt’s humility in my meager recollections of working for the man, I hopefully have given a glimpse into his virtue that shined through to the reporters who interviewed him way back when. His virtue of being true to himself, and how this virtue snowballed in his colleagues, friends, and family, to the Nation he served into being true to him and themselves.

Legendary Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Be true to yourself, help others, make each day your masterpiece, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books – especially the Bible, build a shelter against a rainy day, give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance every day.”

Perhaps the general flew beneath the pinions of God’s wings, creating many masterpieces, practicing the art of good friendship, and drinking deeply from many good books.

Maybe his final wish might be to be remembered in this way.

“Strike the Tent!”

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