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Posted: June 8, 2018 3:37 p.m.
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CSM Johnson inspires, retires

Sgt. 1st Class Faiza Evans/

A candid interview with Command Sgt. Major John Johnson, former Task Force Marne senior enlisted leader, as he shares motivations, experiences and leadership advice.

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A career that spans more than 30 years comes with a story and experiences just as vivid. We sit down with Task Force Marne Command Sgt. Major John Johnson, for a candid conversation as he prepares to retire. 


Question: Tell me about your life before joining the Army?

Answer: I was born in Tuskegee, Alabama and raised in Prattville, Alabama. I played basketball, baseball, and football at Prattville High School ever since I was a freshman. I was considered a young jock. I grew up with a strong foundation with my mom, and I wanted to work as soon as I was old enough. I got my first job at Food World when I was 16 years old. You don’t forget your first job.


Q: Why did you join the Army?

A: I entered the Army in 1988 after graduating from high school in June, because 12 years of school was enough for me at the time. I wanted to support myself so that my mom and dad wouldn’t have to.


Q: What was your early career like when you joined the Army? 

A: I attended one station training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as a Cannon Crewman. I was a little nervous when I arrived. It was little different than the way things are now. Drill Sergeant got away with a little more than back then, but I enjoyed it. I made great friends. My first duty station was in Germany. That’s where I meet the best leader I had in the Army. I will never forget him, Corporal Lee Bennett, he was a great leader. He took me under his wing and showed me how to be Soldier and a leader just by watching him. He told me when I got there, ‘out of all you guys, someone is going to get promoted first,' because most of us were privates. He said, ‘it could be you.’ I was the most squared away guy out of all of them. Back then we had a MOS skill test we were required to take. One day I overheard Corporal Bennett trying bet every NCO in the battery that I would score higher on the test than anyone.  But no one would bet him, so I guess that meant something. Everyone knew how squared away I was and it was because of him. When I left Germany, after two years, I was the only E-4 promotable out of 42 guys.


Q: Did you keep in contact with  Corporal Bennett?

A: He retired as a sergeant first class I think. We kept in touch throughout my military career. He is in Tampa, Florida and we still talk now and then. We text or I give him a call. He told me to let him know when my retirement ceremony will be, and he will try his best to make it. Hopefully, he makes it to the ceremony. He was a great mentor and a significant influence on my life, so much so, that I named my first daughter after his first daughter. I was reading a quote the other day from former Sergeant Major of the Army Richard Kidd. He said ‘good leaders show Soldiers how to be good leaders by being good leaders’ or something to that nature. It’s just so true. It's crazy that I read that yesterday, and I’m getting ready to retire, and I’m thinking about the guy that showed me so much about the Army.


Q: What was your most rewarding position in the Army?

A: I use to see people that were with me when I was an E-4 or a private; they told me ‘Jay I knew you were going to be a smoke.’ In a field artillery unit, platoon sergeants are the chiefs of the firing battery and called Smokes. That is the most important job because smoke runs everything. You never know who the first sergeant was because smoke runs the battery. That was the most rewarding job for me. Oh, and being a drill sergeant was equally satisfying. You are responsible for training and molding civilians into Soldiers, and they are coming from all different walks of life. Their transformation was amazing to watch. I enjoyed being a drill sergeant.


Q: Did you have any setback early on in your career?

A: I made Staff Sergeant in five years but remained at that rank for a long time. I think the jobs that I had might have slowed me up a bit because I went from being a BNCOC instructor to being DA selected for drill sergeant. I went from TRADOC to TRADOC instead of going back to the line.  I think that hurt me just a little bit. I made the E-7 list after I came off the trail successfully and I was back on the line as a gunnery sergeant. It was a good experience. I wouldn’t change it.


Q: What is your advice to Soldiers that want to advance in their career?

A: This advice has never failed me or anyone else for the matter. Physical fitness is key. The Army wants someone that can lead from the front -- bottom line. You need at least four excellent bullets on your NCOER. One should be for physical fitness. If you’re not a member of the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club, you should be trying to be. That separates you from your peers.  Bottom line - be physically fit. Do and know your job. Separate yourself from your peers. I guarantee you will get promoted.


Q: What is your advice to Master Sergeants attending the Sergeants Major Academy?

A: I know it’s not always possible, but I would recommend attending the resident course at the Sergeants Major Academy. With the distant-learning course, you still have a job to do, and you can’t just focus on your academics, and the workload is extensive. Also, networking and relationship building with your peers is essential. 


Q: What has motivated you over the last 30 years?

A: My wife Cynthia and my three daughters, Latoya, Jinaye and April have motivated me. My parents as well, they gave me a solid foundation. My mom was strict. She wasn’t real real strict, but she was a little strict, and she gave me my foundation and values. I know they speak of me with admiration and it makes me feel good to provide them with a sense of accomplishment and success as parents. That motivates me to be the best I can.


Q:What role did your wife play in your career?

A: My wife retired as a sergeant major four years ago after serving 23 years, and 10 months. She was in the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club as well and she did it before I did in 1996. She motivated me to do it. She was the first female in 10 years to make Audie Murphy at Fort Sill, and she was pretty squared away. We have been married for 26 years, and I definitely wouldn’t be where I am right now without her. My wife and I are from the same hometown. We were junior high sweethearts, but we broke up. I was a little jock, and I wanted to play the field. I thought she was the kind of girl I wanted to marry. I wasn’t ready for marriage then. I was trying to have fun, but it backfired on me because we ended up getting married and 26 years later, look us. We are still married.


Q: What would she say is your legacy?

A: I think she would say my legacy is taking care of and mentoring Soldiers. If I’m at home, I always answer calls. My position requires me to be available. She hears the way I handle, and respond to my Soldiers and she is kind of impressed. I don’t know, but I can see it in her face.


Q: What sacrifices have your children made for you to have a long successful career?

A: My daughter Jinaye she is 22, and she has moved at least 10 times and hasn’t served a day in the Army. My daughter April has PCSd nine times and has never served a day in the Army. My daughters have sacrificed a lot. Especially, being that both of their parents were serving. 


Q: What does retired life look like for you?

A: I would like to spend more time with my family because I missed so much since my wife and I both made sergeant major. It has been hard. I would like to volunteer because I love helping people. I see myself running an ROTC program at a high school. I will be in the Huntsville Alabama area, and there are some bad neighborhoods in that town.  I would like to mentor the kids in the area. Some of my friends have told me that I will go crazy not working because I stay so busy now, but I think I will be okay. 


Q: Do you have any regrets?

A:My only regret is that I never got to sit on a promotion board. I had the opportunity when I was a DIVARTY sergeant major, but I had less than a year left, and that disqualified me. I got extended after that so that I could have sat on the board, but I missed my opportunity. I wanted to experience that for myself. 


Q: What was your most significant challenge in the Army?

A: My biggest challenge probably came recently. It bothers me that NCO’s, are scared to do their job. We ask a lot of them, and we ask them to do more than when I was a sergeant and staff sergeant. I think the culture has changed over the years. You have to learn your Soldiers and leaders don’t do that anymore, but it’s so important.  If you learn the Soldiers, you will understand how to handle them and know how you can communicate effectively with them. I see we have a lot of issues with the younger Soldiers, but if you learn your Soldiers, you won’t be scared to interact with them. If you listen to them, you will know what’s going on with them.                    


Q: What will you not miss about the Army?

A: That is the hard question because I don’t know what I’m not going to miss. I have been doing this for 30 years. I don’t think I will miss waking up early every morning, and I won’t miss being tied to a schedule every day.


Q: What are the most important things an Army leader can do for themselves, their Soldiers and their unit or organization?

A: The best thing a leader can do personally is to make sure they take time to take care of themselves physically and mentally and take care of their families by spending time with them every opportunity they get. The most important thing they can do for their Soldiers is to listen to them, learn them, take care of them, protect them from higher and foster an excellent climate. A good command climate will solve SHARP, EO and IG issues.

Lastly, the most important thing leaders can do for their organization is to be supportive of the commander’s intent, even if you don’t agree with it. I didn’t agree with all of policy and regulation  I enforced. The only person that would probably know about it is my wife, Cynthia. The Soldiers that worked for me would never know.


Q: Do you have any parting leadership advice?

A: Learn when to pick your battles. When you take a firm stance on an issue, know the right time, place and attitude to apply when standing your ground.  Learn your leaders and anticipate how they will react in certain situations. Your job is to push forward the commander’s intent. Learning him is part of that. Don’t complain about everything, because when you have something that is valid, it won’t be taken seriously. Lastly, try your best to do the right thing all of the time. 

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