Those who fall in with the Barack Obama campaign tend to fall hard for the man himself, and none more than Jonathan Scott Gration. A recently retired Air Force major general who voted for George W. Bush in 2000, Gration accompanied Obama on a 15-day tour of Africa last August and was, he says, simply bowled over. When the two traveled to Kenya, the homeland of Obama’s father, the U.S. presidential candidate directly confronted President Mwai Kibaki over corruption. "It was an incredible thing to watch," Gration later blogged on BarackObama.com. After the two of them went to Robben Island, the South African prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for almost three decades. Gration had something of an epiphany. "To see how Mandela saved his country by bridging racial, ethnic and in some cases cultural diversity, and turn a page from a turbulent time—I think that’s sort of what the senator’s doing," Gration told NEWSWEEK in an interview this week. "He’s using his experience to turn a page for America, not only to bring the country together, but to give us a different image externally."
Not surprisingly, the Obama campaign has begun sending Gration out on the stump—he did a 13-town tour of Iowa in July—in an effort to improve the inexperienced senator’s image on national security. Gration also contributed ideas to Obama’s much noted speech on counterterrorism Wednesday, when the candidate generated headlines by suggesting that, as president, he might invade the tribal parts of Pakistan. "The United States has to be willing to pursue these terrorists to where they’re planning their logistics operations," says Gration, who adds he’s "really disappointed with the spin mongers" who focused only on Obama’s aggressive language about Pakistan. "This speech has been a long time coming. It’s not a response to Hillary Clinton or anybody else." Bill Burton, Obama’s press secretary, says Gration supplies extra "credibility" for a candidate who has never served in the military. "He has an ability to educate voters about what kind of commander in chief Obama will be, in a way few can."
Indeed, Gration’s résumé is bristling with real-world military experience that earned him seven rows of ribbons during a 32-year Air Force career. As a fighter pilot, he flew 274 missions over Iraq during and after the first Persian Gulf War, occasionally encountering Iraqi ground fire, and he commanded a task force during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Gration was also in command of the unit at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that lost 18 of the 19 U.S. personnel killed in a terrorist explosion in 1996. And he happened to be at the Pentagon when the plane hit on 9/11. "I’m not a good guy to have around, I guess," he jokes.
Gration had a rare upbringing, raised as the son of missionary parents in the Congo—one reason Obama asked him along on his Africa trip. "When I learned to talk, my first sentence was in Swahili. I’ve been a Swahili speaker all my life. That probably makes me pretty unique among generals and flag officers," he says. "We were evacuated three times from the Congo. We lost everything we owned, and became refugees. My wife’s mom gave us cows and sheep and got us going again." As a result of that experience, says Gration’s father, John, now a retired professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, "he grew up respecting people of a different color and culture in a very natural way." After his family returned to the States during the Vietnam War, Gration says, "my low draft number motivated me to join the Air Force." But even during his stellar Air Force career, he couldn’t quite leave Africa behind. He sometimes took leaves of absence to work on village projects in Uganda and elsewhere.
Gration also has some strong views of his own on national security, which may not always be perfectly in accord with Obama's. Above all, he thinks there are far too many nuclear weapons in America’s arsenal and in the world, and he wants to accelerate the 2002 Moscow Treaty that called on Washington and Moscow to reduce their operationally deployed strategic warheads to about 2,000 by 2012. "Our nuclear forces are not a deterrent as powerful as they once were, and yet those nuclear weapons and fissile material provide a threat. If, in my view, they’re not doing a deterrence mission and they pose a threat if terrorists get ahold of them, we ought to be pulling back the number of ICBMs," he says. "When you have 15,000 to 16,000 weapons floating around, I think you can reduce that number significantly. And make sure nobody else feels a requirement to get new nukes. I believe if you could get rid of all the nuclear weapons this would be a wonderful world." Even so, Gration says, he’s a "pragmatist." "As a fighter pilot I stood nuclear alert. I understood that during the cold war we had this requirement. I was defending America in that process. Things have changed right now. But we have to do it in a way that makes sense. I’m not one who just says get rid of everything unilaterally."
Obama’s views "are very similar to mine," Gration says. "While he hasn’t served in the military he has tremendous respect and admiration for service people. … I’m very involved in veterans’ issues, and I believe there’s not a candidate out there who’s taking care of our veterans like Obama." Denis McDonough, Obama’s new foreign-policy coordinator, says Gration is now considered one of Obama’s three top military advisers, along with Richard Danzig, the former secretary of the Navy during the Clinton administration, and Gen. Merrill McPeak, former Air Force chief of staff. "He and Barack share a lot of personal experience, given the way they grew up," says McDonough. "There’s a lot of kinship." Maybe a little bit of hero worship too.