New chief’s been in battles before

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For the first time since World War II, Norway is getting a defense chief with battle experience. Now General Major Eirik Johan Kristoffersen will need to take on a new sort of battle, for political support and funding to develop Norway’s armed forces.

Gen Maj Eirik Kristoffersen has a long record of courageous service, not least in Norway’s special forces in Afghanistan. He’ll take over as defense chief in August. PHOTO: Lars Magne Hovtun / Forsvaret

Kristoffersen holds what commentators, politicians and fellow soldiers have called an “impressive” background. He grew up in Bjerkvik near Narvik in Northern Norway, the son of parents who both worked for the military. He told newspaper Aftenposten that his father, however, advised against a career in the military, claiming it had become much too administrative. He didn’t want his sons to get stuck in an office.

Neither he nor his younger brother took that advice, however, and they both ended up in highly active service. Not only did the 51-year-old Kristoffersen advance rapidly through the ranks to eventually lead Norway’s Heimevernet (Home Guard) and the Army (his current position), he also was part of Norway’s special forces and ended up heading them, too.

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His military CV includes five deployments to Afghanistan in addition to what the defense department discreetly calls his participation in “several foreign operations” in Lebanon (from 1991-1992). Kristoffersen also ranks as one of Norway’s most highly decorated officers, after being awarded the War Cross with Sword for especially heroic and courageous service in Afghanistan. He won’t specify what it involved, nor will he discuss casualties in action.

“That’s not something I want to comment on,” Kristoffersen told Aftenposten, other than acknowledging that “I have been responsible for lives being taken.” He added that “those who take lives while in uniform do it on behalf of their assignment, on behalf of their chief. It’s not like you head out to kill.”

Brothers in arms
As a chief himself, he even sent his own brother out on a dangerous mission in Afghanistan, where he spent 12 years on and off (mostly on) between 1995 and 2008. “I think it says a lot about how professional he is,” Kristoffersen’s brother Frode, who was also in special forces, told Aftenposten. “He had no reservations about sending me out on the most risky operations.”

Kristoffersen himself claims he can’t see any problem with it: “I wasn’t any more afraid for my brother than I was for others, on the contrary. I know him so well, and if there was something really difficult that had to be done, I wanted to send those I knew best.” Even, he conceded, if it meant he’d have to be the one to call their mother if his brother was killed: “That wouldn’t have been any worse than when I had to call the widow of Tor Arne (Lau-Henriksen, shot in Lowgar Province in 2007) and tell her that he was dead.”

Kristoffersen at his appointment as chief of Norway’s armed forces last week. At right, Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Kristoffersen is open about saying how his military career cost him two marriages and that he was an absentee father to two sons and two daughters. “My mother would say that my father was a better father for me than I’ve been for my children,” Kristoffersen said. He remembers how his youngest son didn’t understand that the man entering the living room at home was his father, and he understands that some may think he’s led an egotistical life.

In his own defense, he replies that “I don’t think it’s egotistical for go out and handle assignments for Norway abroad, quite the contrary.” He also told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that he thinks he became a better soldier when he became a father: “I thought that if I die now, life will go on.”

Most of Norway’s major newspapers been writing portrait articles about Kristoffersen over the past week. He’s been characterized as strategic, super sharp, solution-oriented, calm and balanced with few mood swings. One colleague called him “a chameleon who can transform himself from a warrior to a diplomat in the blink of an eye.” Others called him “a good motivator,” an intellectual and an analyst who can rapidly assess an assignment’s potential result against risks underway.

Born to lead
He was born on April 3, 1969, went into non-commissioned officers’ training (Befalsskolen) in 1988 but left to become a civil engineer at Norway’s technical college in Trondheim. When he longed to be back in uniform, he returned to the military and opted to try out for the tough special forces at the age of 30. He succeeded, and when New York and the Pentagon were hit by terrorist attacks in 2001, it wasn’t long before he was sent to Afghanistan as part of the Anaconda operation that already had started hunting for Osama bin Laden.

The highly decorated Kristoffersen. PHOTO: Forsvaret

Now he’s being called “a four-star chief” with clear ideas, according to DN, about how Norway’s military should be developed, how national security policy should be part of an overall perspective and how all the branches of the service should be coordinated. He’s viewed as a visionary, future-oriented leader who’s also become well-educated with two master’s degrees. He studied at the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Virginia and at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania.

He’s also said to have been the most satisfied of Norway’s highest-ranking military leaders with the government’s now-rejected long-term defense plan. Conservative government leaders appreciate how he’s keen to make the most out of what’s allocated to the military, and exploit opportunities. That’s “music to the ears” of politicians, wrote DN commentator Sverre Strandhagen.

Kristoffersen will take over from the retiring Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hansen in August. “I’m grateful for the confidence shown in me,” he wrote in a press release after his appointment last week. “It’s a great responsibility to be defense chief in uncertain times. I look forward to take on this assignment, and further develop Norway’s defense.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund