Marine Corps' Magnetism Beckons Future General into World of Elite Warfighters
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 6, 2004 Cornell A. Wilson Jr., a 6-foot-2-inch, 215-pound, former high school baseball and football player, chose academics over sports in college. And even though he was in the Navy ROTC program, he chose a commission in the Marine Corps over one in the Navy.
Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Cornell A. Wilson Jr. talks to troops when he was commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Consequence Management at Camp Doha, Kuwait. The task force was in Kuwait to support troops engaged in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Wilson has been selected for promotion to major general, and when he receives his second star, he will be the highest-ranking African-American in the Marines. Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The future Marine general loved sports, but during his college years, he opted for the oratorio choir, African-American Society and Semper Fidelis (Latin for "Always Faithful") Society, a student organization dedicated to providing professional development for future Marine Corps officers. He played baseball and football in high school, but he was also a member of the student council, National Honor Society, Boy Scouts, glee club and drama club.
While attending Butler Senior High School in Hartsville, S.C., Wilson said, he thought about a number of professions such as science, professional sports, business and the armed forces.
But the Marine Corps' magnetism beckoned him into the world of elite warfighters. "My focus narrowed when I discovered that I could become a Marine officer in college through the Navy ROTC program," said the brigadier general, who has been selected for his second star.
When he receives his second star, Wilson will be the highest-ranking African- American on active duty in the Marine Corps. He's now commander of the II Marine Expeditionary Force Augmentation Command Element at Camp Lejeune, N. C.
Marines have been called a number of different affectionate names, including "devil dogs," "leathernecks" and "shipboard soldiers." But no matter what they're called, the Marine Corps was like a giant, super-powerful magnet pulling him into its fold, Wilson said. To him, Marines exemplified the virtues of "honor, courage and commitment," and he wanted to be a part of it.
So, even though he was in the Navy ROTC program, he decided to become a Marine. "I wanted to be part of an organization that desired to be the best in all that it did," he said, "and an organization that was tough, but fair, and a cut above all the rest. The Marines seemed to fit that bill."
Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps when he graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1972, Wilson spent about 10 years on active duty before being discharged and joining the Marine Corps Reserve.
In January 2002, he completed a sales and marketing career with Siemens Information and Communications Network, which has its headquarters in Munich, Germany. His office was in Charlotte, N.C. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America made sure he wouldn't have a quiet retirement.
"As a result of Sept. 11, I have had to devote more time to the Marine Corps," said Wilson, 54, who keeps in shape by doing calisthenics, jogging and lifting weights. "I wanted to ensure that my Marines were prepared to support the various requirements the Marine Corps demanded," he said.
Wilson said he wanted to "personally respond to assignments that took me to (U.S.) Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Fla., and as commanding general of a task force in Kuwait."
He commanded the Combined Joint Task Force Consequence Management at Camp Doha, Kuwait, during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Wilson was assigned the task of providing a response force to assist countries in the CENTCOM area of operations in the event of an attack using weapons of mass destruction.
"This included nuclear, biological and chemical warfare monitoring and detection, extraction, security, engineering and medical support," he noted. "To do this, I had members from all four services and five different countries."
Wilson said that over the years, attitudes toward African-Americans have changed dramatically for the better since the Marines integrated in May 1942 and since he was commissioned some 30 years later.
"The Marine Corps had some tremendous challenges to overcome when I first came in," he noted. "In true Marine Corps fashion, once the Corps recognized it had a problem, it tackled the problem aggressively to educate and create a climate of mutual trust and understanding.
The Marine Corps also took the advice of its senior African-American leaders, such as Lt. Gen. Frank E. Peterson, to actively recruit more African-American officers from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. "HBCU provided a rich treasure trove of talent to improve the Corps' officer ranks," Wilson said.
In 1979, Peterson became the first African-American to reach star rank in the Corps 150-year history. He also was the Marines' first black aviator and the first black commander of Quantico (Va.) Marine Corps Base.
Wilson said the opportunities to command battalions, squadrons and higher organizations -- both in combat and peacetime -- are the most significant improvements in opportunities for African-Americans during his tenure in the Marines,.
"This provided the necessary experience and visibility for African-Americans to reach the general officer ranks," he noted. "Additionally, in 1999, the corps selected its first African-American sergeant major of the Marine Corps, which is the highest-ranking enlisted Marine. This spoke volumes about the progress made since the days of the Montford Point (N.C.) Marines."
Sgt. Maj. Alford L. McMichael holds distinction of being the first African- American sergeant major of the Marine Corps. He's now serving at the U.S. European Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. Another African-American, Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps John L. Estrada, replaced McMichael.
The Montford Point Marines to whom Wilson referred were established after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which allowed African-Americans to be recruited during World War II. The first African- American Marines trained at Montford Point Camp, New River, N.C.
Wilson said he's particularly proud to have commanded a task force in Kuwait during Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, calling the experience "a real highlight in my career."
When U.S. and coalition forces launched an attack on Iraq as morning dawned in Baghdad on March 20, 2003, Wilson's Combined Joint Task Force for Consequence Management was responsible for providing a rapid response if chemical and biological agents were detected. His unit also was to help with decontamination efforts, if needed. Not only was the outfit ready to support U.S. and coalition forces, he said, its members also helped the citizens of Kuwait and other countries during major combat operations in Iraq.
"I had members from all four services and five different countries in my unit," Wilson noted. "We responded to several missile strikes that, fortunately, were negative for biological or chemical agents. Our presence and ability to respond quickly assured the citizens and government of Kuwait that we were their partners to assist in saving lives in the event they were hit by a weapon of mass destruction."
To people who question the need for African-American History Month and other ethnic observances, Wilson said, "It's important to know where you came from in order to know where you're going. These observances are a periodic reminder to everyone that, although we've made great progress in this country in the ability of the different ethnic groups to live, work and play together, we still have a ways to go.
"There is a rich culture of ideas, customs and traditions that we all can learn from as we delve into each other's culture," Wilson continued. "This can be of great benefit to this country as we move further into the 21st century."
His advice to young Marines officer and enlisted who want to succeed as a careerist is: "Strive to be the best, learn to embrace the Marine culture, and bloom wherever you're planted."
Wilson, who started honing his work ethic with a newspaper route at age 10 and later by laying bricks with his father, is the son of a World War II veteran who was a brick mason in civilian life. His mother was a schoolteacher. He has a sister and two brothers: Maureen Wilson, 55, a retired marketing manager for a power company; Gerald Wilson, 53, a doctor; and his younger brother Dennis, 48, is a surgeon in private practice and a surgeon in the Naval Reserve with the rank of captain.
The general and his attorney wife, Mary, have three children: Cornell III, 22, a recent college graduate; Candace, 21, a college senior; and Caryn, 14, a high school freshman.