“I kept all of my notes and I have them in my desk right now; I’ve carried them around the world with me… My experience learning at IWP has molded me into the leader I have become.”
LTC Catherine “Katie” Crombe, USA, has brought her notes from her IWP classes with her as she served as the principal planning adviser to the Jordanian Chief of Defense to help combat ISIS along the Jordanian border, as she helped write the new UK Theater Strategy for the Middle East, as she led the planning for the final phases of the Defeat ISIS Syria plan with USCENTCOM J5, and as she served as the Commander’s Aide de Camp for USCENTCOM, an organization with oversight of 22 countries and 70,000 military personnel throughout the Middle East.
Now, Katie is using lessons learned at IWP about strategy, history, just war theory, deterrence theory, and more as she leads the directorate that conducts all strategy and planning for the United States Special Forces Command Central (Middle East).
Below, she discusses her experience with IWP.
Could you tell us a little about yourself and your background in the Army?
After graduating from Lehigh University in 2003, I commissioned in the U.S. Army, attended officer training, and deployed to Iraq to join the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment which had just completed the invasion of Iraq. I served with them through two deployments – in Al Asad, Baghdad, and then Tal Afar Iraq – training at our garrison post Fort Carson, Colorado in between. I was one of very few females in a combat arms Regiment – running resupply convoys to the forward cavalry units running combat missions – during a turbulent time in Iraq. I learned my first lessons in leadership at the tactical and operational level while supporting these innovative operators. HR McMaster was our Regimental Commander during my second deployment – I still feel privileged to have been a part of the noteworthy campaign – Operation Restoring Rights that liberated a city lost to insurgents and sectarian violence in 2005. His strategic leadership in that operation changed the way we fought in Iraq for years to come – focused counter-insurgency ops, more taking care of people, less destroying cities. I always remember that each Squadron Headquarters received a box of books on counterinsurgency and warfare for Christmas that year – he was always learning, always teaching – very similar to values we are taught at IWP.
Following Iraq, I went to D.C., where I worked in our Human Resources Headquarters, first in the assignments division, figuring out where to assign our officers and later on a Task Force that sought to improve personnel strategy – how to retain officers in the Army through creative promotion systems and broadening assignments. I then went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for almost two years, serving as one of the first commanders of our Wounded Warrior Units, designed to take care of our nation’s most grievously wounded and their families. I witnessed the price of combat daily – the 300 hundred soldiers under my command ranged from the most physically grievous injuries to the invisible Traumatic Brain Injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To this day, working at Walter Reed was my most emotionally challenging job. In dealing with the families of severely wounded service members, you are not just a commander but a counselor and motivator – the conversations and feelings were with me morning, noon, and night. It was heavy but I can think of no higher honor.
It changed my perspective, and not just in terms of taking care of veterans. Before deploying military power, it makes me think twice concerning how, when, and why we send people into combat. When I am weighing war plans and strategies in support of national level decisions, a lot of my memories of Walter Reed are with me. Guiding soldiers and their families through life-altering situations – watching them cry, struggle, and overcome – impacts how I approach strategy.
When I am weighing war plans and strategies in support of national level decisions, a lot of my memories of Walter Reed are with me.
After that, I came to IWP, which I loved, and it was the perfect time in my career to do it. I got selected for promotion while I was there, and I got to spend all that time thinking, reading, and reflecting. I learned just war theory and international relations theory through the core classes we took during my first semester. I kept all of my notes, and I have them in my desk right now; I carry them all around the world with me. I keep my notes from my first class on International Relations and Statecraft with Dr. Lenczowski, from John Tsagronis’ class on the National Security Policy Process, and from American Foreign Policy, where I studied the rhetoric of Lincoln and Washington. My experience learning at IWP has molded me into the leader I have become. My courses on Statecraft and Propaganda have been hugely helpful. It has really guided my thinking in every way.
Colleagues have asked how I know certain things, and I often tell them that I learned it in grad school. A close confidant of mine went to a very prestigious university and also has a degree in international relations but can’t point out the capital of Germany on a map. A lot of graduate institutions and programs force students to focus on one subject very early, opposite of the broad education that IWP provides. The scope and breadth of our education at IWP never ceases to amaze me – I can never remember the exact quote or book where I read something, but I know I have a drawer full of notes to reference. It is a special place – I wish all of our strategic leaders had the same opportunity.
During the Syrian war, I coordinated the war planning for Jordan as they prepared to defend themselves from Assad in mid to late 2012. While the direct threat from Assad never came to fruition, Jordan became the destination for nearly a million refugees fleeing the violence – something their economy and infrastructure could not handle. In my third and final year stationed there, my planning focus turned to positioning the Jordanian military to help its government triage the hundreds of thousands of refugees – helping determine how to transport, medically care for, and temporarily house them before they moved onto one of the UN refugee camps or settled into civil society. At the beginning of the refugee surge, we used to go to the border 2-3 times a week to meet with refugees as they were fleeing Syria, something I had not seen in previous deployments. Each family, usually just women, children, and elderly men, came with only what they could carry – usually garbage bags filled with personal belongings, along with day-old babies, and stories (told through an interpreter) that seemed unimaginable at the time. I felt well-prepared to address these complex, non-military focused problems, in large part due to my education at IWP. I was well-read on non-military doctrine and non-military theory, and that holistic, social science knowledge helped me advise the Chairman of Defense in Jordan.
I felt well-prepared to address these complex, non-military focused problems, in large part due to my education at IWP.
After working the Syria problem from Jordan, I was stationed in London, embedded in British joint staff for two years. Their military is much smaller than ours. While our Middle East strategy and planning team has 100 people, in the UK, they had eight. I was one of the eight. It was an incredible responsibility, and I am grateful for such a unique opportunity. In the U.S., you are used to writing something, and it goes up ten levels before it would ever get to the Secretary of Defense or national leadership. In London, I got my report back with one follow up question, and then it would go into the national circles the next week, quite the learning curve! The British Ministry of Defense was more budget-constrained than we are used to, which is a good lesson for us now as we navigate a new normal post-COVID. They have fewer resources, personnel, and money, and their strategy needs to be much more creative. The United States debates whether to send in a brigade, whereas the United Kingdom scrutinizes the idea of sending two people or one set of supplies. My primary job there, redesigning their Theater Campaign Plan, was absolutely influenced by my time at IWP, as all of my history and international relations theory helped me see the region from a non-U.S. lens.
After returning to CENTCOM, I initially led the planning for the final phases of the Defeat-ISIS plan before becoming the Aide de Camp for the Commander, GEN Joseph Votel, traveling all over the world with him – a lifetime of experiences wrapped up in one job. I would sit behind him while he talked to kings, presidents, fellow Chiefs of Defense – I learned how he made decisions, how he communicated, and how he and other senior leaders prioritized efforts. This was truly an education of the highest proportions, watching that level of leadership daily.
In watching GEN Votel, the vision of the “magnanimous – great-souled – man” that I learned about in Prof. Charles Smith’s class came to life. No matter what country we were in, no matter whom we were talking with, he treated each person with respect, used the same language, used the same patience, and was disciplined with his time. He taught me about command and feedback. If you are at a senior level, you ingest information and brief the Secretary of Defense, other cabinet officials, and even the President. What General Votel did better than anyone I have seen is push information back down the chain of command. After each meeting, he would ask who else could benefit from knowing what was discussed. There is a risk aversion where leaders often want to hold onto information. I learned from him that it can be better to take the risk on more people knowing vital information, to ensure that the guy at the end of the chain who needs the information has it.
I am now at the United States Special Forces Command for the Middle East, leading all strategy and planning for Special Operations across the CENTCOM theater. I oversee a team of planners, strategists, and assessment experts. We conceptualize, develop, and write all of ground, maritime, and air SOF plans across the Middle East in pursuit of National Security Objectives.
One of IWP’s slogans now is “Winning Without War,” and I understand that this is a theme of your work. Could you tell us more about what you do in this regard?
Yes, we’re called war planners, but I often tell people that planning for war is the best way to prevent going to war. In planning for war, you are planning for peace. We are always using a whiteboard, almost playing the game Battleship. War Plans have five phases – only of which two are combat-related. The other three phases involve preventing/deterring war and reconstructing phases for post-combat.
The military is always trying to deescalate tensions to prevent going to war unless absolutely necessary in support of our national interests and protection of the American people. No one wants to fight a war, especially the military. We want to go so deep into war planning that we are able to deftly articulate the risks, opportunities, and costs of any potential conflict. These details are critical to informing our national leadership and, oftentimes, Capitol Hill.
Stationing troops in the Middle East, or anywhere for that matter, is often a deterrent rather than a provocation – many military actions are aimed at preventing war. Some actions are conducted using economic sanctions, diplomatic tactics, or information warfare – the goal always being to deescalate a conflict. In the planning process, we have the ability to develop creative options to undermine the enemy’s calculus, and these aren’t always offensive.
What was it like working in the Army before vs. after IWP? How have your studies at IWP shaped your professional career?
Absolutely different. IWP allowed me to think and reflect. I remember reading an anecdote about the screams heard in the Nazi concentration camps and the toll it took on some of the prison guards. That passage was the physical manifestation of what I was dealing with at Walter Reed and the toll it had on me – not comparing WWII to my job at Walter Reed, but identifying the importance of history and literature in understanding your experiences – enabling context and perspective that helps you work through challenges.
As you read history, you realize this isn’t the first time this has happened.
As you read history, you realize this isn’t the first time this has happened. These are cyclical issues. If you do not understand history, including the history of war and conflict, then you do not understand war theory – the reasons to go to war compared to the reasons not to intervene. Without this background, it is very difficult to develop plans, and make good, prudent decisions.
What is special about IWP is that most students take the core classes that first semester, providing everyone the base of knowledge on military strategy, international relations, 20th century history, etc. Once you have that common base, you can start debating just war theory and space strategy.
Keeping the classes smaller is crucial, and the engagement with the professors was second to none. Dr. Tierney often discussed deterrence theory and the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) theory concerning the advanced development of technology. Today, we have AI, machine learning, and killer robots, and this theory remains relevant. MAD theory can help determine the actions of leaders in international relations regardless of how sophisticated technology progresses.
IWP changed me and still does. I have all of the books Dr. Tierney had us read on the subject and still refer to them today.
You have been praised for your expert knowledge of tactics and strategy. How has IWP enhanced your understanding of these things?
Military strategy is a combination of art and science. The science is tactics. There are a lot of people out there who understand that, and I rely on the experts for that piece. As a strategist, it is my job to take history, theory, creative approaches, and operational design to produce innovative options to prepare for war and plan for peace – to arm our leaders with the information they need to command formations, move ships, and deploy aircraft and arm our decision makers with the information they need to decide whether or not to employ military force.
Very few people can understand strategy, develop an operational design, and tie it back to international relations theory or history. If you can do that, you can continue to rise through the ranks.
What are your plans for the future?
We will see where it goes! Personally, life is good. We have four kids now – which makes planning wars seem like a piece of cake. I hope eventually to make it back to D.C. and get back into the national decision-making process up there.