General Vincent K. Brooks

By LTC (Ret.) John Vigna and Daniel Rice, Friday, February 28, 2020

*This excerpt was originally published in West Point Leadership: Profiles of Courage by Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) John Vigna and Daniel Rice*

General Vincent K. Brooks 
USMA 1980

• First African- American Cadet First Captain 
• Commanded at Company, Battalion, Brigade, Division, Army Levels 
• Commander Arcent and 3rd Army 
• U.S. Central Command Spokesman during Invasion of Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom 
• Army Basketball Player 
• Commander, U.S. Army Pacific Command 

On May 28, 1980, the famous West Point Class of 1980 assembled in Michie Stadium for graduation. That day was a seminal event in the history of the United States Military Academy and was widely publicized for two major reasons. For the first time in history, 62 women were graduating from West Point, and the highest-ranked cadet in the Corps of Cadets, Vincent Brooks, was to be the first African-American First Captain in West Point history. Brooks faced a tremendous amount of media coverage for both his own accomplishments and that of his classmates in this groundbreaking class, and he performed superbly in the public spotlight. Twenty-three years after graduation, the American public would again see Brooks – this time as a One-Star Brigadier General public spokesperson for Central Command during the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and again, he performed superbly in the public spotlight. 

Brooks was born in Anchorage, Alaska, to a military family. His father, Leo Brooks, was an Army Major General who had obtained his commission through ROTC at Virginia State in 1954, and his mother was an educator. Brooks, his older brother, Leo, and his sister, Marquita, grew up as “military brats” on various military posts around the world. Brooks attended two years of Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia, before attending Jesuit High School in Carmichael, California, for his junior and senior years. Brooks was recruited to play basketball at West Point by Army Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski (USMA 1969), who would go on to become the winningest coach in NCAA history (including 20 wins at West Point with Cadet Brooks on the team.) Brooks originally wanted to become a doctor, but when his brother entered West Point in 1975 and returned home for Christmas during his Plebe year, Brooks saw the changes that the Military Academy had on his brother and decided to follow him to West Point to become an Army Officer. 

The Class of 1980 faced challenges that no other class had faced in the past. One-hundred-and-nineteen women entered with the class on R-Day in 1976 and only 62 would graduate four years later. The challenges faced by the class were unique, adding women was a logistical challenge (adding bathrooms, additional phys ed classes, etc.), but more importantly required a major cultural change to a previously male-dominated environment. The Class of 1980, both male and female, would be more sensitive to all-minority issues because of the challenges, pressures, and experiences that they all faced in this integration process. 

When it came time to pick the Cadet First Captain, Brooks was the natural pick. He had been an Army basketball player, making varsity in his Plebe year. He was very calm under pressure and very popular with his classmates and faculty. Brooks joined the ranks of famous First Captains, including Pershing (1886), MacArthur (1903), Wainwright (1906), Westmoreland (1936), and Dawkins (1959). 

African-Americans had been attending West Point for more than 100 years and by 1979 were fully accepted and integrated into the Corps. The first African-Americans to graduate from West Point had been trailblazers who lived lonely lives, often being silenced by their classmates and living alone for their four years, including Henry O. Flipper (USMA 1877), Colonel Charles Young (1889), and General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (USMA 1936). By the time the military was integrated in 1947 by President Truman, West Point had already done so many decades prior. Even so, in 1979, when Brooks was named First Captain of the Class of 1980, he still received anonymous hate mail from the public because of the color of his skin (although the amount was far less than expected). By being named First Captain, Brooks helped complete the journey that former slave Henry O. Flipper had started more than 100 years earlier and would forever show Americans that African-Americans could succeed in any capacity at West Point. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Brooks ordered “Class dismissed!” and the class threw their hats in the air and joined the Army as Second Lieutenants. 

Upon graduation, Second Lieutenant Brooks was commissioned in the Infantry, graduated from Ranger School (while a cadet) and Airborne School, and chose the 82nd Airborne as his first assignment. He would command at every level from company through Army. All of his commands were forward deployed with two Company Commands in Germany during the Cold War, Battalion Command south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Korea from 1996 to 1998, Brigade Command in 2001 in Kosovo, Division Command as the 1st Infantry Division Commander in Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn in 2010, and Army Command of ARCENT/3rd Army Middle East and Central Asia from 2011 to the present. 

Brooks holds many firsts at West Point and in the Army: He was the first African-American First Captain at West Point; he was the leader of the first class at West Point to include women; he is a member of the first family to have three African-American General Officers in two generations (his father was an Army Major General and brother was an Army Brigadier General and former Commandant of Cadets at West Point); in 2002, he was the first member of the Class of 1980 to be promoted to Brigadier General. 

The Iraq War lasted for more than eight years, and Brooks was involved from the beginning through the end. 

To the public, he was the face of the original invasion as the USCENTCOM Chief Operations Spokesperson in 2003 at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was described by one journalist from a major international cable news organization as “the only U.S. government official regularly talking to the international audience...” He then served as Deputy Commanding General of the main effort (Multi-National Division-Baghdad) during the “Surge” from November 2006 to December 2007. In 2010, he served as the United States Commander of the nine Southern Iraq provinces, and, in December 2011, he commanded ARCENT and 3rd Army until 2013 when he was promoted to Four-Star General and took command of the Army Pacific Command. 

His wife, Carol, is also from a military family (her father was an Army Colonel). They met while their parents were both stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia, in 1980, while Brooks was a new Second Lieutenant on Christmas leave before reporting to his first unit at Fort Bragg a month later. They were married two years later during their first assignment with the 82nd Airborne, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.