Fort Worth

The Army secretary is in Fort Worth. Could he be Trump’s next Defense secretary?

Army Secretary Mark Esper is in Fort Worth for the Armed Forces Bowl football game, and to boost local military recruiting efforts at schools and storefronts.

The timing is interesting because he’s also considered a candidate for possibly succeeding James Mattis as President Trump’s secretary of defense.

“With his senior position in the Department of Defense, I expect he would be among the candidates on the president’s list,” said Pete Geren of Fort Worth, himself a former Army secretary (and former member of Congress) who has known Esper for years.

Esper, who spent hours Friday meeting with Fort Worth Army recruiters and civic leaders, declined to discuss whether he is being considered for a position or would be interested in a position in the Trump administration cabinet. His name is one on the long list of possible candidates for the position.

“I’m very happy and privileged to be secretary of the Army,” Esper said during an interview at the Omni Fort Worth hotel downtown. “We have a great leadership team in DC. We think we are making great strides in improving the readiness and lethality of the U.S. Army, and I could not be happier.”

But Esper did say he is working hard to improve Army recruiting in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. It’s one of 22 metropolitan areas in the United States where Esper believes the Army can find the tech-savvy young people needed to ensure the military is the best in the world in the areas of electronic and cyber warfare.

“After 17 and 18 years of low-intensity conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, the national defense strategy now tells us we need to be prepared to fight high-intensity conflicts against strategic competitors such as Russia and China,” he said. “To fight a conflict like that, I need a bigger Army. I need to put capabilities back into the Army that in some cases we haven’t had in many years.”

He said one main goal is to increase the active duty force, which currently is about 476,000 men and women, to 500,000 or more. But, he said the Army wants to accomplish the goal while still sticking with quality recruits, rather than lowering standards as was done in 2007 during the Iraq surge.

It’s a tough sell during a time when the private sector offers young people so many lucrative jobs.

“We have a very strong economy, and young Americans today have more options,” he said. “The economy will dip some, and recruiting will be a little bit easier.”

Esper said there are other barriers, too.

“More young Americans are less familiar with the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines,” he said. “Fewer of them have uncles, moms and dads that served. The challenge for the Army is how we change that. We have to completely revamp our recruiting process, get more recruiters on the streets, recruiting at our storefronts, more advertising in social media (such as) Facebook and Instagram and a greater outreach to the local community.”

He was in Fort Worth not only to talk up recruiting efforts, but to support the Army football team. The Army Black Knights will play the University of Houston Cougars at Amon Carter Stadium in Fort Worth.

Army is playing in its third straight bowl game, and for two consecutive years has won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, with victories over both Air Force and Navy.

Esper is a 1986 West Point graduate. Prior to being named Army secretary by President Trump, Esper was a vice president for government relations at Raytheon Company.

He has a lengthy career at the Pengaton as well, and served in the 1990-1991 Gulf War with the 101st Airborne Division. He also commanded an airborne rifle company in Europe.

Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.