ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — Gen. CQ Brown Jr., the country’s top military officer, is an experienced U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who has surmounted many challenges in his nearly 40-year career, including once having to eject and land in the Florida Everglades, an experience that earned him the call sign “Swamp Thing.”

“I didn’t see any gators, so that was good,” Brown said with a smile as he recounted the incident to ABC News “This Week” co-anchor Martha Raddatz in an exclusive interview that aired Sunday, in which Brown looked back at his work so far — and what’s ahead.

“That must have been quite the experience,” Raddatz told Brown as she asked about what he lived through as a young captain in January 1991, when the F-16 he was flying over Florida caught on fire after being struck by lightning.

“A little bit,” the general replied. “But all your training kicks in and the checklist says if fire persists — eject. It was a pretty easy decision.”

Brown continued to rise through the ranks, assuming the Air Force’s top jobs in the Middle East and the Pacific and then becoming the Air Force chief of staff before being nominated by President Joe Biden last year to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was overwhelmingly confirmed in September.

There’s been much to do since then: Brown has worked nearly nonstop in dealing with overlapping crises that have consumed the Middle East after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel sparked a war just days after he took his new post.

‘A full-scale war?’

The United States has sought to contain the Israel-Hamas war from mushrooming into a regional conflict. But that has become more of a challenge as Iranian-backed fighters in Iraq, Syria and Yemen continue to launch attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea and on American troops, citing support for Palestinians under bombardment in Gaza as Israel targets Hamas.

U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria have been attacked more than 150 times by Iranian-backed militia groups, according to the Pentagon, and the Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen have carried out more than 30 attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea.

That has prompted ongoing U.S. retaliatory strikes on the Houthis and other fighters but the attacks have continued, sparking questions and concern about the broader military strategy, as well as some criticism from lawmakers that Congress is not involved.

Brown acknowledged that there is a delicate balance to be struck between the U.S. goal of deterrence in the region while also protecting U.S. forces.

“We’ve got to be thoughtful about our approach in these areas, and we can’t predict exactly how any one of these groups is going to respond,” he said.

“I would also ask, what do they [critics of the current approach] want? A broader conflict? Do you want us in a full-scale war?” he said.

Brown told Raddatz the American airstrikes have “had an impact” on the Houthis’ ability to continue carrying out missile and drone attacks, though he declined to say by how much.

The U.S. strikes on Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq have resulted in some political pressure there for America’s decades-old military presence in the country to end.

Brown believes that while Iran would like for the U.S. to leave Iraq, he also does not believe that Iran — a regional power with major rivals in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia — wants a war with the United States.

On the Israel-Hamas war, for which the U.S. is providing Israel various forms of assistance, Brown said that he is in regular contact with his Israeli counterpart to stress the importance of preventing civilian casualties in the fight against Hamas.

The number of Palestinian fatalities has risen to more than 25,000, according to figures released by the Gaza Ministry of Health.

That high number of casualties has fueled international criticism of Israel’s war effort, even as Israeli officials stress that they seek ways to curb civilian deaths.

“What I’ve communicated to them from the very beginning and through my most recent communications is [that] as you conduct military operations, you’ve got to be sensitive to collateral damage,” Brown told Raddatz. “And at the same time, you’ve got to bring in humanitarian assistance.”

Focused ‘on doing my job,’ not Trump

Brown’s predecessor, Gen. Mark Milley, has spoken at length about his fraught relationship with former President Donald Trump, apologizing for a controversial photo-op at the height of the George Floyd protests and seemingly referring to Trump as a “wannabe dictator” during his exit speech in September.

Trump has referred to Milley as a “traitor” because Milley reached out to China in late 2020 and early 2021 to privately reassure them that the U.S. wasn’t going to attack, Milley has told Congress. Trump suggested that was an act, revealing the president’s thinking, where previously “the punishment would have been death.”

“When you hear things like that, what do you think?” Raddatz asked on Sunday.

“I don’t listen to it,” said Brown. “I’m focused on doing my job.”

Raddatz also asked Brown what he learned from Milley’s experience with Trump that could be helpful if the former president is reelected.

Brown said he had spoken with his predecessors and would take what he learned from them and their experiences to “be able to operate and support whoever the president may be.”

“So you wouldn’t have concerns about working under a president who thinks the election was stolen?” said Raddatz.

“I’m going to work for the — whatever president gets elected,” Brown said.

Reflecting on Floyd

Brown drew praise for a June 2020 video titled “Here’s what I’m thinking about” that he released in response to the nationwide protests and unrest sparked by Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.

In the highly personal video, Brown recounted his own experiences with racism and his perspective as a Black man and Black military leader.

“I’m thinking about wearing the same flight suit, with the same wings on my chest, as my peers and then being questioned by another military member,” Brown said in the video.

“I’m thinking about my mentors, and how I rarely had a mentor that looked like me, he said. “I’m thinking about the pressure I’ve felt to perform error-free, especially for supervisors I perceived had expected less from me as an African American.”

In his interview on Sunday, Brown was asked about the video, “What really drove you to do that?”

“My son,” he said, choking up. “My son called me about four days prior to that video. He was very much struggling with the death of George Floyd.”

Brown shared that his son had asked him what the Pacific Air Forces was going to say, which Brown took to mean what he would say publicly, since he was the top U.S. Air Force commander in the Pacific.

He told Raddatz that he was torn about whether to say something, as he was still awaiting Senate confirmation to be the next Air Force chief of staff, but “then I just decided to say it and if I didn’t get confirmed, so be it.”

Now, nearly four years later, Brown said that he feels the country still has room to change.

“I think everybody wants to have a fair shot,” he said. “I don’t want to be disadvantaged or advantaged based on my background.”

“I want to be judged based on my own accomplishments, based on my merits, and given an opportunity,” he said.

“That’s what I’ve asked for throughout my Air Force career. And hopefully, you know, I’m sitting in this chair as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs — not because I’m African American — because I’m a quality officer,” he continued. “And that’s what I want to be judged on.”

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