General Joe

When Joseph Peterson ’72 signed up for ROTC as an undergrad, he planned to complete his military service and then move on. Nearly four decades later, he finally has: with three stars on his shoulder, after overseeing training of more than 100,000 Iraqi police, and having served as deputy commander of U.S. Forces Command, responsible for 900,000 soldiers.

General Joe
Ceremonial honors: U.S. Army Forces Command's Deputy Commanding General Lt. Gen. Joseph F. Peterson salutes as he is presented with a U.S. flag flown over the Capitol July 4, 2010. Photo from Paul D. Prince, U.S. Army Forces Command Public Affairs.

The march that Lt. Gen Joseph Peterson made to the top of the U.S. Army required a few steps over his classmates. But he was careful not to trample on any toes or fingers of the antiwar protestors lying in his path one spring morning in 1970.

Peterson came to Santa Clara in 1968 on an ROTC scholarship that he took for reasons as practical as patriotic: Even working 30 hours a week at a San Jose sporting goods store, he could never have afforded Santa Clara without financial help. And with war raging in Vietnam, the hulking Hawaiian figured the military would get him one way or the other. Better to go in as an officer than get drafted as a grunt.

Others clearly felt different. By 1970—the year of the Kent State shootings—the antiwar protests roiling colleges across the nation had also put Santa Clara on edge. The campus was closed for two days in the spring. Ultimately, the spring semester ended a week early.

Amid the tension, Santa Clara’s ROTC cadets had their President’s Review, an annual parade normally of limited interest. But in 1970, scores of protestors—some students, others not—showed up with signs calling for “Off ROTC,” “Stop the War Machine,” and “Get out of SE Asia.” About two dozen protestors pushed things further, trying to lie down in front of the parading cadets. But the cadets weren’t deterred.

“We marched through them,” Peterson says with a laugh, careful to point out that the cadets avoided touching the protestors—many of whom were known by the cadets.

Looking back, he calls that encounter a fine illustration of the freedoms that make America great: a peaceful demonstration against the government. The cadets “were as hopeful that the Vietnam conflict would end, but understood that if it didn’t we would be sworn to ‘uphold the constitution and the orders of those appointed over us.’” And, he says, “The real truth is there aren’t many soldiers who want to go to war.”


From that same era, one of Peterson’s memories from Santa Clara: sitting in a room in Swig Hall, listening to the radio broadcast of the draft lottery, which started at the end of 1969, fueling much of the protests of the following year. He, too, was troubled by questions about the morality of the war in Vietnam. But between his financial commitments from his ROTC scholarship and his overall faith in the armed forces, he stayed with the program.

“We felt we still had to serve our country,” says classmate John Hannegan ’72—like Peterson, an ROTC cadet who also went on to the Army. For the past three decades Hannegan has run C.B. Hannegan’s pub in Los Gatos (see “The ideal pub,” Summer 2009 SCM). And his first memory of Peterson is seeing him in front of Swig Hall playing the ukulele and singing with some fellow islanders.

“He’s a hell of a player,” Hannegan says. “And he can sing like all good Hawaiians.”

Peterson didn’t plan on a career in the Army. He planned to earn his degree in economics, complete his military service, then begin the next chapter in his life. So what happened? His shift to a career officer came as he found a passion for training soldiers as well as for caring for their families, a motivation that inspires him to this day.

Less than 6 percent of Americans under 65 have served in the military, Peterson says—and those who volunteer deserve the best.

“America presents you with its sons and daughters and charges you with the responsibility for their health and welfare,” he says. “The opportunity to lead and command soldiers is the greatest privilege an Army officer could ever have.”

His comfort in command as a young officer certainly came as no surprise to his wife, Ann. Her husband, she says, has been leading since the day she met him in fourth grade at the Star of the Sea elementary school in Honolulu. There was a time when Peterson aspired to join the priesthood. He enrolled in a seminary high school in California. He and Ann survived his freshman year there by sneaking letters back and forth. Then, at St. Louis High School, he was head altar boy, senior class president, and a high school athletic star on championship baseball, basketball, and football teams.

“There was something special about him,” Ann Peterson says. “He was always in the lead.”

In high school, sports had seemed his ticket to greatness.His skills as a lineman had put him on the radar of football coaches at numerous schools, including Stanford. But Peterson turned down their offers and set his sights on Santa Clara, where he could pursue ROTC, get a top education, and keep the option of playing football.

Once on the Mission Campus, Peterson decided he wanted a break from the gridiron, which had dominated his high school days. Instead, he applied his 240 pounds to rugby, co-captaining the team his senior year, and to a heavyweight intramural football team aptly named the Organ Grinders.


U.S. involvement in Vietnam had begun tapering down by the time that Peterson was commissioned as an armor officer, joining an Army that was quick to recognize his talents. As a young lieutenant, he began his career as a battalion motor officer and platoon scout leader at Fort Lewis, Wash., soon taking command of a tank company, normally the responsibility of a captain.

His ascent up the Army ladder would take him far into the corridors of power. As aide-de-camp to the supreme allied commander for Europe, for example, he brushed shoulders with presidents, royalty, and diplomats. But his first love has remained serving as a commanding officer, training and caring for the troops and their families.

His posts have included commanding the Fourth Infantry Division, First Armored Division, and the First Cavalry Division, the Army’s most powerful heavy armored force and one of its most storied units. The regular rotations of Army leadership, though, took Peterson from its leadership just as the country headed to war, one of the frustrations of Peterson’s career.

Giant steps: Ed Anderson '70 salutes as he strides over one of the 75 protesters that disrupted the 1970 President's Review ceremony of the ROTC program. Joe Peterson was there. Photo from SCU Archives.
Giant steps: Ed Anderson '70 salutes as he strides over one of the 75 protesters that disrupted the 1970 President's Review ceremony of the ROTC program. Joe Peterson was there. Photo from SCU Archives.


In 2003, just after the war in Iraq began, Peterson moved from head of the First Cavalry to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon as vice director of operations. The move to the military’s hub meant Peterson was one of the first to receive casualty reports on troops he no longer commanded.

“It was one of the toughest years of my life, knowing I trained these soldiers but I was not there to protect them and I wasn’t there to lead them,” he says.

His frustration led him to volunteer to go to Iraq. In 2005, Peterson assumed command of training Iraq’s civil security forces, schooling 120,000 police, establishing a national police academy, and guiding internal affairs—all crucial steps in Iraq’s journey toward the rule of law, he says.

“If you don’t trust the police, how do you maintain civil order?” he says.

His goal was a day when mothers in Iraq feel confident enough to tell their children to find the nearest police officer if they get lost. The task, he admits, was monumental. Even the United States, with centuries of civil law, struggles with bouts of corruption. In Iraq the problem is endemic.

“It’ll take time,” he says.

His year in Iraq was marred by the deaths of hundreds of Iraqi police, as well as more than a dozen U.S. police officers who worked as their teachers and advisors. But Peterson says he saw much progress and found leaving so tough that he avoided formal farewells with many of his contacts.

His time there, though, may well be his most lasting legacy. Rebuilding the civilian security forces is one of the most important tasks in returning Iraq to a fully functioning country, says Paul Kan, associate professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Penn., where senior officers receive advanced training. It’s a chapter of the war that Kan says will be studied at schools like his for decades to come, with Peterson’s name likely to be very much part of the discussion.

“Very few military folks can say that,” Kan says.

Peterson’s time spent nation-building in Iraq couldn’t have been more different than the mission he prepared for as a young second lieutenant. In the mid-1970s, he’d wonder if he might one day fight tank battles akin to those fought by World War II heroes like George S. Patton. But today’s soldiers face persistent conflict from all directions—individual, terrorist groups, and state.

General Joe: Lt. Gen. Joseph F. Peterson receives the 2010 Community Spirit Award from Who's Who in Asian American Communities. Produced by Sachi Koto Communications, Inc.


After leaving Iraq in 2006, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general, making him one of about 50 three-star generals in the U.S. Army—and the first person of native Hawaiian ancestry to achieve this rank. His final assignment, to which he was posted in December 2006: deputy commander of U.S Forces Command (FORSCOM), the Army’s largest command and the source of 80 percent of the Army’s combat forces.

The first native Hawaiian ever promoted to lieutenant general, Peterson oversaw the deployment of almost a million troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.

To put that in civilian terms, it’s the equivalent of serving as chief operating officer for a very large international corporation. For part of his assignment, Peterson served double duty; he also served as chief of staff for FORSCOM. During his four-year tenure with FORSCOM, 900,000 soldiers in the command were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, with Peterson responsible for making sure they were ready, able, and cared for—both when they deployed and when they returned.

After nearly a decade at war, the Army is still learning about the toll that such extended conflict takes on its soldiers and officers, Peterson says. It has moved beyond the days when battle-scarred soldiers were dismissed as weak. Instead, leaders now reach out to soldiers at risk of having problems by taking a wide measure of their mental health and well-being.

“Warriors have problems and warriors are put under extreme stress in combat—and so warriors need help,” he told an interviewer as he neared retirement. “Our Army has evolved, and soldiers now truly believe we are a caring institution. And we are trying to help them through these periods of high stress and difficulty.”

In June 2009, Peterson made his most recent visit to Santa Clara, where he spoke at commencement exercises for graduating members of the Bronco Battalion. He told the 12 graduates that, like him, they were joining an army at war. But this army was no longer focused on just offense and defense, but also on stabilizing and supporting countries while guarding against attack from any direction.

“You join an army today that is seeking balance and attempting to adjust its aim point,” he said. “The nature of conflict has truly changed.”

Yet one constant over the decades has been the need for a strong, disciplined military to preserve this country’s freedoms, he told them. And he noted that while the Declaration of Independence may have been signed July 4, 1776, the Army was founded more than a year earlier.

“What was true back then is true today,” he told the cadets. “It does take a great military to have a great nation.”

It was his second time back to speak at a Bronco Battalion commissioning and his last in uniform.

Thirty-eight years after he was commissioned an officer, Peterson retired: On Oct. 1, 2010, two months after a ceremony honoring him at Fort McPherson, Ga., he formally stepped down from his command. In nearly four decades in the Army, he has moved 23 times. His job at FORSCOM entailed constant travel across the country for both him and Ann, who took on many of the responsibilities of caring for families. His ukulele skills, he confesses, have suffered from the workload.

A golfer whose pre-dawn workouts leave him looking like he could still play football, Peterson plans some extra time on the fairways, though he’s not looking to be idle. His first year in retirement was consumed by fundraising, planning, and overseeing operations for a three-day celebration in Washington, D.C., last November, honoring the Japanese-American soldiers who fought during World War II even as their families were forced into internment camps.

The event drew 240 vets, 109 widows, and 900 family members who gathered for a ceremony bestowing the Congressional Gold Medal on the former soldiers at the Capitol. Growing up in Hawaii, Peterson says he was surrounded by such Nisei warriors, including his uncle, Maj. Gen. Arthur Ishimoto, who rarely said anything about their heroism and sacrifice. Honoring them has been a lifelong quest.

“Frankly, they fought for the rights of others while their own rights were being denied at home,” he says. “This was more or less an affair of the heart for me.”

Peterson says he expects to do more consulting in the near future, working on military training and assistance to wounded warriors, while he and his wife continue to stay active as lay Eucharistic ministers in their church.

That, and it’s time to find out what he’ll do when he grows up, he jokes. But, he says, “If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way.”

Read the ROTC article Bronco Battalion in the Winter 2012 issue.

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