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Life in the 172nd Infantry Brigade, by most accounts, was hell when Col. Frank Zachar was in charge. Senior officers said Zachar threatened their careers and dressed them down when they could not follow his confusing guidance. Before a one-star general arrived to investigate the withering command climate, Zachar gathered his command staff to bully them into silence, several subordinates said.
"He said that if we are disloyal … then he was going to take an ice pick and shove it in our left eye," read one lieutenant colonel's sworn statement. "He said this more than once and said it was exactly what he meant."
A major on Zachar's staff said Zachar asked him to be his "directed telescope" and gather intelligence on what subordinate leaders were saying about him.
Four of Zachar's six battalion commanders and four of his five sergeants major said they felt he had a negative leadership style, according to an investigation into the command climate. Zachar was relieved Jan. 3, after eight months in command, "due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command," said Col. Bryan Hilferty, U.S. Army Europe spokesman.
Brig. Gen. Jimmie Jaye Wells, who conducted U.S. Army Europe's investigation of the brigade, concluded in his report that Zachar "demonstrates arrogance, deception and threatening behavior," and that the command climate was "at best ineffective, and at worst toxic."
Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of U.S. Army Europe and the Seventh Army, ordered the 15-6 investigation to assess the command relationships within the 172nd.
Wells' report, obtained by Army Times, had recommended Zachar be relieved. Zachar's command sergeant major, Robert French, whom Wells does not criticize, was also reassigned.
Significant portions of the report are redacted, including the names of subordinates, incidents involving spouses and training, and information about unit readiness and deployments.
What survives the redactions is a blistering critique. Zachar is described as manipulative, indecisive, insincere, obsessed with personal loyalty and disinterested in soldier training. Several subordinates said they had no confidence in his ability to lead them into combat. The unit, based in Germany at Grafenwoehr and Schweinfurt, is set to deploy this summer to Afghanistan.
"I don't have trust in his confidence to lead us through what looks like a tough upcoming deployment," one command sergeant major said in a sworn statement contained in the report. "I don't think he understands how it's really going to be."
Zachar was nicknamed "s--- finger," one lieutenant colonel said in a sworn statement, because "everything he touched turned to crap."
"I just don't believe he is a good person," a lieutenant colonel said of Zachar in a sworn statement. "He is a poor commander because he can't sync his staff on a single purpose. He can't articulate, or listen to anything but what he wants to hear. He is a bad commander and a bad person."
"Too many times, the 14 of us are looking at each other and wondering what he means," read a command sergeant major's statement. "We don't know what the hell we're supposed to do because he changes from day to day what his focus is."
"I have lost trust, lost faith and confidence in his ability to command," reads another subordinate's sworn statement. "He likes to operate in a threatening environment and has threatened my professional future repeatedly."
Reached by Army Times, Zachar countered that a close look at the report shows "I did nothing wrong."
"There were some people [in the brigade] from the very beginning who were trying to twist everything I said," he said in a Feb. 24 telephone interview from Washington, D.C. "They had some grievances with me, and they were not going to let them go, and it split the command. The more I tried to undo what they were saying, the more leverage I gave to them. When I talk about loyalty, that can be turned around to, 'Don't talk to anybody.' Not true, it's 'Talk to me first.' "
The command climate within the 172nd prompted visits from Gen. Allen Batschelet, V Corps' deputy commanding general; Brig. Gen. Michael Ryan, then V Corps' acting commanding general; and investigators with the U.S. Army Europe Inspector General's office. Batschelet, Wells and Ryan — who is now retired — declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article.
Hilferty said there were "no allegations of anything illegal, immoral or unethical."
A 'perfect storm'
Zachar told Army Times that there was a "perfect storm" of problems within the brigade, including a personality conflict between himself and French, a rebellion among the commanders over his resiliency program and his partnership initiative with surrounding German villages, and several "ringleaders" who rallied others to malign him.
"The Army did a great job in its investigation, and to work through this to take care of our soldiers, but I really don't think there's any value in dragging anyone's name through the mud — that's to include me and Sgt. Maj. French," Zachar said. "I don't think that anyone will understand what happened in the command, and the perfect storm."
Zachar defended his ice pick comment, saying, "In the context of that, if you're going to attack me, I'm going to have to attack back."
He said that his conversations with battalion leaders about loyalty were not meant as threats.
"In a couple of group forums, I said, 'Hey, everybody, be loyal,' " he said. "I told them if they have an issue, tell me about it, and that's all about being loyal."
Not every subordinate was critical of Zachar. One called Zachar's style, "traditional, older Army." Another said morale was good and the unit had the correct guidance as it prepared for combat.
"I feel, with initial guidance, I have no concerns," the officer said. "It's clear and focused on [platoon-] level competencies. Agree with the current path."
Zachar, a married father of three, is a veteran of Operation Desert Shield/Storm and Operation Joint Guardian in Kosovo, and he served in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to an official biography.
Zachar said he had wanted, even before he was reassigned, to relinquish command. Now he said he wants to continue to serve, and his reassignment is not yet complete.
"My forward momentum within the Army is done," he said. "No question about that."
Wells' investigation cited issues that appeared soon after Zachar assumed command in May 2010.
Subordinates described a fractured relationship between Zachar and French, both professionally and socially. Much of French's own statement is redacted, but he characterized Zachar's style as "leadership by intimidation."
Zachar conceded his relationship with French was "not working," but declined to elaborate. He said he attempted to have French removed, and told his staff in September, "Command Sgt. Maj. French and I are no longer collaborating, so if you say something to him, it may not get to me."
According to a lieutenant colonel who had served with the previous brigade leadership, Zachar "generated significant push-back" from battalion leaders when he set about establishing a clearer hierarchy between commanders and noncommissioned officers.
According to one subordinate, French was not permitted to speak with the battalion commanders; training and operations S-3s at the battalion level could only speak with brigade-level S-3s, and so on for other staff and executive officers. Zachar denied this.
French had asked his superiors to be reassigned and was told to "hang in there." In the months after the IG's investigation, Zachar gave French several counseling sessions.
"I signed the counselings and my focus was to get away," French said. "I did not care where I would be reassigned; I knew I could no longer work with or under Col. Z."
Zachar or his brigade staff often issued confusing guidance, several subordinates said. A battalion commander cited a village partnership program in which Zachar first gave the officer permission to meet with a local official, then later reprimanded the officer because the meeting had "gotten out in front of his intent."
"Col. Z would change his mind, sometimes several times, after laying out his intent to the [redacted], wasting much effort, frustrating the staff," one subordinate said.
Zachar initially said the Schweinfurt battalions would be consolidated with Grafenwoehr, then — after the brigade learned its deployment would be accelerated — Zachar told the brigade the consolidation effort would cease. A few weeks later, he said the effort was back on, creating "significant emotional drama within the Schweinfurt battalions," Wells said.
Zachar told Army Times, "If I did reverse course, it was the result of a timeline change, a mission change. That was probably the one that caused the most heartbreak."
Although one subordinate said Zachar attended several of his training events, others said Zachar avoided them.
"I think a commander needs to be out there with his soldiers," one subordinate said. "He missed an awful lot of that."
Angst within the brigade came to a head at a staff ride to Normandy in late September. A battalion that had prepared two weeks for troop movements during the trip was told at the last minute that its movement was canceled.
"What should have been an easy effort to build a team on the [brigade] staff ride to Normandy was a dismal failure," one officer said.
On the trip, one of Zachar's subordinates asked the others who felt marginalized, and all hands went up.
After the U.S. Army Europe Inspector General's office investigated the command climate, French said Zachar told him that he had a "mole" in the IG's office, that he was being cleared of wrongdoing, and that he knew who was speaking against him.
"I'm free and clear," French said Zachar told him. "'Nothing can stop us now, CSM.' "