STUTTGART, Germany – Afternoon sun spills into Ambassador Lawrence Butler’s corner office at U.S. European Command headquarters as Rear Adm. Charles Martoglio carries in a page of talking points.
Martoglio, EUCOM’s deputy commander, asks Butler advice on messages Adm. James Stravidis, the EUCOM commander, will use for an upcoming meeting with a European defense official. Butler, a career foreign service officer serving as EUCOM’s civilian deputy and political advisor, takes a quick look and makes recommendations.
“That’s a good example of what I do here,” Butler said. “As a member of the command group, I work with deputy commander, the senior enlisted leader and the chief of staff to support Admiral Stravidis.”
But his role goes much deeper. With decades of diplomatic experience and intimate knowledge of U.S. civilian agencies, Butler is a bridge builder and interpreter who helps EUCOM navigate any political and military issues that arise within 51 countries in the command’s area of responsibility.
U.S. combatant commands oversee various geographic areas. Of those, just U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Africa Command and EUCOM are the only ones with U.S. State Department diplomats as civilian deputies. EUCOM adopted this approach a couple years back. The second ambassador to hold the job, Butler, 59, has decades of experience to draw from.
Born at Fort Benning, Ga., Butler grew up in an Army family and moved a lot. His roots, however, remain in Maine, where he attended Bowdoin College prior to starting his State Department career in 1976. Since then, his professional life has put him at the forefront of many U.S. diplomatic events.
In Iraq, Butler served as a political advisor to the commander of U.S. forces during the handover from the military to civilian oversight. Before that he served as in a similar role for NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander – Europe, focusing on operations in Afghanistan and the Balkans.
Butler served much of career in counties within EUCOM’s area of responsibility. He’s served in Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia. In the late-1990’s, while working for President Clinton, he helped achieve the Good Friday Peace Accords in Northern Ireland. Other overseas leadership assignments include tours in Denmark, Ireland, Bulgaria and Finland.
Today’s complex military operations require a “whole of government” approach that requires EUCOM to regularly interact with U.S. civilian agencies, international government bodies and nongovernmental organizations.
Butler can fill those gaps. He speaks fluent civilian – more importantly, he speaks State Department civilian, the international language of diplomacy and development.
“I can inject that into the command to help them be more effective in executing their missions,” Butler said.
He also speaks Finnish, Portuguese, Bulgarian and Macedonian. He gets by the Slavic tongues of Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia. He’s studied Italian and knows Spanish. But understanding of both State Department and U.S. military terms helps him most days.
At NATO, he learned to speak NATO. In Iraq, he learned the language of a unified command winding down combat operations. At EUCOM, he’s added a new chapter to his working thesaurus.
“Of course, I’m also an interpreter of State Department acronyms and jargon which often seem impenetrable,” Butler said. “For example, if military officer says to ‘burn a document,’ it means make a copy. In the State Department, that document gets shredded.”
Butler works closely the J-9, the EUCOM directorate that’s home to nearly a dozen liaison officers from a variety of government agencies – from the Agency for International Development to the Drug Enforcement Agency. His Rolodex runs deep – a virtual who’s who of State Department officials whom he considers both good friends and colleagues. When urgent matters arise, Butler can easily reach senior diplomat through both professional and informal channels, to assist EUCOM efforts.
“You can’t surge trust. You can’t surge a relationship, if it isn’t there,” Butler said, coining a phrase often cited to emphasize the importance of personal contacts. “If a crisis does develop, we synchronize up extremely fast.”
EUCOM is likely one of Butler’s last overseas tours, therefore a time of reflection. But ask a career diplomat his favorite country and he may hesitate to answer.
Working in Soviet-era Bulgaria, a behind the lines effort to contain communism, was as an early highlight of his career. He fondly recalls hardships in Kosovo in 1993, helping diffuse violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. Finland, his first foreign assignment, meant learning a difficult language plus understanding the culture of people who endure an unforgiving climate, have had a rough recent history and still emerge to offer world-known products like Nokia, he said.
“They are an amazing group of people,” Butler said.
Macedonia, Brazil and Ireland also top Butler’s list. Still, he’s glad to have returned to Germany, where during the late-1950’s Butler was an Army dependent living in Bad Neuheim – not far from where Elvis Presley lived while he was in the Army.
“I started my overseas living in Germany, so I have a soft spot for the country,” Butler said. “It’s so great here and there are so many things to do.”
For the son of an Army Soldier, working for a command toward the end of his career is the “culmination of a lifelong dream,” Butler said.
“To be able to support the military, who are supporting the whole of government, it’s just amazing,” Butler said. “It’s an honor.”