Admiral sits at the launch point of war

Commander: Presiding over three carrier groups, Rear Adm. Thomas E. Zelibor faces a daunting task of leadership, tactics and logistics.

War On Terrorism

Military Response

November 03, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON - A critical mission faced Rear Adm. Thomas E. Zelibor during the last battle on the last day of the 1991 gulf war.

He was a radar intercept officer, riding in the rear seat of an F-14 Tomcat, his pilot and their wingman receiving an emergency call and roaring 100 miles across the Iraqi skies to a land battle south of Baghdad. They were in search of an enemy helicopter, a phantom menace on a night lighted by tracer fire and tank flashes.

"We were down there, lights out, at night, low altitude, maneuvering over the battle, and there was a shot at our wingman," he recalls. "You have a tendency to think, `Oh, that's very interesting.' But when you get down in amongst them, oh, that becomes very real to you."

Zelibor never found the helicopter - maybe its pilot sneaked away or fled in fright. Maybe the chopper was never there.

A decade later, Zelibor is in another war, as commander of Carrier Group Three, the Navy's lead tactical post in the Arabian Sea.

It was from ships under Zelibor's command that the air war in Afghanistan was launched Oct. 7. It's from these same ships that the air war continues. Zelibor, 47, is at the point of the spear, helping execute the battle orders of his superiors, who include Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command.

Zelibor encounters a monumental mission of tactics, logistics and motivation. He presides over naval operations of three carrier groups: the Vinson battle group, which he commands, plus the battle groups of the aircraft carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt, with a full arsenal of strike jets, and USS Kitty Hawk, a floating home for the U.S. Special Forces.

In one sense, Zelibor says with a sly smile crossing his face, "I have to be head cat herder."

"What I mean by that is I look at all the competing priorities and try to make sure we're providing assets for all the different tugs and pulls and make sure we meet all of those requirements," he says. "And I think the other thing is I have a very important role in leadership, guidance and perspective."

If the war is placing a strain on him, he is hiding it very well. Standing around 6 feet tall, he has a rugged, chiseled face, clear brown eyes, and brown hair growing gray at the sides. He bounds around the ship in a green flight suit, a silver admiral's star on each shoulder, a brown leather name patch on his chest, an open neck revealing a blue T-shirt.

He practices what he calls "leadership by walking around, " appearing daily on the flight deck, joining sailors as they walk the greasy surface in a painstaking search for objects like loose screws and bits of plastic that could turn lethal if sucked into jet engines.

But he has been spending more of his time inside, dealing with the war's administrative details. "We live and die by e-mail," he says. "E-mail and connectivity, looking at all the command and control things."

In his view, the war is proceeding well - the Taliban's defenses being smashed piece by piece, from airfields and artillery to tanks and bunkers. Yet he is aware of the frustration voiced by some back home who claim that the war should be advancing quicker.

"We see the apparent frustration that is coming across," he says. "People at home are used to seeing something happen in some location and have instantaneous reporting on it. I think we have become a society of instant gratification; it's just not that way. There is a very deliberate planning and execution that takes place. I just think it's unrealistic to expect things on those kind of instantaneous time lines."

He remains patient, a worthy trait for someone who as a much younger and more fiery lieutenant was given the flight call-sign "Chain."

"I was one of these guys, a type A personality," he says in a voice that retains a hint of the flat vowels of his Midwestern youth. "I had a low tolerance for imperfection. They said I had a short chain. As I've gotten older I've learned how to channel that into different things."

His father was a Marine captain who yearned to be a pilot but instead rushed off to fight in the Korean War. He ended up the executive officer of the Marine detachment aboard the carrier USS Princeton, whose namesake is a cruiser in the battle group Zelibor commands. His mother was a secretary at the Pentagon.

Zelibor, the oldest of four, was born in Chicago and attended eight different grade schools in eight years as his father constantly took on new jobs as a business trouble-shooter. Zelibor pressed to enter a military academy after finishing high school and was accepted at the Naval Academy.

He arrived in Annapolis in the early 1970s. Vietnam still raged.

"It was kind of interesting to see how the country had changed," he said. "I still remember having beer bottles thrown at me walking around at the time, going to away football games where it wasn't always real pleasant."

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