The movie “Hidden Figures” has inspired many of today’s youth to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, but I ponder what our community would be if the film had been produced 35 years ago, and more young people knew what is possible when talent is combined with hard work and determination. Many of our youth cannot be what they cannot see. People perish from a lack of vision, vision that can open doors of opportunity.
This article spotlights the accomplishments of six decorated flag or general officers in the U.S. military, now retired. Our hope is that it will encourage our youth to consider pursuing engineering careers and inspire future engineers to achieve their professional and academic goals. The officers featured in this article all earned engineering degrees. Two are pilots, and all reached the highest levels of military achievement. They commanded units that ranged from 3,000 to 140,000 personnel and oversaw manpower and equipment with budgets in the tens of billions of dollars. But despite the never-ending pressure and responsibilities of their positions, they each found time to give back to their community, and they all have been strong supporters of the St. Louis Gateway NSBE Jr. Chapter, based at Florissant Valley Community College in Ferguson, Missouri, over the past 20 years.

Good Connections

The Gateway NSBE Jr. Chapter’s first military partnership was with Lt. Gen. Joe N. Ballard, chief of engineers and commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to St. Louis to be the guest speaker at the chapter’s Fourth Annual Scholars Reception, in 1999. Gen. Ballard’s good friend, the late Maj. Gen. Ernest James (“Ernie”) Harrell, then president of the Board of Public Services for the City of St. Louis, co-chaired the event and was instrumental in making the connection. During Gen. Harrell’s four-year term on the board, serving under St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon, he raised funds for our scholarship program, mentored chapter members and increased participation of minority- and woman-owned businesses in St. Louis. Gen. Harrell, formerly commanding general of Europe Division for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, retired from the Army in 2004 and gave an inspirational talk to area students that year at Gateway NSBE Jr.’s Annual Scholarship Reception.

Walks the Walk

U.S. Air Force Gen. Darren Wayne McDew was our 2014 Scholarship Reception speaker. Since then, he has visited with St. Louis youth and engineers at three NSBE Annual Conventions, has spoken at the NSBE “A Walk for Education” at Florissant Valley Community College and facilitated the appearance of Brig. Gen. C. David Turner as our 2016 Scholars Reception speaker. Gen. McDew retired from the Air Force in October 2018, having served as the commander of United States Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois; as commander of Air Mobility Command; and as commander of the 18th Air Force, among other high leadership posts.

First Woman

Adm. Michelle Janine Howard, the first African-American woman to command a U.S. Navy ship, has played an active role at several NSBE Annual Conventions. The retired officer last served as the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe while concurrently serving as the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Africa and commander of Allied Joint Force Command Naples. She previously served as the 38th vice chief of Naval Operations. She assumed her last Navy assignment in June 2016 and was elected to the Board of Directors of IBM this past February. During a recent visit to St. Louis to speak at the Annual Navy Ball, she met with a group of students, including NSBE members, at the St. Louis Science Center to discuss the importance of a STEM education.

More Firsts

Lt. Gen. Stayce D. Harris is a retired U.S. Air Force officer who last served as the inspector general of the Air Force. Gen. Harris has attended several NSBE Annual Conventions, most recently as a main speaker at the 2016 convention in Boston , where she spoke to 4,000 engineering students and engineers and interacted with the St. Louis NSBE contingent. Gen. Harris previously served as the assistant vice chief of staff and director, Air Staff, Headquarters, United States Air Force. Her promotion to lieutenant general was a first for African-American females, as she became the first to hold the three-star rank in the U.S. Air Force. In addition, she is the first Air Force reservist to be promoted to the three-star rank other than the commander, Air Force Reserve Command. Before her assignment as assistant vice chief of staff, Gen. Harris was commander, 22nd Air Force.

Mentor and Inspiration

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. C. David Turner, a St. Louis native, was the Gateway NSBE Jr. 2016 Scholars Reception speaker. Gen. Turner is a mentor and an inspiration to youth in St. Louis and across the country. He often greets young people, quizzes them on their goals then tries to connect them with adults who may be able to help them achieve those goals. Still active with NSBE, he recently attended the 2019 Annual Convention, in Detroit. Now retired, Gen. Turner most recently commanded the South Pacific Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He consults for several engineering and construction companies and sits on several corporate boards.
The Gateway NSBE Jr. Chapter encourages our youth to consider the military as a career. The benefits one can receive from the U.S. military, including world-class education and leadership training, lifelong relationships, travel opportunities and others, make this an attractive option for many. In addition, the U.S. military has higher levels of African-American representation at the executive level than any other organization.
Learn more about engineering careers by reading the full interview with our esteemed officers.