A (four) star shines at Army command

Gen. Johnny Wilson, the commander of the Army Materiel Command (AMC), talks about the Army and his 37-year career with a passion and intensity that would make a recruiter proud. Wilson has good reason for such passion; he's the only black man to make it all the way from a private to the highest rank in the Army: a four-star general.

Looking back on that career, Wilson, who is one of a family of 12 children and who enlisted in the Army to obtain a college education his family could not afford, said simply: ''I'm blessed.''

Wilson grew up in a public housing project in Lorain, Ohio, and he believes the Army still provides opportunities for success such as his. While he conceded the military is not perfect, he remains a strong proponent of service. ''Every man and woman should serve...because the military teaches discipline, honesty and integrity,'' he said.

After five years of service as an enlisted man, the Army provided Wilson with an opportunity to go to Officer Candidate School, which eventually set him on the career path that would lead to his command of the AMC. When the OCS slot opened up in 1966, Wilson, serving at the time in Special Forces at Fort Bragg, N.C, wanted to stay in the combat arms field. But those fields were filled, so Wilson opted for a commission in the ordnance field.

Commissioned in 1967, Wilson set out on a series of ordnance and logistics assignments, including command of a maintenance company in Vietnam with the 82nd Airborne Division. Those posts provided him with the insight and expertise to lead the AMC, the Army's research, development and acquisition command responsible for purchasing every battlefield item, from helmets to helicopters.

Now, from AMC headquarters in Alexandria, Va., Wilson runs an organization with 10 subordinate commands responsible for Army depots, ammunition plants, labs, test and simulation activities and procurement agencies. He employs a total of 60,000 civilian and military personnel who work in 285 locations in 42 states and more than a dozen foreign countries.

While the AMC has responsibility for development of the Army's heaviest hardware— such as M1 tanks— items such as computer systems, battlefield digitization equipment and information technology stand near the top of the command's priority list, according to Wilson.

Through the Army's Communications-Electronics Command (Cecom) and other commands, the AMC ''procures about 80 percent of the computer systems that enter the Army,'' Wilson said. He showered high praise on Cecom's computer acquisition arm, asserting that it has ''developed a visionary process that delivers better service to the customers.''

Wilson said the AMC also has emerged as a ''major player in digitizing the Army'' through its work to enhance key IT systems. One of these projects, the Land Warrior program managed by the AMC's Soldier Systems Command, will provide individual soldiers with computer-enhanced location and targeting gear. Other projects, managed by Cecom and the Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, will upgrade computers in armored vehicles. ''We're embedding the technology into the force,'' Wilson said.

Wilson believes that the AMC, through Cecom, also will lead the way for electronic commerce programs throughout the Defense Department— a top priority of Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre. ''Cecom is the model for electronic contracting throughout DOD,'' Wilson said.

Computerized tracking of parts, spares and ammunition— a project known as Total Asset Visibility— is another key AMC program, Wilson said. Although Wilson does not describe himself as a computer expert— ''I'm not bashful about asking for help,'' he said— he has embraced e-mail as a management tool. "E-mail is a good way to get a note to the Army chief of staff," he said. "The chief will usually respond in a very short period of time.''

While Wilson has a full-time job running the AMC's worldwide, multibillion-dollar business, he also finds time to devote his personal energy— as well as that of the command— toward community programs, particularly in minority communities. ''We have to participate in the community,'' said Wilson, who makes it a point to visit inner-city schools and carry the message of his own success and to push the Army as a career. He said those who have achieved as much in life as he has need to spend time in the community and in schools. ''We need to give back," he said. "We need to carry the message that though the world is not a perfect place, you too can achieve.''

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