Major General Tom Conant – 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Commanding General
At precisely 0830 hours I was ushered into the office of the Commanding General of the Third Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), Tom “Stash” Conant. Major General Conant, dressed in a tan flight suit, took a minute to finish up some last minute business with his aide (Captain Aaron Bohl). I took this time to stand in awe of his office that was a wealth of USMC aviation memorabilia and definitely fitting for a Commanding General. After a moment or two, Major General Conant walked over to me and welcomed me to Third MAW. The Commanding General offered me a seat at his conference table and for the next 45 minutes we spoke about a wide variety of topics including family, hobbies, leadership, and the Marine Corps.
Major General Conant was born and raised in Jackson, Michigan. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from Central Michigan University. Conant is married to his wife (Beverly) of 40+ years, and they have two sons, Kevin and Andy. Kevin is a Major in the Marine Corps Reserve and Andy is in the Alabama National Guard. When not being the Commanding General of 3rd MAW, Conant likes to play golf and watch college football (University of Michigan) and Major League Baseball (Detroit Tigers).
Major General Conant’s start as a military officer started differently than one might suspect based upon his position in the Marine Corps. As Conant told me, “I was a poor student and not doing well in college.” College deferments were cancelled and the draft lottery was in full swing. Not wanting to get drafted, he walked over to a United States Air Force recruitment booth. In June 1971, Tom Conant enlisted in the USAF as a Command and Control Technician. As an Airman, Conant was surrounded by pilots, most of whom were two and three combat tour veterans from Vietnam. Fascinated with aircraft, Tom tried to get a commission and fly for the Air Force. However, due to the lack of Command and Control Technicians, he couldn’t get a release. The Air Force’s loss was the Marine Corps gain. Conant was able to secure an “Air Contract” with the USMC. General Conant attended Platoon Leaders Class (PLC) in 1975 and ironically, two of Conant’s PLC classmates also became generals (Robert B. Neller and Dennis J. Hejlik).
After PLC, Major General Conant attended basic flight training at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. Tom did well in flight school he told me, “Bev and I just had a new baby and a fixed wing jet slot would have required two moves. A rotary slot would only require one!” This, coupled with Conant’s fascination with helicopters, helped make his decision.
In basic flight school, Conant flew fixed wing trainers and “did very well.” Conant admitted that when he transitioned to rotary wing and started flying the TH-57 Sea Ranger (the Navy version of the Bell Jet Ranger) “it wasn’t clicking!” It wasn’t until he began flying the Huey that piloting a helicopter began to “click” for him. When he graduated from flight school, Conant selected the AH-1 Cobra and the rest, as they say, is history.
While we were on the topic of helicopters, I took a moment to ask the general to compare and contrast the Cobras he flew verses the Marine Corps newest Cobra – the AH-1Z. During his career, Major General Conant has flown literally every Marine Corps version of the Cobra, starting with the AH-1J Sea Cobra up through AH-1Z Viper. Conant said the Viper is an incredibly advanced helicopter and will be exceptional in the Cobra’s mission of Close Air Support. He added that of all the Cobra models he has flown during his 35 year career, the Sea Cobra is his favorite. “The “J” model was very light and because it only weighed 10,000 pounds (compared to the AH-1Z at 17,500) it was very fast!”
I asked Major General Conant, as a young Second Lieutenant flying Cobras in the late 1970s to your current position of Major General – Commanding General of the Third Marine Aircraft Wing (who is about to get promoted to Lieutenant General) how did you get here?
His answer was short and to the point – “The Marine Corps got me here!” Major General Conant further explained that he was fortunate to work an array of assignments and commands during his career, some flying and some not. He added that he might not have chosen these assignments and commands had the decision been up to him, but it were these duties that helped get him to this point in his career. These wide varieties of assignments and commands included being stationed on the east and west coasts, ship deployments, various staff duties, USMC Amphibious Warfare School, Marine Corps War College, USMC Command and Staff College, and Aide to the Commander of the Atlantic Marine Forces.
Another experience that the Commanding General credits to his success is when he left the Marine Corps to explore the business world in 1980-1981. His wife Bev knew within months that Tom was a Marine and would be returning to the USMC sooner than later. Conant returned to the Marine Corps within 12 months.
Major General Conant continued by saying there was nothing magical about how he got here. I asked if he thought his leadership potential was recognized early in his career and was that why he received such a diversity of duties. Conant simply said, “no” and added that there is not “one story” about how we got here in terms of a career path.
What did help mold Major General Conant’s leadership principles, was being inspired by such legendary Marine Corps leaders as General Alfred Gray (29th Commandant of the Marine Corps) and Lieutenant General William M. Keys (retired as the Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces – Atlantic). What made these leaders inspirational to Conant were their attitudes towards the Marine Corps. For Gray and Keys it was “about the institution” and “doing right about the United States Marine Corps.” It is this type of attitude and leadership that make the Marine Corps unique. Unique in that whether you are a Commanding General, a Private First Class, or anyone in between, you are a Marine first! “This is why a Marine Corps uniform has the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor above the rank” explained Conant.
In 1977, Mike Kurth (who later received a Navy Cross during Desert Storm), adjutant of Marine Aircraft Group 29, described a young Tom Conant as “quiet competence.” Conant, a humble man, that knows how to get the most from the Marines under his command. “Know your mission, know your job”, and using the New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick’s attitude “do your job” has been Conant’s motto. Major General Conant went on to say that he doesn’t want Marines worrying about the “other Marines” job. If everyone does their job, worrying about another Marine doing his job is a moot point. Conant also shared another one of his leadership principles and that was “Commander’s Intent.” Under Commander’s Intent, he simply stated his goal, “know your mission, understand the tasks required to accomplish your mission and do your job” then let his Group Commanders be Group Commanders and Squadron Commanders be Squadron Commanders. He hoped this leadership principle would trickle down to lower levels of leadership and allow commanders to grow and develop as they moved up in rank. Micromanaging his staff was something the Commanding General doesn’t subscribe to.
Major General Conant put his leadership into practice with his first command. In July 1992, Lieutenant Colonel Conant became the Commanding Officer of HMLA-167 Warriors based at Marine Corps Air Station New River, Jacksonville, North Carolina. He wanted the Marines under his command to be tough and fly at a competent level. During his command of HMLA-167 (July 1992 – December 1993), the squadron was awarded the Chief of Naval Operations Safety Award. Conant added that of all the commands he has held, The Warriors were his favorite. “The Warriors hold a special place in my heart. As a Major, it was my first as Detachment OIC and I later returned to the squadron as the Commanding Officer. I also went to Haiti and Somalia with the squadron. I was involved with a great group of young lieutenants, most of whom are now colonels and great Commanders and leaders in their own right,” Conant remembers.
A “Bunker Bunny” is a title given to those that have staff assignments when there is a war going on. Major General Conant, a self described “Bunker Bunny” said he never saw tours of duty in Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom or operations in Afghanistan, due to the timing of his assignments. Major General Conant would like to have participated in these past and present conflicts, but the Marine Corps had different plans for him. He was present for a day that changed history for America. Conant was assigned to the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 struck on September 11, 2001. It is a “gap” in his career picture that has always frustrated him but he never complained about it.
With HMLA-167 being Major General Conant’s favorite command, I asked him if he has had a command that was more challenging than others. “My current command!” said the Commanding General. He went on to say, “With 17,000 Marines, 400 aircraft, and staff and resources spread out all over the world, it’s a challenge each and every day.” Despite all the challenges of commanding 3rd MAW, Major General Conant is able to fly once or twice a week. One of the many benefits of commanding 3rd MAW is being able to fly any aircraft in the wing.
With 17,000 Marines in 3rd MAW, I asked Major General Conant how he keeps in contact with the young Marines in his command. He told me he makes it a point to speak with his young Marines whenever possible. I saw this first hand several hours after our interview and again a few weeks later. Major General Conant was scheduled to fly with the Commanding Officer of HMH-361 Flying Tigers Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Glasgow. This was scheduled to be his last flight with Lieutenant Colonel Glasgow due to Lieutenant Colonel Glasgow changing assignments. When I walked into HMH-361’s Flight Equipment room, Major General Conant and Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Glasgow were putting on their flight gear. After donning his flight gear, Major General Conant then walked the room, talking, shaking hands, and passing out his personal 3rd MAW challenge coins to the young enlisted Marines assigned to Flight Equipment. I could see the smiles on the faces of these young Marines and sensed that the Commanding General’s presence and interaction with them meant something.
I later spoke with Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Glasgow regarding Major General Conant’s leadership. Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Glasgow first met Major General Conant while stationed in Okinawa in 1999. Commanding General Conant, a Colonel at the time, was the Commanding Officer MAG 36. As a young Captain, Glasgow remembers Major General Conant letting commanding officers run their squadrons. Glasgow remembers Conant as a commander that “cared about his Marines.” “Marines are comfortable around him. He has a way about him that makes people very comfortable” said Lieutenant Colonel Glasgow.
I mentioned to Lieutenant Colonel Glasgow that Major General Conant said he had been described as “quiet competence.” “Absolutely! I never saw nor heard of Major General Conant getting angry and/or yelling,” said Lieutenant Colonel Glasgow. “By his demeanor and leadership style, he simply has to say something in conversation and it happens. It happens not because of fear or intimidation, but because what he suggests, talks about, etc, resonates with Marines and just makes sense. Major General Conant has an innate ability to cut through the BS and provide clarity,” said Lieutenant Colonel Glasgow.
Lastly, I asked Lieutenant Colonel Glasgow how Commanding General Conant, a self described “Bunker Bunny” could become, by all accounts, such an incredible Marine Corps leader. Glasgow summed it up perfectly, “It isn’t the conflict that makes the officer!”
Several weeks after his final flight with Lieutenant Colonel Glasgow, I had the opportunity to join the Commanding General on his final flight with the Commanding Officer of HMLA-169 Vipers Lieutenant Colonel Brendan Reilly at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Before their 1200pm briefing, I had the opportunity to speak with Lieutenant Colonel Reilly about the leadership characteristics of 3rd MAW’s Commanding General. I asked Lieutenant Colonel Reilly to describe Major General Conant’s self described “quiet competence.” “General Conant shows trust and confidence in subordinate leaders. His goals are clear and not ambiguous,” said Lieutenant Colonel Reilly. I asked Lieutenant Colonel Reilly how Major General Conant has become the exceptional leader he is without combat experience. He said the answer is simple, “Behavior, grooming, how you fly, conduct, flight safety, etc, doesn’t change in peacetime or wartime.”
After their flight briefing, Lieutenant Colonel Reilly and Major General Conant walked into the Viper’s Flight Equipment room. Lieutenant Colonel Reilly quickly called “attention on deck” which was followed by an equally quick “at ease” from the Commanding General. The general then began speaking with the Marines in the room, expressing his appreciation for their work and shaking their hands. You could sense from the smiles, laughter, and conversation, that the Marines were comfortable with the big boss being “on deck” and having a few minutes with him. After speaking with his Marines, Major General Conant grabbed his flight helmet and with Lieutenant Colonel Reilly headed out to the flightline.
Lieutenant Colonel Reilly and Major General Conant made their way to aircraft #37. At the aircraft, they were greeted by Plane Captain Lance Corporal Stephen Baily. As the Commanding General strapped into the front seat of the AH-1W, he waved me over. “Hey Phil, see this dirt and dust, this aircraft just returned from Afghanistan,” Major General Conant told me. I could sense the pride in the Commanding General’s voice when he told me about this aircraft’s condition upon returning from combat. Pride stemmed from HMLA-169’s return home in May 2011 after a successful combat deployment in Afghanistan.
Viper 06, call sign for Lieutenant Colonel Reilly and Major General Conant departed for their 60 minute flight. While on their flight, I returned to Flight Equipment to speak with the Marines who had just met the Commanding General. There I spoke to Lance Corporal Darcy Daniels. I asked Lance Corporal Daniels what he thought of Major General Conant’s visit at HMLA-169. “General Conant is a good guy. He cares about his Marines. When he shows up to Flight Equipment he is ready to fly. His attitude is “give me my gear and let’s go flying,” said Lance Corporal Daniels.
After returning from his flight, I had a few minutes with the Commanding General. I had basically one remaining question for him and that was what does his upcoming third star and promotion to Lieutenant General bring? Major General Conant first told me about the phone call he received regarding his getting a third star. “I was at home when I was called and told to be prepared for an important phone call. Shortly, Admiral Bob Willard, Commander of the US Pacific Command, called and told me I had been selected for a third star. My response to the Admiral was I’d be honored.” Conant told me he hung up the phone “speechless.”
When Major General Conant pins on his third star, he will become the Deputy Commander of the Pacific Command (PACCOM) and the first Marine to hold this position. I asked Major General Conant if he sees himself becoming the Commandant of the Marine Corps. He gave me a quick, “No! I’m 60 years old and my time has passed. This is a young Marines game. Plus I want to have more time with Bev!”
Major General Tom Conant isn’t about flash, bravado, or ego. What he does stand for is being the best Marine you can be. Taking the opportunities and experiences the Marine Corps offers you, even when they don’t seem to make sense, and making the absolute most of them. Knowing your job, approaching that knowledge in a humble manner, and sharing that knowledge with those around you is what’s important. Major General Tom Conant is destined for the history books with his upcoming appointment to PACCOM. However, the self described Bunker Bunny who led his Marines with a quiet competence in his leadership style for decades, redefined Marine Corps leadership long before that.
I would like to express my sincere appreciation to Captain Aaron Bohl, Aide to Commanding General Conant, for making the time in the general’s very busy schedule for me and helping me behind the scenes to make this article and photographs possible.
An additional special thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Glasgow and Lieutenant Colonel Brendan Reilly for allowing me to be present during their respective final flights with the Commanding General and for taking the time to talk with me, despite being in the process of preparing for the Commanding General’s visit.