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Innerviews: Black general embraces title as role model

Last October, he made headlines when the West Virginia Air National Guard promoted him to brigadier general, the first African-American in the guard to hold such a prestigious rank.

Chris Walker recognizes, reluctantly, the significance of his position. At last, a black general. But what took so long?

As chief of staff, or deputy commander of the state guard, he embraces a title that stretches beyond the responsibilities assigned to him: role model.

Look at him in that official military portrait. The smiling image in the spiffy uniform laden with commendations belongs on a recruiting poster, or better yet, a billboard.

If the kids back home in Queens, New York, could only see him now. And there it is, his obligation to show them and other black youngsters how far a military career can go.

Fascinated with airplanes from boyhood, he graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1988 and served mostly as a C-130 navigator.

In the Guard, he spent nearly 10 years with the 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg, including a stint as commander.

His position here sends him back and forth to the Pentagon each week. He deals largely with readiness and staffing issues and harbors a particular passion for the guard’s opioid crisis program.

He’s robust and expressive, a dynamic persona with all the characteristics of the perfect role model.

He’s 53.

“I grew up in New York City, in Jamaica, Queens. Most of my friends’ parents were divorced, but my mother and father remained married. He was an electronics technician. He came to the U.S. from Jamaica in 1957. My mother came from Jamaica in 1960.

“Our neighborhood was 98 percent black. Dad made a good life for us. He made sure we were always seeing things and would take us on road trips. In the summers, they would send me to Jamaica to be with cousins.

“My father was an intense disciplinarian. There were a lot of things I would see, the way some of the black kids would treat the white kids, and I would say, ‘Why would you do that?’ They would say, ‘Because of the way we are treated,’ and I said, ‘I’m not treated that way.’

“There was always a tug of war between the people in the States trying to teach me to hate whites and my parents saying that was stupid. I’m glad I left New York. Had I gone to college in New York, I think I would have grown up a lot differently.

“Going to the Air Force Academy really put the truth in front of my eyes about people from the rest of the United States.

“We lived two miles from JFK Airport. Seeing the planes come in and out and when they would send me to Jamaica on the plane, I thought, ‘This is the best thing ever.’ Back then, TWA used to let us go up in the cockpit, and they would give me little wings, and the pilot would let me put on his hat. I thought, ‘That is what I want to do.’

“So I pursued an aviation career. I didn’t know how to go about that. My father wanted me to be a doctor, so he didn’t enthusiastically thrust me toward aviation, but I resisted. I’m a hardhead.

“I knew the Air Force had pilots. I didn’t know about the academy. God, providence, whatever you want to call it, sent a young second lieutenant to our high school. I didn’t know the difference between being an officer and enlisting. All I knew was that I was going to enlist in the Air Force.

“When I saw this lieutenant in an Air Force uniform, I went to talk to him and said I wanted to be a pilot, and I’d been talking to a recruiter. He said not to talk to that recruiter again. He said you had to be an officer to be a pilot.

He schooled me up on the academies, ROTC and Officer Training School. In that short conversation, he shifted my whole life view. I only wanted to go to the Air Force Academy.

“I got the nomination from my congressman, but they misplaced my medical package and said it was too late. So they sent me to the prep school on academy grounds and I would go to the academy the next year.

“I got in in ’84. What I really wanted to do was be an astronaut. I’d have to take engineering, which at the academy is tough. The program is designed to weed people out. I stuck it out, but I would have had a much better time if I’d chosen history or political science. Stumbling through engineering gives me nightmares to this day.

“My eyesight started deteriorating. So they could only send me to navigator training. But looking back, I had quite a fun career. Everything went right. I got wonderful assignments, traveled all over the world, met great people. The camaraderie is what wakes me up and wanting to come back. Doing the mission with the crew is the interesting part. Getting the team jelling.

“I started active duty in Biloxi, Mississippi. Hurricane Hunters was an active duty squadron then. From there, I went to Little Rock AFB in Arkansas in the 50th Airlift Squadron.

“From there I went to Japan to the 36th Airlift at Tokyo. I had the time of my life flying throughout Asia and Australia and seeing things I would never have seen but for the Air Force. Getting to know cultures first on TV and movies and seeing it up close, I realized everything I learned in the movies wasn’t true.

“Same thing with growing up in New York. You are indoctrinated that anyone from middle America or with a Southern accent is stupid. When I went to the academy, I did a debate class thinking I’m from New York so I know everything. That was one mistake. Next was having an emotional argument instead of a factual argument, and three was underestimating my opponent, a football player from Alabama. After he wiped the floor with me, I knew that all I’d been taught about Southern people wasn’t true. I thank the Air Force for putting me around people from all over the United States.

“I still get in arguments with people back in New York. They say, ‘You are from West Virginia? What?’ I say, ‘Have you ever been to West Virginia? How can you have any opinion at all?’ That shuts them up.

“In 1997, I came to West Virginia with the 167th with the C-130s. That was through 2008, back and forth to the Pentagon and Andrews AFB at the Air National Guard readiness center.

“I did a short four-year stint with the Connecticut Guard for a colonel command to command the 103rd Air and Space Operations Group.

“I got in contact with Gen. Hoyer saying I wanted to be re-affiliated with West Virginia. The West Virginia Guard is my family. I felt more comfortable here. They all know me very well. We’ve gone to war together. When you are in dangerous situations, the people you are with, you develop a bond that can be closer than marriage. War brings people together. We went to Iraq, Afghanistan, Oman in tents, taking care of each other.

“In 2016, Gen. Hoyer offered me the chief of staff position. I was still doing a statutory tour in D.C. When you have an offer like that from Gen. Hoyer, you don’t turn it down unless you are stupid.

“I rush back and forth to D.C. each week to handle mobilization issues, issues with active guard and reserve positions and issues of readiness.

“We have a young force. Since we’ve been in Afghanistan so long, we’ve forgotten how to concentrate on a major combat operation. If we were ever to go against a near peer, they would use weapons against us we haven’t practiced against for a long time. War with the Talibans is very simple compared to going against a near peer and having to deal with chemical weapons and such.

“We’re trying to get a lot of our younger airmen and soldiers to get in that mindset again. If they don’t think we are ready, that’s when things start.

“Here in the states, I help Gen. Hoyer with personnel issues and help with appearances that he can’t do.

“One of the big things right now is drug demand reduction and drug interdiction. We have elements of the National Guard taking care of the supply side and the demand side, and Gen. Hoyer has asked me to lead the effort of the drug demand reduction, getting to the schoolchildren as early as middle school.

“My focus isn’t to militarize our youngsters but only to make them better citizens. So if any of them want to go into the military, they are able to.

“Right now, there is a crisis around the country. Maybe only 30 percent of our youngsters even qualify for the military due to maybe weight or fitness or getting into drugs or criminal past. And that is an emergency.

“The way to make West Virginia wild and wonderful is to get rid of this drug problem. We are going to the schools and trying to find different guard and airmen and soldiers who live in those communities to go into the schools and mentor kids.

“A lot of my friends from the Northeast think it’s a big deal that an African-American was appointed chief of staff. I appreciate that I am helping some youngster see that he or she can do it. I need to be a positive role model until the day I die. I’ve been saddled with a responsibility, but I take it gladly. You don’t realize how many young blacks whose parents don’t want them in the military because they didn’t think the military would treat them right. I go and talk to them.

“We’re going to wash away any bad feelings people might have toward the military.

“What makes me get up each morning are the good people here. I’ve been in situations where I was not working with good people. Here, everybody is uplifting everyone.

“What’s next for me is to build the bench. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. My job is to find all the diamonds amongst the coal here and polish them and make them our next leaders. If I don’t leave this organization with a large bench of heavy hitters, I have failed.

“I want to make this organization shine.”

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazettemail.com or 304-342-5027.

Funerals for Friday, August 23, 2019

Boggess, Robert - 11 a.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Conway, Blanch - 2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Marker, Geraldine - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Pritt, Charles - 1 p.m., Gauley Bridge Baptist Church.

Quehe, Ryker - Noon, Casdorph & Curry Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Warren, Joyce - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.