When Craig McKinley was a member of the Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was a captain in the military. Now some 30 years later, he’ a retired four-star general and former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who served as his old club’s keynote speaker last Thursday, Aug. 2.
A former Ponte Vedra Beach resident, McKinley currently is the president of the Air Force Association and lives in Arlington, Virginia. At the meeting, which was held at Marsh Landing Country Club, he reflected on his career and told stories about his experiences with famous figures in the U.S. military and government, such as former Secretaries of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates.
One such story focused on an interview McKinley had with Rumsfeld for a promotion. During the interview, McKinley said Rumsfeld questioned him about Ponte Vedra, which prompted McKinley to explain the town’s Mineral City history as a mining town. That conversation, McKinley said, ultimately helped him get the job.
The retired four-star general also discussed when he was in the Pentagon on 9/11.
“That was the day you never forget,” McKinley said, “as American Flight 77 plowed into the southwest corner of that building and it shook. We had lights, and those lights were swaying. We knew after watching TV in New York that something bad was going on.”
McKinley noted that he followed Rumsfeld out of the building during the evacuation, which he said was a unique experience because such an evacuation had never taken place there.
“Why would we?” he said. “It’s the safest building in the world.”
McKinley concluded his address by discussing the U.S.’ current national defense strategy devised by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, which he encouraged club members to view online. McKinley said the strategy indicates that the central challenge to the country’s national security is the “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition,” identifying Russia and China as the most significant competitors.
He said the next big war, similar to the impacts of World War II, will be conducted in days, weeks or a month, compared to the months and years that the country previously had to prepare. He also said it will take place in non-traditional arenas such as cyber, banking and space. As a result, McKinley said the armed forces must modernize their capabilities.
“If we don’t get ahead in the technological arenas that China and Russia are pursuing,” he said, “we’re going to be behind the power curve, and we won’t have time to turn the table. … But you have the greatest men and women in the world serving, and you should be very, very proud of them.”