WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2015 —
When a 19-year-old high school graduate and Army hopeful went to meet with a recruiter in New Jersey decades ago, he weighed in at a mere 99 pounds and was nearly turned away by the service. But the optimistic enlistee said he didn’t let that deter him.
“In 1977, they had a height and weight minimum scale,” Army Chief Information Officer/G-6 Lt. Gen. Robert S. Ferrell recalled. “I stepped on the scale, and I was 10 pounds underweight.” The recruiter told him to go home, eat bananas, drink milk and come back in two weeks to see if he could make the minimum weight for enlistment.
Ferrell - the Army’s first African American chief information officer, strategic directive and policy advisor to the secretary of the Army and overseer of some $10 billion in information technology and command and control investment – said he simply heeded his mother’s advice: “Follow your dreams, and don’t let anyone get in front of you and say you can’t do that.”
Three weeks into basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Ferrell said, his drill sergeant still had doubts about his ability to succeed. But Ferrell did succeed, stayed in, and rose swiftly through the ranks.
The Desire to Excel
“Coming into the Army as a private, … I couldn’t imagine being a three-star [general] … as a senior signal leader,” Ferrell said. “It started with having the desire to excel. It has to come from within.”
But the right tools also help, the general explained.
"The key to success in the military was higher education, and so I took advantage of that,” he said. “I went to school at night, [and] by the time I got to the end of my four-year commitment, I had two years of college under my belt. I got out and went back to school with the goal of getting my degree, getting a commission and also finding a life partner there at Hampton University."
Those goals, he said, would drive his life decisions.
Though he had African-American role models, the general said, his mentors far exceeded that realm. They included a variety of people, he added, such as enlisted soldiers, officers, and civilians, all of various nationalities.
Early in his career, Ferrell said, the 35th Signal Brigade commander at Fort Bragg, North Carolina allowed him -- then a captain and a signal leader with a background in Ranger School and Special Forces -- to command a company in the brigade. That brigade commander, Robert E. Gray, eventually led the Army Signal Corps as a lieutenant general.
That opportunity to command “was really the spark on allowing me to succeed along the way in my career,” Ferrell said.
Strength Comes From Working Together
Ferrell also listed a number of other leaders who, regardless of race, were “central players” in his career development.
“The strength of our Army occurs when all service members are working together to accomplish a common goal,” Ferrell said. “It’s not about race. It’s not about gender. It’s not about nationality. It’s about identifying those men and women who have the background, the ability, the skills, the culture that bring those qualities to the table to accomplish those common goals.”
The Ferrell family, the general noted, has a personal stake in these tenets, having served the nation and the armed forces for seven decades. His father served in the Signal Corps during the Korean and Vietnam wars, and six of his seven siblings served in the Army and the Air Force, which he said inspired him to follow a similar path.
‘Growing Up in the Military Family … Really Inspired Me’
“When you look at providing the best capable equipment in the hands of our soldiers, the Signal Corps enables them to fight and win the battle and preserve the peace for the United States,” Ferrell said. “Growing up in the military family, seeing what they did, really inspired me.”
Ferrell has two sons. One is a graphic designer in college, and the other serves as a Signal Corps sergeant at the Joint Communication Support Element in Tampa, Florida.
Ferrell’s wife of 31 years, Monique, is a federal employee with the Army Auditing Agency who has ascended to the senior executive service.
Being able to set goals, have a mentor, be a mentor to others and focus on helping all individuals regardless of race, gender or nationality constitute the pillars of success, Ferrell said.
“At the end of the day, it’s about having a better military for this nation,” he said. “The strength of our Army is our soldiers, and the strength of our soldiers is our family. … That makes us Army strong.”
(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleDoDNews)