New general sees opportunities for young soldiers


March 29, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

Thomas C. Johnson says growing up in a tough section of East Baltimore could have put him on a wide open path to become a streetwise punk headed for prison.

But, he says, good luck and a wise grandmother, who tempered strict discipline with a lot of love, put him on a different path. It led to him receiving earlier this month his star as Brigadier General Johnson, the Maryland National Guard's first black general, assistant commander of the 29th Division.

He graduated in 1963 from Carver Vocational-Technical High School, worked and went to college until money ran out. He later earned a degree in political science from the University of New York at Albany. When his draft notice arrived in 1966, as the Vietnam War was heating up, General Johnson enlisted as a private to begin his 27-year climb to flag rank by way of Officer Candidate School and a combat tour in Vietnam.

In 1973, he left active duty and joined the Maryland National Guard as a full-time guardsman. Last year, he resigned his full-time Guard position to become a "traditional guardsman," or weekend warrior, and head the newly formed Operation Challenge, a Guard-sponsored program to give high-school dropouts a second chance to earn a diploma.

Q: As the first black general in the Maryland National Guard, do you consider yourself a token of any kind?

A: I hope not. I love the Army. I did the things I needed to do to be a professional soldier. It's not a black thing.

I don't think the soldiers of the National Guard saw it as a black thing, because when I got pinned [with the star denoting the rank of brigadier general], there was a big, spontaneous outburst of applause.

My commanding officer [Maj. Gen. James Fretterd, head of the Maryland National Guard] gave me the opportunity for advancement by my assignments, but the promotions are controlled at the national level. That's to make sure we stay competitive with the active-duty colleagues, because, if I'm called on

active duty, there's no guarantee I'd stay here.

Q: Is National Guard service something particularly good for minorities, or for everybody?

A: The National Guard is good for everybody.

Recruiting is difficult in urban areas because of stringent requirements. It's not done to keep minorities out, but there are regulations about things such as police records.

Joining the Guard has given a lot of young people an opportunity to get out of the [urban] environment and really begin to get themselves turned around.

Q: How has the Army changed since you first joined in 1966?

A: There's more emphasis today on professionalism. We look on training for everyone, privates to generals.

Q: Have training methods changed?

A: We use simulators more than maneuvers now. It's more realistic, and in the long run it reduces cost. We do the same or better training with them.

Q: Does this training work as well with combat as support units?

A: It works very well with combat units, because you can train your soldiers in an environment where they can understand their jobs.

Q: How about the men and women now joining the service?

A: The quality of soldiers is so much higher today. Recruits come in with high scores and higher expections.

Not to offend veterans from World War II or Korea, but the leadership style now is that we don't yell and scream. We ask what can we do to make life pleasanter for you. Once recruits have gone through basic training, they buy into the organization and their jobs. When they see a problem, they

want to solve it -- and they do. It's good old American ingenuity and these kids are good at that.

Q: Did any of your assignments leave a very strong impression?

A: Yes. Until 1991 most of my experience was with the war fighters.

Then I was given the Division Support Command in charge of beans, bandages and bullets. It gave me a true appreciation for the rest of the people in the division.

They provide us with water, petroleum products, rations, engineering materials, ammunition, medical aid, everything to fight with. Their work must be planned as thoroughly as the operation itself.

Q: Your assignment in the Guard now is as assistant division commander for support and logistics. What's that mean in terms of responsibility?

A: A battle has three sections: rear, close and deep. I am responsible for fighting the rear battle: Headquarters units, communications, aviation, support, medical, corps elements, everything to support the close and deep aspects of combat.

Q: Do you see yourself as any kind of a role model?

A: Yes, because of my involvement with Operation Challenge.

It's not just black youngsters; nearly half are white, and they are all volunteers. I would like to be a role model for them. They need to have faith and confidence in themselves and others. I found that 95 percent of their families have dysfunctional relationships and many parents shun their responsibilities.

Q: The first class just graduated; 28 of 130 young people stuck out the five-month course. Do you consider this a success?

A: Yes. Some quit after 24 hours, and I kicked some others out because they wouldn't cooperate. They didn't think we would do that, but we did.

They came in streetwise, tough, deceitful, and we graduated 28 of them with self-esteem, pride, determination and a GED [high school equivalency diploma].

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