Fraternity Brothers in Arms: Sandy Winnefeld and Phil Breedlove Reminisce About Their Days at Tech

From Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine:

Georgia Tech alumni Phil Breedlove, CE 77, and Sandy Winnefeld, AE 78, rank among the most important military figures in the world today. They also happen to be Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers—and former PIKE house dwellers—who have leaned on their Tech experiences and close friendship throughout their careers.

Unless you attended Tech in the mid-to-late 1970s, you’ve likely only seen Sandy and Phil on TV, dressed in uniform, acting as military spokesmen or carrying out their official leadership roles. Sandy serves as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the second-most powerful position in the U.S. Armed Forces. Meanwhile, Phil serves as Commander of the U.S. European Command and as the 17th Supreme Allied Commander Europe for NATO.

Despite their impossible schedules and incredible responsibilities, Phil and Sandy gave the Alumni Magazine a glimpse into their lives as students—and self-proclaimed “gentlemanly rebels”—before they earned their engineering degees and started moving up the chain of command. Neither of them ever imagined they’d be in the top positions they occupy today; at the time they simply hoped they’d “get out” of Tech.

What did you think when you first met each other on the Georgia Tech campus?
I first met Phil when we were both pledges at Pi Kappa Alpha, in the swirl of football, fraternities, not enough food, finding my way to class and figuring out college-level academics. I was taken by Phil’s friendly southern accent, smarts and outgoing attitude. It is impossible to not like Phil, and I saw this from day one. Clearly, we were both excited to be at Georgia Tech—it was a very special time.

Phil: Likewise, I met Sandy when we first pledged Pi Kappa Alpha. I was amazed that someone who could have gone to any school or academy in the land chose Georgia Tech. Clearly GT was my first choice and I was impressed that he had made the same choice. By the way, he did show up with long hair, and I had to marvel at his first ROTC haircut.

Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld Jr. attends the Baltimore Orioles’ opening day game against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards, where he threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

What do you most remember about your time together at Pi Kappa Alpha?
The most important thing I remember is the fantastic people with whom we were blessed to spend every day. Our group was a gentlemanly and close bunch of rebels who challenged every assumption and questioned every authority—which pretty much describes the Ramblin’ Wreck mindset and why so many Georgia Tech graduates, including many of our fraternity brothers, tend to be so successful in life.

Phil: To say we were rebels was so accurate. Our brothers were a mess, but all really good at what they did. The successes that have come from our year-groups across business and military life are truly impressive. I think it all started from a fierce attitude of independence. My fraternity, and that includes Sandy, saved me as I was ready to quit midway through my sophomore year. My Big Brother, Raymond “Rocky” Jabaley, laid down the law, I went on to graduate, and the rest is history. The men that surrounded me were, and remain, incredible human beings.

Can you share a funny or interesting story about each other from fraternity days?
One year we had the most incredible, huge, Ramblin’ Wreck for the Wreck Parade. I’m not sure how many tons it weighed, or if we really had a theme. It had literally thousands of welds—just amazing. The hours (and yes, beers) we put into that thing was staggering. In the end, I do not think we even cared if it won; we were just proud that it made it through the parade. Sadly, one year it did not.

Phil: Much later, when some in the Pentagon learned of our connection, I think a few expected us to conspire on a few unpopular decisions. Early in Sandy’s tenure as the vice chairman and mine as the vice chief of the Air Force, we found ourselves in a very senior decision making forum, which Sandy chaired, with a tough decision on the table. We found ourselves on distinctly different sides of a very important weapons-system-acquisition decision. We went at each other’s arguments with passion—and some finely honed Tech-like logic on each side. I think the crowd was a bit stunned. Two steps out of the room we were both laughing as if nothing had happened.

How and have you crossed paths with each other since graduating from Tech?
We really didn’t see each other much during the first two decades of our careers, as Phil was moving around Europe and the Far East, while I was deploying aboard aircraft carriers to the Middle East. It was one of those situations where friends don’t have to be in constant contact in order to remain good friends. We nearly overlapped in the same office in the Pentagon around 2008, and we now do business together nearly every day—even more so after Russia invaded Ukraine. We’ve each attended, and spent time together, the last two Homecomings at Tech. Each time we return to campus, Phil and I are thoroughly impressed by the quality of the faculty and students and very gratified to see how much the institution continues to reach upward every day.

Phil: Our military paths were very different geographically. What is gratifying is that late in life our paths merged once again, and the friendship never missed a beat. Sandy has crushed every job and challenge he has had.

Gen. Philip Breedlove (third from left), Supreme Allied Commander Europe, receives details about armed road clearance operations in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan.

Did you ever imagine while you were at Tech that you’d one day reach the position of command and service you’ve achieved so far?
I think our only ambition was to be able to excel in our respective services and enjoy the ultimate in motor sports while serving our country. Phil graduated a year before me, but I don’t think we fully appreciated the degree to which we were spared the anxiety our fellow seniors were experiencing, simply by knowing what we were getting into. And, of course, I don’t think either of us ever had any idea—much less the ambition—that we would both end up at a senior level in the military. But I do tell people that our fraternity brothers at the time would have expected Phil to succeed.

Phil: All I ever wanted to do was fly fighter aircraft; I wanted to be the most effective, efficient, weapon in my nation’s Air Force. Tech was tough for me; my grades were good, but not great. I wondered several times if I would make the cut for flight training. Gradually, as I got to my junior and senior years, I figured out Tech, my grades drastically improved, and I knew I’d get that chance. But I never even thought of the possibility of senior command or service. By contrast, Sandy was a natural. We all knew Sandy would make it big in some way—he is wicked smart.

How did your experiences and education at Tech prepare you for your career in the military?
There is so much I can trace back to my Tech experience that is responsible for any subsequent success, starting with the world-class undergraduate engineering education I received. It helped me better understand the business of being a Navy pilot, and years later helped me survive the Navy’s rigorous nuclear propulsion program and commanding the USS Enterprise. But there’s much more to it than that. My whole Tech experience gave me much-needed maturity and confidence—as well as a willingness to challenge the status quo—that have served me well to this day. And the many friends I made were the icing on the cake.

Phil: I serve on the Civil and Environmental Engineering board at Tech, and sometimes I think they cringe when I say this, but here it goes: My CE education is the basis of everything I did as an aviator, but I rarely actually used the CE subject matter. However—and most importantly—my GT and CE education is the basis for the way I think. Tech taught me to solve problems: See and understand the problem, formulate a plan to gather the facts and then really define what it is I am to do. Formulate an executable plan to get to the result. Make it happen in a practical way, and then finally measure the results and move back through the process to adjust if required. Tech taught me to think, and I am thankful for this every day.