TAMPA — When the Shah of Iran fell in early 1979, the United States lost a critical ally and was left with no military command of its own directly overseeing the region.
Then in November, Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy and took hostages. The following month, the Soviet Union flooded into Afghanistan.
Not a moment too soon, on March 1, 1980, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force was launched to deal with the growing turmoil in the Middle East.
The group of 261 men later evolved into U.S. Central Command — some 3,000 people working at headquarters on MacDill Air Force Base and overseeing military operations in a 20-nation swath of territory from Egypt east to Kazakhstan.
The pioneers will reunite at MacDill Air Force Base on March 2 and 3 for the task force’s 40th anniversary, a time to recall the roles they played in a region that became the focus of U.S. military operations for decades to come.
“We laid the groundwork for everything Central Command is doing now,” said retired Air Force Col. Larry Curl, 79.
The idea was no overnight success. First floated by the National Security Council in 1977, it took the ouster of the Shah — the last Persian monarch — to get the task force off the ground, said David Dawson, Central Command’s historian.
In those days, service members coveted assignments in Europe, not the Middle East.
And leaders of the different service branches jockeyed over which branch would control the first joint task force since World War II, Dawson said. Any joint assignment was seen as a kiss of death to career service members because promotion boards favored those who stayed within their branch.
“It used to be you would spend 30 years in your service,” said retired Col. Paul Morgan, 78, a leader with Central Command’s precursor.
Leadership fell to Marine Gen. Paul X. Kelley, who had the daunting task of speeding up deployments, working across services, and setting up a new command in a largely unfamiliar region.
The Marines had to restructure themselves to work jointly, relying on the Navy and Air Force for transportation and personnel and the Army for the bulk of ground forces, said Paul Davis, retired principal researcher at the RAND Corporation think tank.
Ships were built for rapid onloading and offloading of equipment. A maritime preposition force was set in place. Bunkers and hangars for munitions and trucks were built. And few if any of the men working directly in the Middle East knew the local languages, Morgan said.
The joint task force also had to navigate political tightropes. Personnel were not allowed to carry passports with Israeli stamps in them so as not to offend potential new allies, said Morgan, a former Army Green Beret.
The United States didn’t have a lot of positive influence in the region at the time, either, Curl recalled.
“We were persona non grata in the Middle East, for the most part."
Curl arrived at MacDill in December 1981 and worked on transitioning the task force into a formal, permanent 4-star command.
“We had to convince the authorities in Washington that we could do this, that we could build a joint command,” he said.
Leading the transition effort was Army Gen. Robert C. Kingston.
Morgan worked for Kingston as his executive officer but he also flew covert flying missions over the Middle East, learning about runways there.
On Dec. 31, 1982, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force came to an end and Central Command started the following day with Kingston as its first chief.
Yet even when exercising full control over military operations in the Middle East, Central Command was still considered a backwater assignment, Dawson said.
But then, on Jan. 17, 1991, Central Command oversaw the massive, U.S.-led air offensive to retake Kuwait from Saddam Hussein.
“Desert Storm is what put this headquarters on the map,” he said.
Since then, Central Command has become the new go-to assignment for those looking to advance in their military career and setting the new normal of joint assignments in U.S. military operations, a precedent that began with the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, Dawson said.
After several anniversary reunions, this year’s gathering of the task force members marks the first time Central Command is sponsoring the event and perhaps the last time they’re all able to join together as the years take their toll, Dawson said.
For now, Dawson and others in the command are looking forward to meeting with Curl, Morgan and their colleagues — and tapping into their military insights — during a special briefing that’s part of the anniversary celebration.