When I took the job as city manager for Panama City, Florida — the place I’ve called home since 1988 — I never expected to be thrown back into Baghdad.
You see, this past year, I retired after 39 years with the Army, leaving as a two-star general. During my decades of service, I’ve seen what cities look like after they’ve been decimated. As a civil affairs officer in the Army Reserves, I was part of humanitarian efforts in Central America and the Caribbean. I also worked with civilians displaced by war in Baghdad and helped rebuild their city as commanding general of the 108th Training Command.
And I can tell you that after Hurricane Michael ravaged my city this year, it didn’t look all that different from Baghdad.
I’ve trained for exactly this kind of destruction. My experience in the military and opportunities to command have enabled me to not only help the citizens of Panama City recover, but also make our city better and stronger. I want to give back to my community, because my community has given me so much.
I’m not originally from Panama City. I spent my youth moving around — as an Army brat does — and I went to tons of different high schools; a new school for practically every year. But as a Boy Scout, service to my country and to my fellow citizens always stayed consistent.
My family also played a role. I had strong ties to the military growing up, with my father serving in Vietnam and my grandfather serving in World War II. And even though I was raised in the Vietnam era of the late 1960s and early ’70s, when returning soldiers were shunned and spat on, I still felt a duty to serve my country.
I eventually landed in the ROTC at Auburn University in Alabama and then the Army. That’s when everything changed for me. I was sent to Ansbach, Germany, during what I think was a very dark period for our military. This was around 1982, and I was seeing the effects of Vietnam on our soldiers in real time.
I was a young lieutenant then, and I remember taking soldiers to the hospital for in-patient alcohol and drug treatment. These men, who had served in Vietnam, were just emotionally crushed. I wouldn’t say we were a valueless army, but an army that had no compass. Things started to turn around, when a new division commander came in. He brought in a team of unbelievable leaders, and I saw what the power of leadership can do. When you uplift people and give them what they need, they start to raise their head a bit more.
Fast-forward some three decades later, when I was just a few months from retirement with the Army and I accepted the job of city manager. I’ve lived in Panama City for so many years, and as I was going through my military career, the city took care of me. It was my time to take care of the citizens here. Little did I know that Hurricane Michael, one of the worst hurricanes to slam the Florida Panhandle in decades, was going to hit just two weeks later.
After Michael made landfall, the mayor likened the area to Baghdad. He wasn’t wrong — it does look like Baghdad, except with trees. There was massive destruction. The city’s infrastructure was almost entirely collapsed, and an estimated 90 percent of homes were damaged or destroyed — like a war zone, but with nature as the adversary. The people here have the same needs as those in war-torn countries.
So I thought back to my time in service — my deployment to Bosnia, short time in Afghanistan and year in Iraq, where I helped rebuild infrastructure and organized relief efforts. A big benefit from my time in the Army is that I’ve been able to translate those skills to my civilian career. I approached this new crisis facing my city in a similar way. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, I worked to help ensure everyone’s safety and security. Then I focused on coordinating the efforts to provide food, water and shelter. Now I’m looking at the longer term, asking myself things like, How do I reinvigorate and rev up the economic engine of this community?
I met with one of Verizon’s top executives when she came down to visit. Verizon has about 80 percent of the market share here, and when their towers got shredded it crippled recovery efforts. After explaining the needs of my city, Verizon decided to reinvest $25 million in the community. Initially, the company was planning on creating 5G networks in four cities. Now there are five, with Panama City joining Los Angeles, Houston, Indianapolis and Sacramento.
We in Panama City are resilient. I know, because I’m applying my military training and experience to this new problem set — and let me tell you we have a wicked set of problems currently — but Panama City can, and will, come back.