BOSTON — Lt. Gen. William "Gus" Pagonis hung up his desert fatigues after the Gulf war, replaced them with pinstripes, and learned more about dresses than he ever wanted to know.
The retired three-star general - once responsible for getting every bolt, every freeze-dried meal, and every M-1 tank to Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm - is now the leader of logistics for Sears, Roebuck & Co.
As they leave the military, General Pagonis and other high-profile Desert Storm commanders are in high demand in the civilian business world - a dramatic turnaround from the post-Vietnam years, when hiring retired military personnel was not a popular thing to do. Moreover, a number of them are being tapped to head off looming crises, such as salvaging troubled public schools.
"The public came to think well of the military and realized it wasn't the military, but the country's leadership, that caused the problems in Vietnam," says Michael Corgan, professor of international relations at Boston University. "The military started having some successful operations after Vietnam, and cleaned up its own act with strict drug policies, [and] created a landmark of how to make racial relations work without lowering standards."
Indeed, Americans today think more highly of the military than of most other public institutions. A February opinion poll found that 32 percent of respondents had "a great deal" of confidence in the military, and 38 percent had "quite a lot." By contrast, the survey by the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut found that only 4 percent had "a great deal" of confidence and 10 percent had "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress.
Such attitudes are reflected in the number of retired military officers who are landing top jobs in the civilian world. They include retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, appointed by the White House to lead the nation's war on drugs; retired Maj. Gen. John Stanford, superintendent of the Seattle public schools; and retired Gen. Julius Becton Jr., now in command of Washington public schools.
For Pagonis, his job at Sears is not unlike what he did for the US Army: make sure the customer gets what he wants in an expedient and cost-efficient way. So far, he has cut the time it takes for a dress to get to a store from 21 days to seven days. Logistics spending has dropped by $45 million, without heavy layoffs.
"I know more about dresses than I ever wanted to know, but it's very important [that] our stores see the latest fashions and colors before our competitors," Pagonis quips. "I also have 114 different shades of lipstick to get to the beauty counters."
Business-management experts say the military builds skills that can be as valuable in the office as in a war zone. Ex-military commanders generally bring order, structure, discipline, and a sense of mission to their jobs, says Roger Porter of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. While mastery of those skills is less vital for creative endeavors, such as high-tech startups, it is important for a wide variety of jobs, he says.
"Corporate America is recognizing this talent," says retired Gen. Colin Powell, who has become a leading public figure in his own right since the Gulf war. "I think to some extent it flows from getting over Vietnam and the success of Desert Storm."
While the newly retired generals may be benefiting now from the perceived successes of Desert Storm, they have also been shaped by their common experiences in Vietnam. All of them served there, some more than one tour, and they are among those who helped pull a demoralized military up by its bootstraps after the war. Many worked to develop programs to train and build up the troops, while others devised social programs to rid the military of its drug and racial problems.
Pagonis says he has transferred all of the skills he learned in the military to his job at Sears. Take staff training. A top goal is to make certain that his personnel are trained for the jobs they are promoted to. "I spend 20 percent of my time training my people, cross-training. I try to make sure no one gets promoted to failure," Pagonis says.
Some experts say job training is one of the military's best assets - and a reason that retired generals are sought after.
"A lot of people were surprised to find out that the military is interested in skilled and participative management, quality improvement, that they really do care about the individual, and that they're into training," says Brig. Gen. Mary Willis, now director of annual giving at Salisbury State College in Maryland.
She says the military's philosophy is to train its personnel in anticipation of what their duties will be for the next four or five years. "We have a goal that our enlisted people have at least an associate degree and senior people have a bachelor's degree," says Ms. Willis, who served as 1st Personnel Command in Europe during the Gulf war. The military also pays for masters' and PhD programs for officers, depending on what skills and knowledge they need.
This is how leaders were trained for the Gulf war. In his book on the post-Vietnam transformation of the military, "Prodigal Soldiers," James Kitfield says: "Nor was the apparent ease with which the generals took to the lectern during press briefings accidental.... It was the culmination of a long educational trail followed by every officer with an eye on promotion. Indeed, a 1988 study by the Center for Creative Leadership had found that 88 percent of one-star, brigadier generals held master's degrees, as compared to only 19 percent of upper-level managers in major US corporations."
Pagonis says he treats his personnel the same way he did in the military. He holds the same types of meetings - brief - and requires the same types of reports.
Although several high-profile generals from the Gulf war have been tapped for prestigious jobs outside the military, many more who are highly capable are not, Willis says.
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf agrees that the US could do better. "We are one of the few countries in the world that does not make good use of retired general officers," he says.