FORT LEWIS, Wash. - When the voice of experience spoke recently, Fort Lewis company-grade officers took it seriously. When it praised them during an officer professional development session, they deserved to be flattered.

"You're serving in the most effective combat Army we're ever fielded, bar none," said retired Army four-star general Barry R. McCaffrey. "You're up at an A-plus level ... Your ability to fight is unparalleled in your country's history."

The former U.S. Southern Command commander-in-chief spoke to a packed house Feb. 18 at the Battle Command Training Center to share career and leadership lessons from his distinguished 32 years of service. He is probably best known for his directorship of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the nation's "drug czar," from which he stepped down in January 2001.

McCaffrey's most famous combat experience came when he commanded the 24th Infantry Division during Desert Storm, leading them on the famous 400-kilometer "left hook" around Baghdad to deliver a knockout blow at the end of the conflict.

The experience and oratory skills that have made McCaffrey NBC's chief military expert riveted his audience.

From advice to help young leaders with their decisions about whether to stay in uniform to topics as mundane as keeping written purpose statements and devouring recommended reading lists, McCaffrey kept the officers' attention.

He noted that Lt. Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., the commanding general of I Corps, mentioned that most of the officers in the auditorium knew nothing about serving in a peacetime Army. Asking for a show of hands, McCaffrey counted two-thirds of his audience had deployed at least once, one-fourth at least twice.

With drawdown imminent in Iraq and troop levels in Aghanistan forecasted as modest in comparison, he advised the officers to begin thinking about their futures.

"Half of you don't know what you're going to do, you don't have a clue," McCaffrey said. "Don't think looking forward four or five years that you're going to be caught up in a wartime army for the rest of your career."

As an officer who has led organizations at all levels, McCaffrey suggested command as a key barometer for young officers' decision-making.

"Go command a company and then at the end of your command tour, ask yourself whether you were good at it or not. Chances are very great you'll be good at it," he said.

But after evaluating their own competence, he advised them to honestly assess how they enjoyed the experience.

"(Ask yourself) 'Did I like this'' at the end of command. If at the end of your tour you liked being a company commander, don't you dare get out of the Army. That's the bottom line. You're never going to find that type of satisfaction, that ability to contribute in civilian life."

McCaffrey has had skin in the military game since he was a teenager. He followed his father's example and two of his children followed his.

"I've been watching the Army since I was 17 years old," he said. "My dad was in combat for nine years in four wars. My son's been in combat. My daughter's been operationally deployed. I've had a lot of time crawling around in the mud with a sack of hand grenades and an M-16 rifle."

He began his discussion with practical matters, but ended it urging the young officers to apply the best military values to their lives.

"Basically, we want young people of character in our officer corps. That's why we commissioned you," McCaffrey said. "Then you get trained by platoon sergeants and sergeants major, go to the basic course and Ranger School and end up being technically competent at your job. We want you to be people of character, so you have to protect the honor of U.S. Soldiers. You've got to set standards. Honor, character. You've got to be able to use those words unabashedly with your Soldiers."

He said he also believes in looking America's parents in the eye about the Army's stewardship of their children. The former Victory Division commander now advocates for transparency, encouraging leaders to be more forthcoming with the media as a subset to their military responsibilities.

"If you are wearing green tabs, you are the public information officer. You have the responsibility to talk to the reporter," he said. "You're not doing him a favor. The American people want to know what you're doing with their sons and daughters."

McCaffrey is no stranger to Fort Lewis. He commanded 3rd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division here in 1983. He retired 13 years ago as the most decorated four-star general in the Army, earning two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts. He spent 13 years of his career overseas and served four combat tours.

He now runs his own consulting firm in Virginia and teaches as an adjunct professor at his alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Don Kramer is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.