Over 35 years, from his time as an Army private until he retires July 30 as a full-bird colonel and Nevada’s highest ranking black Army National Guard officer, Col. James Walker Jr. has seen changes in the military and its minority landscape.
But when it comes to being a soldier, the virtue of being colorblind to someone’s skin has endured unchanged.
“When we’re in the field, we’re all the same color because we have to protect each other,” Walker, 59, said reflecting on his Army National Guard career last week.
Over more than three decades, he has seen fluctuations in the military’s minority numbers and the roles of women, too.
“Even as a medic, I would tell the females, when we’re out here doing this in uniform, you are my equal,” he said. “I’m not going to let you pick up anything heavier than one person. If you need help, I’m going to help you.
“But you’ve got to carry your weapon. You’ve got to carry your backpack. You’ve got to carry your first-aid gear. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Upon joining the Army in 1979, “I was treated fine. I had no problem as far as from basic (training) to the National Guard. My first commander was a black commander. We had a good mixture of everything. There were more African-Americans and Hispanics during that time than there are today.”
When Walker graduated from Western High School in 1972, he was not gung-ho on the Army because the Vietnam War was winding down.
“When they stopped the draft, I was 18 years old, and I danced all over my living room,” he said.
But his outlook changed when he was a sophomore psychology major at UNLV and decided to pursue a military career.
“I was just bored,” he said. “I found out what I wanted to get out of the military and went down and saw a recruiter. Then off I went and became a medic.”
In the relatively short time that he advanced in rank from an E-1 private to an E-3 private first class, he saw his unit transition to a combat-ready armored outfit, the 1st Squadron, 221st Cavalry.
And, while some combat units have since been opened to female soldiers, three decades ago they were off-limits to women.
“When they did that, all the women … had to get out because now we were a front-line unit,” Walker said. “When they left, I was an E-3 and the second highest ranking person in the company as a medic.”
While the 221st Armored Cavalry Wildhorse Squadron closed its door to women, it opened the door for Walker to advance. He climbed the ladder to an E-7, sergeant first class, in 8½ years.
“The Guard back in those days, I think, had a negative attitude,” he recalled. “People really didn’t see the Guard as a fighting force. It was there for riot controls and floods and things like that.”
Then came a leader he admired, Col. Jerry Bussell, who turned the media spotlight on an unprecedented maneuver for the Nevada National Guard.
Bussell sent his tank battalion on a 135-mile expedition across the desert from the Henderson armory to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., despite triple-digit temperatures.
“We road-marched with 54 tanks and all the support vehicles,” Walker said.
The feat was a challenge for any Army medic.
During the infamous “Death March,” temperatures inside vehicles topped 120 degrees.
“The worst thing I had was knuckleheads rolling around in the desert, wrestling over some cactus. They were horsing around and they fell,” he said, recalling how he had anticipated he would be treating soldiers for heat exhaustion, not for wounds from cactus needles.
With impetus from his commander and his wife, Doris, who both encouraged him to become an officer, Walker attended Officer Candidate School at Clear Creek near Carson City and was a pioneering student in the Nevada Primary Leadership Development Course.
“I tell people it was a long time ago because the (class) picture is in black-and-white,” he said.
He graduated in the top of his class with honors.
“When I became a lieutenant my career went really quick,” he said.
Walker served as a training officer for the next graduating class, then “within two months I became an intelligence officer for the Cav unit. And within two months after that I became the medical platoon leader.”
After a transfer to become Delta Company platoon leader and its executive officer a short time later, he became a company commander.
Four years later, he became a brigade motor officer.
Somehow, by fate, he never deployed overseas for combat.
“I was just one of those guys that never did,” he said. “I never asked for a transfer out of any unit, but every unit they would send me to they would send me there to fix the logistics problem. After I would fix it, they’d send me to another unit.”
When the 1st Squadron, 221st Cavalry went to Afghanistan and returned in 2010, Walker was commanding the 757th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion after a three-year stint teaching ROTC at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a period that saw the program grow from 20 to 60 students.
Walker said today’s military has changed since he was a private.
“The military is open to whoever can meet the bill now. We get more restrictive because we can,” he said, adding that 35 years ago the ranks were augmented with men who were avoiding jail time.
“When I was in basic there were young men, black and white, that had broken the law, and the judge would go, ‘This is your first offense. You just got in with the wrong crowd. Here’s your choice: Four years in prison or six years in the military.’
“And every one of those guys said, ‘Where do I sign?’ And most guys I talked to said, ‘I’m making a career out of this. This is my second chance.’ We don’t do that anymore. I think we should. We pay more money for the prisoners than we do for a soldier in basic training,” Walker said.
After he retires from the National Guard, Walker said he will continue to work for National Security Technologies as the company’s facility manager at Nellis Air Force Base.
His advice to today’s soldiers: “Understand what you’re getting into no matter what it is. Ask yourself what do you want out of it. … Leave the organization better than what you found it.”
Contact Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2.