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Cucolo exemplifies service worth saluting

| Saturday, June 28, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Salena Zito
Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo days before his June 13 retirement from the U.S. Army War College, where he has served as commandant since June 2012.

CARLISLE, Pa. — It is unsettling to understand how difficult it is for a soldier to quit being a soldier.

After 35 years in the Army, Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo left his second love — the first being his family, wife Ginger and their children — when he drove away from the gates of the U.S. Army War College with no fanfare.

Unsettling for him, but his is a story that should bring comfort to all of us in America as we prepare to host or attend Fourth of July picnics with families and friends.

His life outside the military will be a tough adjustment, Cucolo confesses, his typically commanding voice wavering under the burden of loss.

Colleagues speak of Cucolo as a quintessential commander: of a battalion in Bosnia, in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, and of the U.S. forces north of Baghdad in Iraq.

Then he spent nearly a year directing Force Development, G-8, in Washington before his assignment to the Army War College as its commandant in 2012.

“He is a great man,” Brig. Gen. Sherko Shwany, commander of the Kurdish peshmerga, told the Tribune-Review recently when ultra-fundamentalist rebels brought front lines back to Iraq.

Cucolo had sent his respect and hope for peace to the Kurdish general — although Cucolo gives the impression that, if he could, this old U.S. rifleman would go after the ISIS rebels himself.

For he excelled in combat situations and in matters of peacemaking, says Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander, U.S. Central Command, who served with Cucolo on several occasions: “I've been consistently impressed by his superior capability, innovative thinking, and his talent and willingness to take on the really tough jobs.”

Cucolo's story exemplifies all that we are about in America — a young man from the Hudson Valley with such love for his country that he pursued a relentless dream of getting into West Point. But, as with any big personality, Cucolo is a complex man; he also carries great love for his fellow mankind. That caused him to become emotional at times about the loss of life from battles, he admits.

His story of a dicey decision to start a black market in Brcko, a town in northern Bosnia, illustrates the pull between soldier and peacemaker in him: “We had a checkpoint at our reconstruction camp on this piece of land that was literally the divide between the Serbs, Croats and Muslims, so we decided to clear it of land mines and see what happened,” he says.

“A few days later, a guy pulled up with a car, opened up his trunk and sat there with a couple of bottles of homemade plum brandy. Within weeks, that one guy grew into an expansive market (six football fields in length) called the Arizona Market (named for the military's Route Arizona along which it lies).

“We learned quickly, the best incentive for person-to-person contact is based on personal economics. If they are talking, they aren't fighting.”

In time, he says, “Serbs, Croats and Muslims shopped, bartered, bought and sold goods, and intermingled as if there had never been a war.”

The market acquired a reputation as “the best four acres in the American sector for changing perceptions.”

As we decorate our homes and yards in red, white and blue bunting for Independence Day, we should pause to thank Cucolo and other members of our military for their service, here and abroad.

We might show patriotism by wearing the flag's colors as we head to parks, lakes or beaches; for many of us, the extended weekend is just that. But we owe it to the men and women like Cucolo, who protect American freedoms.

Their commitment — sometimes for a lifelong career, sometimes costing a life — allows us to enjoy our rights of speaking our minds and worshiping as we please.

Says Cucolo: “Those things are, in fact, worth our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor — just like the signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged confidently during a time of great uncertainty.”

As he starts a new chapter in his life, Cucolo leaves a lasting influence for those in the Army, says Austin, his fellow general.

We can all take comfort in knowing that.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (

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