On March 10, President Donald Trump awarded retired four-star Gen. Jack Keane with the Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Keane, a paratrooper during the Vietnam War, later served in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. He left the Army after 38 years to care for his wife, Theresa, who was at that time, battling Parkinson’s disease.
In 2003 Keane turned down the position of Army chief of staff – the service’s top officer – and in 2016 declined President Trump’s offer to serve as secretary of defense, citing his wife’s recent death.
“I was asked to serve, but I’m not able to,” Keane told NPR. “I have some personal issues surrounding the death of my wife recently, and I explained all that to Mr. Trump, and he was very gracious and understanding, and quite supportive.”
At the awards ceremony, Keane recounted the lasting effects he endured as a witness to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, where he was serving when a hijacked airliner slammed into the building.
“I lost 85 Army teammates, lived the tragedy up close, attended scores of funerals,” Keane told the audience. “It was personal, and I was angry. And despite having left the Army 17 years ago, I never left the 9/11 wars and America’s focus on radical Islam and what they did to us.”
Keane helped to oversee military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he and American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Kagan authored a plan that was instrumental to the 2007 “surge” of 30,000 troops to Iraq, a buildup that was largely considered a success in stabilizing the war-torn nation.
“In 2006, Jack helped engineer the surge that stabilized the deteriorating situation in Iraq and allowed Iraqis to finally take charge of their own future,” Trump said. “In the years since, Jack has continued to offer his sage counsel to military and policy leaders and to visit our troops on the frontiers. And Jack, I have to say, has given me a lot of good advice too.”
At the ceremony, President Trump called Keane “a visionary, a brilliant strategist, and an American hero.”
A friendly figure to the Trump administration, Keane remains unafraid to clash with the president on foreign policy decisions. Notably, Keane, sided with former Defense Secretary James Mattis last year in objection to plans to withdraw U.S. forces in Syria.
Referred to as the “shadow foreign policy advisor” by Politico, it was Keane who dissuaded President Trump from further retaliatory action after the Iranians downed a U.S. drone in the summer of 2019, citing the U.S.’ accidental downing of the Iranian commercial airliner in 1988.
During his years of service, Keane was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and two Defense Distinguished Service Medals, among others.
Keane received a standing ovation as the Medal of Freedom was placed around his neck, with the president telling him, “General, you will be remembered as one of the finest and most dedicated soldiers in a long and storied history of the United States military.”