General Vessey's tribute to Kingston
Courtesy of John Collins, C-13 Honorary Member
March 23, 2007
Fort Myer/Arlington Cemetery
Remarks at General Robert Kingston’s Funeral
Leslie, Larry, Roberta and Laura, George, and brother, John, whom Bob, with prideful jest, often referred to as “my wayward brother, the Navy Officer,” Bob’s comrades grieve with you, but as we dab away a tear, we also celebrate with you his marvelous life of service to our Country and to the safety of its people. Many thanks to you, Leslie, Larry, and family for the special love and kindness you gave him through the years since the death of his beloved “Jo,” and particularly for your special concern and care during the long difficult months since the accident. Thanks.
Bob Kingston, whether as a second lieutenant or a four-star general, or anything in between, was a soldier, in the finest sense of the word. He loved being a soldier, and he loved soldiers. His expression of that love for soldiers came through tough, rigorous combat training, exacting standards for care of equipment, and superb leadership, along with undying dedication to insuring that the soldiers around him and under his command were ready to survive on the battlefield while carrying out their duties for the Nation. I’m sure that John Collins will cover Bob’s soldiering in the eulogy, so I’d like to help us remember a few of the other facets of this remarkable man.
Bob Kingston was a high-level commander with genuine strategic vision. As Commander of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force and the first commander of its successor, Central Command, he doggedly pursued funds and support and insisted on American involvement in exercises in the Middle East. He did the difficult diplomatic work in the region and here at home to make it occur. Those exercises provided invaluable knowledge and experience for officers, NCOs, and staffs that would later participate in the first Gulf War. Earlier in his career, as Chief of Staff of the UN Command and US Forces Korea at a very difficult time in US-Korea relations, his wisdom and skill in helping guide the apportionment of responsibilities among the various headquarters as the ROK/US Combined Forces Command was established aided in guiding command arrangements instrumental in keeping peace on the Peninsula in the intervening thirty years.
Because of Bob Kingston’s reputation as a taciturn, blunt, plain-spoken soldier, one seldom found the words “diplomat and statesman” associated with him. That was a mistake; he was both. He was intensely loyal to the United States. He was a keen student of our Nation’s role in the world, and he represented US interests with clarity and dignity in a number of national and international fora. I had the good fortune to sit with Bob in important discussions with five different Presidents, three of them US Presidents and two from Allied nations, and with five prime ministers, three friends of the US, and two of them from a former enemy, as well as many other meetings with Secretaries of State and foreign and defense ministers.. Every friend of Bob is probably thinking that he didn’t say much in those meetings, and you are correct. However, everything he said was important, correct, and contributed substantially to the matters at issue. He was, indeed, a soldier-statesman, with a lot of diplomatic skill.
One of the most memorable meetings the two of us had with foreigners of note was a meeting with General Vo Nguyen Giap who had commanded the North Vietnamese forces during the SE Asian War. Giap had asked to meet with me during one of my trips to Hanoi as Presidential Emissary, a duty I had agreed to undertake only after getting President Reagan’s assurance that I could take Bob Kingston with me during the negotiations. When Giap asked for the meeting, both Bob and I were apprehensive; we were afraid that the Vietnamese Government would use it for propaganda purposes. After a few inquiries, being assured that no television cameras or press would be present, and believing that Giap still had a lot of influence with the Defense Ministry, we agreed to the meeting. Our thought was that Giap, as an old soldier, might understand the importance of that part of our mission involving accounting for missing American Servicemen, and get us some needed support from the Ministry. The meeting seemed to get off to a good start. Giap arrived with an interpreter and, an active duty general who he introduced as his aide, but was probably a keeper. Bob and I had retired US Army Colonel Andre Sauvageout as our interpreter. Giap quickly dismissed his interpreter after deciding that Andre’s capabilities were far greater. We got to our reasons for meeting with him quickly, and it looked as though we’d made some progress, when Giap suddenly shifted into a party-line defense of Communism. After about ten minutes of that, Bob, diplomat that he was slipped me a note that said, “We have to tell him that this is a bunch of crap”
We remember Bob Kingston, the voracious reader, the student of history who was always prepared to instruct us with some historical tie-in to the issue at hand.
We remember Bob Kingston, the devout, Roman Catholic Christian, and his willingness to engage in deep theological discussions with his friend and spiritual advisor, Chaplain, Monsignor, John Kowski. They seemed to do it often, even at the monthly poker game when the rest of us were sweating our hole cards, those two were discussing theology.
We also remember Bob Kingston, the fellow with the wonderful, wry, Irish sense of humor which often shocked those who saw only his regular, fairly stern visage. I remember that sense of humor at its best on one of our return trips from Hanoi. We were flying in one of the special air mission VC-135s, a tanker that had been converted to a command plane. We were late getting out of Hanoi, had to stop in Bangkok, and were delayed in refueling there. We arrived in Japan for what was to have been our overnight rest stop just before daybreak. Through a combination of equipment malfunction and the crew’s misdiagnosis of the malfunction, we left the runway at just about landing speed. Fortunately about an hour earlier, we had suspended all work on reports, and had stowed our computers and communication gear. However, the galley was toward the rear of that plane, and as the plane was careening through a very wet, steep ditch adjacent to the runway, being slowed by plowing mud with the engine nacelles, every pot and pan in the galley seemed to be heading toward the cockpit at slightly less than the plane’s landing speed. Bob was sitting across the aisle from me, and he leaned over and with a straight face, said, very calmly, “I believe we’ve left the runway.” That sense of humor got another test a few minutes later. We had come to a very abrupt stop, and Bob and I went forward to check on the cockpit crew. By the time we determined that there were no really serious injuries, the crew chief had deployed the emergency exit gear and sent both of us sliding down into a very wet, muddy ditch. Bob was in his stocking feet. We could hear the sirens and see the lights of the emergency vehicles approaching, but the first vehicle to arrive was a pickup truck with the Air Force sergeant in charge of customs at the base. He accosted Bob first, and said, “I’ll need your passport and customs declaration.” Standing ankle deep in the cold water of that ditch, Bob, unemotionally replied, “I’m sorry, sergeant, I don’t have them; you’ll have to arrest me. Please arrest me right now.” The incident reaffirmed two basic truths, Mr Boeing makes a very tough airplane, and Bob Kingston’s sense of humor would survive just about anything.
It is very difficult for me to stop telling you about this tough, dedicated soldier, wise and great servant of the Nation, kind gentleman, and dear friend, even though I know that you also know all those things.
We mourn his death, but we know that the Army, the Armed Forces, the Nation, and those of us whose lives were touched by his are better because he lived. We thank God for that life, and say, “Thank you, Bob,” to him.