A life of duty devoted to family and the nation he loved unconditionally ended peacefully for Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Cloyd H. “Mike” Pfister on October 12, 2020 in Ft. Belvoir, VA at the age of 83. For the past 12 years, Gen. Pfister was comforted and supported by his partner Annette Woodward of McLean, VA.
Respected by his peers for leadership grounded in selflessness, discretion and discipline, Gen. Pfister served in the United States Army, mostly as an Intelligence Officer, after graduating from Oberlin College with a philosophy degree in 1957 until his retirement in 1993. His career included integral, behind-the-scenes operational roles in a number of key Cold War events, culminating with preparing the American national security structure for a post-Cold War world.
As important—if not more so—to Gen. Pfister were his children, family, friends and colleagues. He had a remarkable gift of separating his profession from his personal life. Because he had the nation’s highest security clearance, as one of his long-time friends remarked, “he never said anything about his work,” even to his closet family members. Another friend commented, “Mike was not very forthcoming about his work. He really took American secrets seriously.”
A young Lt. Pfister witnessed the building of the Berlin Wall and the partition of West and East Germany in 1961 as commander of a security battalion in Lübeck, Germany, and its fall 28 years later as a newly promoted Major General serving as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence for U.S. Army Europe and 7th Army when stationed in Heidelberg, Germany.
He served in a number of capacities in Germany over his career, including as Commander of the Army’s Field Station in Berlin from 1982-1984, arguably the most important American intelligence posting on the globe in the volatile Cold War era. A former colleague remembered Col. Pfister as being “one of the top spies in Berlin.” His official residence in the posh Dahlem section of West Berlin, which housed powerful leaders in the Third Reich, served as a symbol of American strength in the region.
In his final assignment, Gen. Pfister worked in the Pentagon as Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff, Intelligence for the Department of Army. Moreover, Gen. Pfister’s legacy of coordinating U.S. foreign policy with all U.S. intelligence agencies after the collapse of the threat of the Soviet Union has had a lasting effect in elevating the roles and understanding of honest, undiluted information to inform national and international decision-making. This included initiating an interagency review of Turkey’s role as an ally and its policy implications for the U.S. and Europe. He also initiated the recruitment, screening, and deployment of Somali linguists in record time to support Joint Operation of RESTORE HOPE, which was charged by a United Nations resolution to use “all necessary measures” to provide humanitarian assistance to Somalia.
Gen. Pfister’s career touched American national security interests in all parts of the globe. After earning a MA in International Relations at American University, he served as a cryptology officer at the National Security Agency and then in war planning and communications roles in Vietnam in 1968-69. This was followed by an educational posting in Africa which led to him establishing politico-military courses for officers and staff at Fort Bragg, NC, and later serving on the Politico-Military staff at the Pentagon, where he was part of a top secret delegation sent to China to prepare for President Nixon’s historic diplomatic mission to China.
Next were intelligence postings in West Germany and a one-year fellowship at National Defense University after which he was assigned to the Middle East Policy Staff of the Assistant Secretary of Defense. He was involved in issues related to the Iranian Revolution, the Hostage Crisis, OPEC, and assisting the implementation of the Camp David Accords as he worked closely with leaders in Jordan’s King Hussein and Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat. After his posting in Berlin, Congress approved his promotion to Brigadier General when he became the Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School and led the planning and construction of its intelligence course from Ft. Devens, MA to Ft. Huachuca, AZ, as well as directing the training of Army intelligence officers.
From 1986-88, Gen. Pfister was Director of Intelligence for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in Tampa, FL, serving alongside Generals Colin Powell and John Shalikashvili, both of whom later became chairmen of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and the former a Secretary of State. In 1988, while visiting Pakistan on temporary duty, the airplane carrying Pakistani President Muhammed Zia-ul-Haq’s crashed, also killing the U.S. Ambassador and Defense Representative. Gen. Pfister was immediately appointed Acting Defense Representative by the Commander-in-Chief, CENTCOM.
While he was engaged in the highest level of national security, sometimes with postings thousands of miles away, Gen. Pfister never forgot his roots in his hometowns of Olean, NY and Bradford, PA, always remaining close to his parents Rudolf and June Pfister. He served as a role model for his four younger siblings, who knew him as Mickey. As a father of four, he balanced the responsibilities of his many extended absences to be engaged in all aspects of their upbringing.
When his second wife, Gail, was diagnosed in 1996 with multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the plasma cells of the bone marrow, he became an effective advocate for her and other myeloma patients. This led to their friendship with Don and Annette Woodward, who founded the Washington, DC-area support group at a time when they were still considered rare. Mr. Woodward was Acting Deputy Chief of Mission in Kabul during the Saur Revolution in 1978, organized by the Afghan Communist Party and a prelude to the Soviet Invasion a few months later. The bond of a former intelligence officer and former diplomat, both of whom served their nation in times of extreme crisis was strong. Both Mike and Annette lost their spouses to myeloma.
Gen. Pfister, Gail, Don and Annette Woodard developed a friendship with Dr. Robert Kyle, from the Mayo Clinic and one of the leading cancer experts in the world. They visited often when Dr. Kyle was in the Washington, DC area. Dr. Kyle was always intrigued with Gen. Pfister’s knowledge and background—his philosophy degree from Oberlin College, long known for its liberal bent—which led him to speculate, “Mike is probably the first graduate from Oberlin to become a general since the Civil War!”
To better understand the breadth of his personal relationships, it must be understood that a long military career creates bonds that civilians often cannot entirely comprehend. It creates intense, deep, life-long connections in short, intense spurts of time. They get torn apart by reassignments and sudden circumstances ranging from policy changes to the tragedies of war. Former soldiers return to their hometowns. Physical and temporal distance keeps them apart. But Gen. Pfister made maintaining those connections a central principle of his life.
Following his retirement from the Army, Gen. Pfister became very active in the alumni and scholarship activities of his beloved Oberlin College, regularly attended reunions of his Officers Candidate School classmates, and eagerly anticipated his annual fishing trips in a rugged, isolated part of Newfoundland, Canada that required a 20-hour overland journey to reach the camp. He had a lifelong interest in nature, gardening, and had numerous bird feeders on his deck and a book on birds at his side to nurture his love of birdwatching.
Gen. Pfister was highly decorated for his significant contributions to national security, even by allies. The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) recognized him with its highest award for Allied officers, the Ehrenkreuz Der Bundeswehr in Gold (the Cross of Honor of [the Army of FRG] in Gold), for risking life and limb with exceptional heroism in defense of the nation and its allies. He was inducted into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in 1994. Among his accomplishments and awards were the:
Defense Distinguished Service Medal — awarded by the President for exceptionally meritorious service to joint military services of the nation in a duty of great responsibility in time of war or in connection with military operations against an armed enemy of the United States.
Distinguished Service Medal — awarded by the President for exceptionally meritorious service to the Army in a duty of great responsibility in time of war or in connection with military operations against an armed enemy of the United States.
Defense Superior Service Medal — awarded by the Secretary of Defense to members of the Armed Forces who have rendered superior meritorious service while serving in a position of great responsibility.
Legion of Merit (with two oak leaf clusters, signifying it was awarded three times) — awarded to officers below the rank of general who perform meritorious service in assignments normally held by generals or flag officers.
Bronze Star — for a heroic and meritorious deed performed in the field of armed conflict.
Air Medal — for heroism, outstanding achievement, or by meritorious service in aerial flight.
National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal — for meritorious actions to the betterment of national security and sustained and selfless service of the highest order.
Gen. Pfister is survived by his children, Gabriele Matthewman, of Surrey, England; Catherine Slagle (George) of Allen, TX; Michael Pfister (Audrey) of Haymarket, VA; and Romi Brozeit (Greg) of Fairlawn, OH; step-children Eric Williams (Cory) and Lori Williams of Charlotte, NC; siblings Mary Benton (Bruce) of Mechanicsburg, PA; Walter Pfister (Judy, deceased) of Bradford, PA; and Josef Pfister (Cheri) of Battleground, WA, and 12 grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by his first wife and mother of his four children, Rita Geiger of Heilbronn, Germany, his second wife Gail Williams Pfister, his brother Richard Pfister of Camden, NY, and parents Rudolf John Pfister and June Ruth Braun Pfister of Bradford, PA.
In lieu of flowers, Gen. Pfister’s family would appreciate donations in his honor to the Parkinson’s Foundation (http://www.parkinson.org/) or the Michael J. Fox Foundation (www.michaeljfox.org). Additionally, the family would be thankful for those eligible to consider giving a pint of blood, platelets or plasma with some regularity to a local blood bank.
Funeral services with full military honors will take place at Ft. Meyer Old Post Chapel on Tuesday, June 29th at 1PM with the interment to follow at Arlington National Cemetery.
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