Army general from Minnesota tapped to lead U.S. Special Operations forces
ST. PAUL -- Not many military officers become a general in a church.
But in September 2004, when Joseph Votel was promoted to Army brigadier general, he wanted the ceremony to be held in his hometown of St. Paul, in a Catholic church on the city’s West Side where he grew up.
It was a chance for Votel to share the honor with his family, especially his ailing 89-year-old father, Henry, who would die a few months after seeing a general’s star pinned on his son’s shoulders for the first time.
Now the Cretin High School graduate and Army special forces commander is on the verge of getting his fourth star.
Lt. Gen. Votel, a West Point graduate and an Army Ranger, currently leads the military’s secretive and elite Joint Special Operations Command. He was recently nominated by President Barack Obama to full general rank as commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.
The position, which requires Senate confirmation, will involve overseeing U.S. Special Operations forces across the globe. It is a continuation of a swift, quiet ascent by Votel through the most elite units in the military.
He’ll spend just three years as a three-star general if confirmed as the next chief of SOCOM, a relatively short time for any senior officer.
Votel, 56, has spent most of the last decade quietly working in Special Operations. He’s rarely quoted and has mostly stayed out of the public eye.
Relatives in the Twin Cities say that when it comes to his work, Votel keeps a low profile with them, too.
“When we see him, it’s brother, family stuff. He never, ever says anything about the military. Nor do we ask him,” said older brother Dick Votel of Woodbury.
Dick Votel said if you met his brother on the street, you’d never guess that he’s a high-ranking officer of elite military units.
“You’d just think he was the neighbor down the street, a good guy,” Dick Votel said.
“If you saw him on the street, he’s the last guy you’d think is a general because he looks like a teenager,” said another brother, Terry Votel, of Apple Valley.
“You will never hear him brag about anything,” said Joseph Votel’s wife, Michele. “He’s just an everyday Joe.”
“Joe doesn’t like the spotlight. He’s a quiet professional,” she added.
As head of the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., Joseph Votel oversees the military’s mostly highly classified missions and well-trained units including the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, commonly known as Delta Force, and the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, often called SEAL Team Six.
But back in St. Paul, Votel is the baby brother.
Dick Votel said his parents had nine children: six sons, followed by three daughters adopted from Korea. Joseph Votel was the youngest boy.
“He may be the three-star general now, but he’s the youngest of six boys, and he still gets treated that way,” said Dick Votel, an insurance company CEO who is 18 years older than his brother.
Dick Votel said three of their uncles served in the armed forces during World War II. He said his brother decided he wanted to join the military after a visit to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 1968.
“He was super impressed by that,” Dick Votel said. “That sort of rang his bell.”
“He’s wanted to be in the military since he was 12 years old,” Michele Votel said.
She said her husband originally wanted to go to the Naval Academy. A problem with his hearing, however, kept him from becoming a sailor. But he was accepted at West Point, and he’s never regretted being in the Army, Michele Votel said.
She said they were married on June 14, 1980 — Flag Day and the U.S. Army’s birthday, about two weeks after his graduation from West Point.
Michele Votel, who grew up on St. Paul’s East Side, said she met Joseph Votel when both of them were in high school working after school and on weekends as nurse’s aides at the Little Sisters of the Poor nursing home in St. Paul.
It was not love at first sight.
“He didn’t want to go out with me and I didn’t want to go out with him,” she said.
But they went out with each other because they didn’t get their first choices for dates at the Cretin Midwinter Dance.
“We literally have been together ever since,” she said.
The couple have two adult sons, Nicholas, a chef, and Scott, a college English professor.
If confirmed in his new post, Votel will be based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.
Michele Votel said it will be the couple’s 23rd move in 34 years.
“It’s a great life. It’s a hard life, but it’s a great life,” she said.
But the couple own a condo in downtown St. Paul. It’s where they plan to end up at least part of the year after Votel’s military career is over.
“We love St. Paul, and we love our family,” Michele Votel said.
“He’s so down to earth,” said Joseph’s younger sister, Ann Votel. “He’s so loyal to the family.”
“The words are difficult to express the pride we have in our brother,” Dick Votel said.
Votel’s resume is bolstered by command assignments in a variety of influential jobs. As a colonel he led the 75th Ranger Regiment — the Army’s elite light-infantry Rangers — as its members parachuted into Afghanistan on Oct. 19, 2001, to set up what would become Camp Rhino, the first U.S. base established in the country.
In 2003, Votel established the U.S. Army’s Counter Improvised Explosive Device Task Force, advancing the military’s ability to respond to the threat IEDs posed in Iraq. The organization was eventually broadened to become the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Task Force, or JIEDDO, and Votel stayed on as its deputy director.
He was later became the deputy commanding general of the Army’s famous 82nd Airborne Division, of Fort Bragg, N.C., and served as the deputy commanding general of operations for the Army task force that oversaw U.S. military operations in eastern Afghanistan for 15 months beginning in February 2007. He was subsequently selected to become a two-star general in September 2008 while serving as a deputy commanding general at JSOC. He held that job from July 2008 until July 2010.
Through all that, Votel mostly stayed out of the public eye. In October 2010, however, Gen. James Mattis, then the head of U.S. Central Command, chose him to lead an investigation into how British aid worker Linda Norgrove was killed that Oct. 9 during a failed rescue attempt in Afghanistan by JSOC troops.
Votel was serving at the time as the chief of staff of SOCOM, and some questioned whether he’d spent too much time in JSOC to investigate its forces critically. But Mattis and others pushed back, saying he was the most qualified for the job, according to an Army Times article published at the time. The troops involved in the botched mission were “shaking when they knew who was coming to do the investigation,” one source told the newspaper.
The investigation ultimately found that Norgrove was mortally wounded by a grenade tossed by a U.S. service member. Three troops were disciplined for not disclosing the details of the blast, U.S. officials said afterward.
Votel took over at JSOC in June 2011, shortly after a JSOC-led team overseen by current SOCOM chief Adm. William McRaven killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 1.
While there, he has pressed industry to improve the military’s ability to share intelligence quickly and detect chemical weapons. Votel’s JSOC forces also have been busy within the last year in several high-profile missions, including the capture of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al Ruqai, an alleged al-Qaeda official, outside his home in Tripoli, Libya, in October, and the more recent raid in Benghazi, Libya, that led to U.S. troops — said to be Delta Force operators — taking one the top suspects of the 2012 attacks on U.S. compounds there into custody
This report includes information from The Washington Post.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.