What do youth need to know to make it in the military? How did you end up choosing engineering as your career? What is required for students to have their education paid for by the armed forces? How long is the commitment to the military? These are a few of the questions posed to five decorated officers (and an officer's mentee) from various branches of the armed forces, as part of our celebration of Veterans Day. Each officer has spoken with students affiliated with the National Society of Black Engineers.
What do youth need to know to make it in the military? The job market is difficult and competitive. What will give students the greatest edge?
Gen. Darren Wayne McDew: I think the “make it” is not just in the armed forces. It’s (making it) period, and you’ll see this recurring theme for me. I never talk in front of a group of youth and say, “Here’s how to make it in the military,” because I believe the folks who make it in the military could have made it someplace else. It is not an either/or…. I think it is a commitment to first understanding who you are and sometimes who you are not, what are those things that you are particularly good at and what things you need to work on, and (having) the dedication and discipline to work on the things that you know you need to work on. Always look to try to improve yourself in some way and have the drive and determination to stick with something. Those things I believe are core to being successful in whatever you choose to do. It happens to work in the military, but I believe it works in Corporate America.
How did you end up choosing engineering/the military, or did you have another career in mind initially?
Adm. Michelle Janine Howard: I was 12 when I decided to go into the military, and before that I think I decided I wanted to be a zoologist…. I think I was in the third grade, and our teacher had us write essays: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” So I wrote this essay on how I wanted to be a zoologist. God bless her, the teacher would take each of us aside and talk to us about our essays, and I’ll never forget, she’s like, “Well, Michelle, women are normally nurses or teachers.” I said, “That doesn’t make sense to me, because Madame Curie did science.” And then she just looked at me and said, “OK, well, that’s enough talk for today.”
What is required for students to have their education paid for by the armed forces? How long is the military commitment?
Lt. Gen. Stayce D. Harris: There are many different avenues to join the Air Force, many of which provide help with education expenses. The Air Force offers a variety of career opportunities to our airmen who consist of full-time, active duty personnel; full- and part-time reservists; Air National Guard and a civilian force. For those interested in active duty, nomination and acceptance to the Air Force Academy provides a unique, military-focused college experience resulting in a bachelor’s degree and service in the U.S. Air Force upon graduation. Scholarships to attend military and civilian schools around the country are also available through participation in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. Individuals who want to stay closer to home might find that the National Guard’s state-funded education incentives and federal tuition assistance are the answer for obtaining an advanced degree. Federal civilians also serve their country working side-by-side supporting the mission and are afforded school programs such as the Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) scholarships. In addition to tuition and other educational expenses, SMART participants receive a generous cash award, health insurance allowance and summer internships at Air Force Civilian Service facilities. SMART scholarships can be used for undergraduate, (master’s) and doctoral degrees where applicants have demonstrated an ability and special aptitude for excelling in STEM fields. There are varying degrees of commitment for every program, but the advantages of working with or for the Air Force can be extensive and positively life changing. My recommendation is to connect with an Air Force recruiter in your local area or via AirForce.com and afciviliancareers.com, who can link you up with someone assigned to an Air Force position you are interested in. Airmen are eager to talk to students about their experience and recommendations in building a STEM career.
If a student’s math skills are only average, should they pass on engineering dreams?
Lt. Gen. Joe N. Ballard: Heck no. The first thing that they need is the desire to be an engineer. I’m saying if you have a dream, you work your tail off to achieve your dream. If they have the ability to learn, and most do, they just need to have the fundamentals. Take the remedial classes. I’ll use myself as an example. I finished high school in this little town: Oakdale, Louisiana. My math ability was rooted in the basics of arithmetic. No one ever talked to me about trigonometry or any other of the higher orders of math. And so when I arrived at Southern University, I knew for a fact that I was in trouble that day that I walked into my first trigonometry class, because I had no idea what the man was talking about. And so I made it very clear to my professor that I needed some help and some mentoring and that I didn’t really understand this, that I was behind most of my class. He worked with me, so I had a tutor who spent most of the semester helping me with my math. And I knew that I was poor in math. After two years, I caught up, and I learned. I recognized where my weakness was, and I sought help. And I knew I wanted to be an engineer. There was no doubt in my mind I wanted to be an engineer. So I spent a lot of time making sure I put a lot of emphasis on the areas (where) I knew that I was weak, and I didn’t lie to myself. So get the remedial help. Find a tutor. Almost every institution that I am aware of recognizes that not all their students will arrive with the same skill set, and they are there to try to assist those students if they need help. But you need to tell someone that you need help. You can’t bluff your way through it. So I say don’t ever give up on your dreams. Pursue your dream.
Tony Thompson, president and CEO of St. Louis-based Kwame Building Group and a former protégé of the late Maj. Gen. Ernest J. Harrell, answered the following question. Thompson reported to Harrell during the general’s  appointment as contracting agent for renovations to St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
How has the National Society of Black Engineers benefited from having decorated officers as members and speakers?
Tony Thompson: It’s always important for African-American people, in general, to have access to people who are in leadership positions in a big way…. African Americans rarely get an opportunity to have experience leading, so when you are in Corporate America, you have to understand it can be very difficult for blacks, particularly, in a technical field to move on into management or into a leadership position. And then most of the time, when we get there, it is even more challenging, because we’ve never had any experience being in leadership positions. So when you have an opportunity to meet someone and to be mentored by someone like Maj. Gen. Ernest Harrell, who (had) not only risen to the rank of general in the Army, but he did it in the (Corps of Engineers)…it helps you to understand and be able to navigate the pitfalls that you are going to run into, particularly as an African American.
What is the most challenging military or engineering project you were tasked to work on? What about it was challenging? How did you get through it?
Brig. Gen. C. D Turner: I ran the Army’s $18-billion Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Program. (This is the congressionally approved process that the Department of Defense has used to reorganize its base structure to improve support for forces, operational readiness and ways of doing business.) Completing this task within the congressional timeline was challenging, because within six years, the Army had to construct $14 billion worth of facilities and relocate one-third of the Army’s military and civilian personnel. There were several BRAC rounds prior to BRAC 2005, which was the largest. In addition to relocating three, four-star headquarters and several other Army commands, the Army constructed more than 100 Armed Forces Reserve Centers. I got through it by building teams and establishing relationship with local, federal and state elected officials as well as senior Department of Defense and service officials.
The 300 members associated with the St. Louis NSBE Chapter salute these military leaders who have given so much of their time and energy to help develop our next generation. The impression these decorated officers have had on local and other youth is immeasurable.