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Posted: November 19, 2013 9:00 p.m.

Military career was great ‘springboard’

submitted photo/The Covington News/

A young sergeant, James Johnson Jr., changes directions in his Army career, becoming a recruiter.

Confident in dialogue and conduct, James Johnson Jr. echoes his 22-year career in the United States Army.

Born in Dodge County, Ga., in a small town called Eastman, the home of the highway snack king known as Stuckey’s, Johnson and his family moved to Newark, N.J., before he entered fourth grade.

"Things were different in those days," Johnson said. "Segregation still reared its ugly head too often, so the family moved north for better opportunities."

Johnson graduated from high school June 17, 1974. Seven days later, he entered the Army and headed to Fort Dix, N.J., for basic training.

"I remember thinking on the bus en route to basic, ‘What in the world have I done?’ I continued to think that until I graduated from basic, I’d never been screamed and hollered at so much in my entire life!"

Johnson wanted a position in the medical sphere, but the Army needed field wiremen and communication experts.

"I was at Fort Riley, Kan., for three years until my enlistment was up. I would not reenlist unless the Army promised me the medical field, so I ended up at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for medical laboratory technician training."

Proficient upon graduation in lab skills such as blood bank attendant, urinalysis, hematology and phlebotomy, Johnson received his orders for Fort Riley, Kan.

"I’d just come from there," he said, "so I put in a request for transfer."

He got the transfer — to Yon Sun Base in South Korea, close to the heavily disputed 38th Parallel between North and South Korea.

"When I arrived, they told me to go south, to the port of Pusan. It was a small camp, not more than 150 people, plus there was one too many lab techs, so there I go again, back to the 2nd Division on the 38th Parallel at the 43rd surgical hospital, M*A*S*H* unit."

One year later, Johnson left Yon Sun for Fort Bragg, N.C., but there was a slight problem.

"I was ordered to first report to Fort Benning to qualify for airborne. It takes a special person to jump out of airplanes, and I am not that person!"

Diverted to Fort Meade, Md., Johnson worked as a lab tech until he noticed his neighbor’s working hours.

"This guy was at home when I left for work and beat me home every day. I found out he was in recruiting. He told me I should join the recruiting command, but I didn’t listen."

Sent into the field for advanced training, Johnson recalled, "Well, there I was, with an M-16 in pouring-down rain and freezing cold, guarding an empty tent. I figured my choices were get out, guard empty tents or apply for recruiting. I chose recruiting."

Johnson said, "That’s when my military life really started. I stayed in the Recruiting Command for 16 years until retiring as a sergeant major in 1996. I loved it — the interaction with people, the challenge of making a new recruit be the best he or she could be."

Recruiters follow a procedure called APPLE MD.

Johnson explained, "We review the recruits with informal but significant questions on age, prior service, physical condition, law violations, education, marital status and dependents. The answers by a recruit determine his acceptance or not."

Johnson served as a field recruiter for two years in Jacksonville, Fla., before his promotion to guidance counselor.

"You heard it every day," he said. ‘THE RECRUITER LIED TO ME!’ But that’s not the case. The test scores determine your field of endeavor. It has to be that way, because certain people cannot qualify for certain things."

Johnson opened a recruiting station in Tampa as a station commander.

"That assignment was challenging," he said. "But my success led to an opening at Southeast Recruiting Command at Fort Gillem, Ga."

Teasingly asked if he learned to speak Seminole while in Florida, Johnson replied, "No, but I learned to speak gator."

Johnson’s responsibilities multiplied tenfold at Fort Gillem.

"We covered Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and parts of Tennessee, Alabama and Florida. Oh, we also covered Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands."

Promoted to E-8, Johnson became the first sergeant of the Montgomery Recruiting Command.

"I was in charge of 10 recruiting stations, from south of Birmingham to Dothan to the Georgia and Mississippi borders, and I thoroughly enjoyed it."

After he was sent to the Sergeants Major Academy, Johnson’s next port-of-call was the Pittsburgh Recruiting Battalion.

"That was OK," he said. "But I’d been in for 22 years, so it was time to move on."

"Moving on" meant retirement from the U. S. Army and participation in the "troop-to-teacher" program.

"I taught Junior ROTC at South Atlanta High School for three years. I liked working with the kids, but they couldn’t have cared less that I’d been in the military. I wanted them to know a better way of life was available from what they were doing."

Johnson keeps on keeping on. He spent 13 years at Georgia Piedmont Technical College as a teacher, economic development instructor, full-time admissions recruiter and director of admissions.

"I loved it," he said. "But an opening came available with the Chamber of Commerce in Covington as their director of existing industry and workforce development. You know, at my age I can say ‘yea’ or ‘nay,’ and life is a matter of timing and opportunity, so I decided to take the position. And I’m very happy that I did."

In his "spare" time, Johnson and his wife participate in the Springfield Baptist Church Transitional Prison Ministry.

"There’s a need," he said. "Two families are hurt by crime and incarceration, the victim’s family and the family of the incarcerated. We teach a four-week course. You know, a lot of veterans are incarcerated, and that’s a shame. Veterans need help after their discharge, and I think, conceivably, the system has failed them."

Final thoughts: "I enjoyed serving my country. I met a lot of folks from all different walks of life. The military is not for everybody, but it’s a great springboard for life. I was a New Jersey kid on the fourth floor of an apartment building and rose from a private to sergeant major, so I’ve been on the bottom all the way to the top.

"Young people can do that, too, but they have to put their minds to it."

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail.com or aveteransstory.us.

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