Larry D. Nicholson visits Marines in Tokyo in 2015.

Larry D. Nicholson visits Marines in Tokyo in 2015. Cpl. William Hester/U.S. Marines file photo

A Marine General’s Next Battle: Grocery-Store Logistics

Larry Nicholson once led 20,000 troops in Afghanistan; now he’s making sure you don’t run out of food during the coronavirus crisis.

Two years ago, Lieutenant General Larry Nicholson was leading a roughly 30,000-strong Marine Expeditionary Force in Japan that forms part of America’s post–World War II presence in Asia. At one point, he commanded about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, the most violent in the country at the time, to fight the Taliban. So when he retired in 2018 after almost four decades of service and moved to Tennessee to manage supply-chain logistics in Knoxville, he thought he’d left behind the battlefield forever.

And for a while, that was true. He spent his time visiting warehouses talking to teams of employees about getting food and medicine to various convenience stores around the country. But with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the country, Nicholson is once again at war—trying to keep food and medicine stocked to keep America fed, without endangering the health of drivers, packagers, and managers.

Nicholson is a vice president at the wholesaler H. T. Hackney, which has 4,000 employees and serves 20,000 stores from Miami to Detroit. He and I spoke recently about how he applies his battlefield experience to his job, how the coronavirus crisis has many parallels with Afghanistan (including toilet-paper shortages), and what Napoleon might have to do with grocery logistics. The conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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