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Patriot, Leader, Friend – Tom Constantine

Posted on Monday, March 25, 2024
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by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
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Thomas A. Constantine after the announcement in 1994 of his nomination to lead the Drug Enforcement Administration.Credit...Paul Hosefros/The New York Times
Thomas A. Constantine after the announcement in 1994 of his nomination to lead the Drug Enforcement Administration. PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Hosefros/The New York Times

Tom Constantine (1928-2015) was a friend, head of the DEA, and a patriot who worked through the ranks to lead the New York State Police, then – as a diehard counter-narcotics leader – he turned drug trafficking, drug deaths, and the culture of indifference around. That was years ago. He also gave advice…

At a certain point in life, facing big decisions, I asked Tom what he would do. He told a story, in his slow, gravelly, Tom Constantine voice. It was honest and it still resonates.

He said, you can avoid the decision, take the easy way out, imagine it is just not the right time for stepping up, say you want to wait, give it a pass – or not.

He related that he was once given a big chance, and was forced to think hard about it. He was already a father, a lifetime cop, had led the New York State Police, and felt he had “done his part.” In a word, he felt – or wanted to think – he was “done.”

Done? Yes, he had accomplished – as a man of faith – what was set before him, run to gunfire, fought, and led. He had done his part. He had plenty to look back on, grandkids, and quieter things he wanted to do.

And? Well, he said, he decided to talk with a mentor, an older friend to whom he looked for advice. He found him where he expected, on a porch with other friends.

Tom put the proposition simply. Life is hard. Every time you finish a task, another seems to appear, sometimes many at once. You wrestle them down, and do your best, but at some point, it seems like you deserve the chance to quit, and watch sunsets.

His old friend, surrounded by others, listened. He heard what Tom had to say, then uttered words that changed Tom’s life. Because they did, they changed millions of lives.

He said, “Tom, we have all been there, and I have a confession. We look at you, all you have done, know you are deserving of the chance to quit, have done your time in the wheelhouse, and now that this big challenge – an opportunity that looks like another chore –is here, you have a right to say no.”

But he continued. “Tom, do you know what we do, this group of us here, sitting on this porch every day…Do you know what we do every day?” Tom said he did not.

“We sit here, we tell each other, ‘You know, I could have …’ and ‘you know, I almost…’ and ‘I would have…’ but here is the reality, we didn’t. If you have a chance to do something that matters, that will help others in a big way, do it!”

The way Tom spoke those last words, the emphasis he put on reality – that you can forever imagine you might have changed a life, dug deeper, taken a risk, put yourself out, made a difference you did not” – was arresting. It stopped me short.

I said, what happened next? “Next?” he asked, as if I should know. “Next, I explained to my family that because of duty, honor, a need to do what is right… I had to do what the president was asking, head of DEA – not my wish, his.”

Tom served as head of DEA from 1994 to 1999. He was tenacious. During that time, drug abuse, drug trafficking, cross-border, interdiction zone, and source country drug production, trafficking, and abuse plummeted. He was part of Plan Colombia, and helped re-stabilize that nation and, thus the hemisphere.

In short, unlike many who warm a seat, get a check, and move on, Tom made a difference. He saved lives, millions, out of duty, not vanity or anything else.

He did something else. When friends called, asked if stepping up was necessary, and sought advice, he gave it: You never regret stepping up if you are motivated by duty, honor, and doing the right thing. Because of Tom, I never regretted it.

His story echoes – especially these days – and should for all. If you can, if your heart calls you to do good, do it. You will never regret it or find yourself on a porch, saying “I could have…” Win, lose, or draw, like Tom, you will have done it.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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Rebecca
Rebecca
2 months ago

These words are powerful and true. A person has to have a reason to get up every morning. Helping others is a great reason to push on. Thank you for sharing a wonderful story.

Max
Max
2 months ago

Good morning RBC, glad to make a comment since my schedule usually did not permit me to read until 10 pm. Wonderful article. I can definitely relate to this article being retired for 4 years now, I don’t sit back on my laurels and wonder what I could have done, I get out there to do the best I can to serve my community, state and nation: to make that difference. Recently, our state of Ohio was hit with 9 tornados, the worst one about 10 miles away that completely devastated a community. It is hard to believe the damage that was done. The best part is the outside resources of volunteer organizations that have stepped in. The state was a little slow in providing enforcement to prevent looting that had gone on for a week. The state finally sent out the NG that has cut down this criminal act. Clean up will take a while but the community is rising from the destruction. Take care and have a good day.

Jimmy P
Jimmy P
2 months ago

Yes, WE are the leaders we have been waiting for.

Pat R
Pat R
2 months ago

It is odd to feel great respect and admiration for a man you’ve never known. But this story of Tom Constantine is one that commands that respect. Our world would be so much better if more people made decisions to push forward for the benefit of others.

Mark
Mark
2 months ago

Ugh. A drug war fascist.

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