From the Winter 1998 UNO AlumDownload entire issue as a PDF
By Anthony Flott, editor | Photo by Tim FitzgeraldFrom the Winter 1998
The resolution against the Indochina War came before UNO Student Senator Johnnie Wilson.
BE IT RESOLVED: That the University of Nebraska at Omaha Student Senate, having been duly elected to represent over 12,000 students of voting age, hereby demands the President and Congress immediately halt all American military involvement in Indochina, immediately cease the air war, end all support for the Thieu dictatorship, and turn their attentions to the solutions of growing socio-economic problems and growing unrest here at home.” The resolution’s authors referred to a “pushbutton war . . . where the executioner rarely sees his victims.”
A green beret just a couple of years removed from Vietnam’s jungles, Wilson saw plenty of victims during tours with the 82nd Airborne Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade. He saw helpless Vietnamese children whose meager existence made his own life growing up in the projects seem lavish by comparison. He saw buddies get their wish to go home, only in body bags. He saw the protesters back home calling him a war monger. What had the drafters of this resolution sitting before him ever seen?
Not to say Wilson didn’t have his own doubts about Vietnam. He volunteered without really understanding why, going off thousands of miles away to fight for the basic rights of people whom he had never before seen. Family and friends wanted him to stay home and join the others walking the streets and asking for their civil rights. “Is this the right thing to do?” they asked him. Now his fellow UNO senators were asking him the same questions. Wilson did not waver. He voted no, helping defeat the resolution by a single vote. The issue would come to a vote several times again after that April 27, 1972, senate meeting, but each time, Wilson cast his “no.” And each time it failed.
None of it was anything new for the politically-charged college campuses of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Just two years earlier, National Guardsmen had fired into a crowd of anti-war demonstrators, killing four students at Kent State. Four dead in O-hi-o. But things never reached such a radical state at UNO. Wilson and his fellow 800 “Bootstrappers” attending UNO at the time are probably a big reason why. The enclave of armed service personnel pursuing degrees through a program for military officers provided a sort of buffer zone against any escalation of hostilities. Four of them, including Wilson, sat on the Student Senate. “I would like to say we played a major calming force on the institution,” Wilson says.
Twenty-five years later, Wilson returned to his alma mater to deliver UNO’s summer commencement speech and to receive the Citation for Alumnus Achievement Award. He took an active role on campus during his UNO days, serving on the student senate and also as president of the Pen and Sword Society, a sort of fraternity for Bootstrappers. He graduated after two years in Omaha, getting a bachelor’s degree in 1973 in business administration. “Two great years,” Wilson says. “But the first 30 days on campus I was just like an 18-year-old freshman, sort of finding my way.”
A look at his star-studded shoulders indicates he’s found it.
Only three African-Americans have earned four stars in the U.S. Army’s more than 200-year history: Daniel “Chappie” James, retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, and Wilson. Of the three, the 54-year-old Wilson is the only one to have done so after starting out on the bottom rung as a buck private.
He signed on with the Army in 1961 as a 17-year-old from Lorain, Ohio. His father, Thomas Wilson Jr., had moved his family to the blue-collar city of steel from Louisiana, where Johnnie was born in Baton Rouge in 1944. They were part of the massive urban migration north by blacks after World War II. Johnnie was the second oldest of 12 children, growing up in a cramped, three-bedroom house in the federal public housing projects on Lorain’s south side near Lake Erie.
Wilson recalls his life and career amid the relative comforts of the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Omaha. He’s about as fit as he was when he earned his Master Parachutist badge in the mid-’60s, but he’s shorter than one might expect a four-star general to be, standing about 5-foot-8. A sprinkling of gray accents his closely-cropped hair. He’s decked out in Army green from head-to-toe but foregoes his colorfully decorated jacket while talking over tea and a muffin. A lieutenant colonel, one of three aides accompanying him on this trip, hangs onto the jacket to make sure it’s wrinkle-free for the upcoming commencement ceremonies. When Wilson talks it is not with in MacArthur boasts or Patton rantings. Instead, his replies are preceded by long, thoughtful pauses. He speaks softly, almost reverently, about everything he discusses. It is at once clear that he is a different type of general, one others have called compassionate and concerned, adjectives not too often associated with such brass. “He’s a beautiful person,” says younger brother Craig Wilson. “Very caring and understanding.”
Wilson commands respect through respect for others, a quality instilled in him back in Ohio by his father, a car dump operator for U.S. Steel, and his mother, Gladys, the family matriarch who always made sure her 12 kids had breakfast, lunch and dinner waiting for them on the table. “In that particular period,” Wilson says, “if Mrs. Jones addressed you to do something, then you always responded ‘Yes, Ma’am.’ (There was) all kinds of respect for elders, and you just don’t see that today.” Respect was expected of Wilson, as were many other things. By his freshman year in Lorain High School he was augmenting the family income with three part-time jobs: delivering newspapers, working at a drug store and caddying at a golf course.
Sometimes it was barely enough. “We didn’t have much, but what we had was each other,” Wilson says. “All 12 of us worked together as one and that’s something our parents really instilled in us, the fact that we were a family.”
Now the Army’s his family. The short version of his 37-year Army career will have to suffice here. Shortly after boot camp, Wilson headed overseas to Paris, came home after two years and got married. He joined the Special Forces, attended Officer Candidate School, fought in Vietnam and returned home once more. He attended UNO and the Florida Institute of Technology, earning two degrees essential in his slow rise up the Army’s chain of command. The Army took notice, assigning him to a variety of posts, including stops at the Pentagon, the Ordnance Center and School at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, and in Europe with the 21st Theater Army Area Command and 1st Armored Division. Each new post brought with it a rise in rank. In the 1990s, he began earning his stars. In March 1996, Bill Clinton pinned the fourth stars on his shoulders.
Today, Wilson heads the Army Materiel Command, based in Alexandria, Va., and responsible for “anything the Army eats, wears, shoots, drives or flies.” If it were a private entity, the $9 billion-a-year AMC would be among the 10 biggest corporations in the United States. It has a presence in 42 states and more than a dozen countries where it is supposed to make sure the guys on the front lines and in the rear are equipped with all they need.
But that’s just part of its charge. The AMC’s huge R&D department, for instance, often works hand-in-hand with the auto industry, developing components that come in handy not only in an M1 tank but in the cars we drive. The AMC’s mission also includes building incinerators for the safe disposal of chemical munitions stored in more than 8 million tanks around the country.
On any given day, Wilson might be OK’ing an equipment purchase, working with corporate giants such as Wal-Mart and Federal Express to learn the latest distribution techniques, attending a planning session or visiting a school. Wilson calls it his most challenging assignment to date, coming amid significant downsizings at AMC. “It is not easy emotionally to release about 5,000 people from your organization each year,” he says. “It’s been a rather delicate balance for us. You have to keep in mind that in our business, if you fail it could very well mean that someone’s going to get hurt or the soldiers aren’t going to be able to accomplish their mission.
Married with three children, he now has taken to occasional reflections on his illustrious career. “It’s almost like a storybook,” he says, “in that someone sort of planned every step and it seemed to me I just sort of woke up every morning and executed whatever the people had put before me. People often would say, ‘Are you really going to make a career out of the military?’ Now the children say, ‘OK, Dad, when are you going to stop?
“My life has not been perfect. But I don’t think I would change a date.”
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