By CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr
On his first full morning as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey has all the usual top-secret meetings, discussing the latest threats and intelligence from around the world.
And then, he wades right into what some might consider shark-infested waters: an informal get-together with about 40 Pentagon reporters in the chairman's well-appointed dining room. The ground rules: It's all off the record. But the outgoing Dempsey started answering questions and then agreed to allow some things to be reported after he led the entire group across the hall into his private office.
Gone is the thousands of dollars worth of modernistic blond wood furniture ordered by his predecessor, Adm. Michael Mullen. This is the office of an Army general. There is an almost life-size portrait of Gen. George Marshall, a man Dempsey says is a role model. The desk was Douglas MacArthur's, the general Dempsey said he doesn't want to be, in a lighthearted reference to MacArthur's firing by President Harry Truman.
But then there is an item that is uniquely Dempsey: a small wooden box on a table that Dempsey occasionally hand carries. He opens it and shows a number of small cards. On those cards: a photo and a few words about every service member killed during Dempsey's tours in Iraq. He also carries some of the cards in his wallet, saying it's his way of making sure the fallen are part of him, every day.
Dempsey, who briefly served as Army chief of staff before being nominated to the chairman's job, makes clear he plans to make the job his own. Like every four-star, he is entitled to wear several rows of ribbons; but day to day, he has chosen to wear only a few - reflecting his major tours of duty.
Dempsey, a cancer survivor, is known for his love of singing in public. But make no mistake: This plain-speaking general has a serious vision for his term of office. He revealed that in August, he traveled to his alma mater - the U.S. Military Academy at West Point - to sit down with economics professors. In the face of looming defense spending cuts, he wanted to learn the latest academic expert thinking about how to best solve the nation's economic woes. Dempsey said the discussions were good, but not surprisingly, everyone he spoke with had a different opinion about what to do.
A U.S. military official says look for one crucial international change from the Mullen era. Mullen became almost the sole face of U.S.-Pakistani military relations after meeting more than two dozen times with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani military chief. But as U.S.-Pakistani relations soured after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, there was a sense, the official said, that the U.S. needed multiple military officials to deal with Pakistan. So now, Dempsey is expected to be one of perhaps several senior American officers in talks with Pakistan.
The feeling is that when there is a difficult, complicated relationship, there's more flexibility if more people are involved. When there's only one person to primarily rely on, it's more difficult to overcome obstacles.