"The life of service is a constant test of your will. It's not easy, but it is always worth it."
First Lieutenant Joshua H. is an military intelligence instructor in the United States Air Force. He served for 13 years in the enlisted ranks before commissioning and has worked for former White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and former US Southern Commander, Navy admiral Kurt Tidd.
We sat down with Joshua to find out about all things military and important lessons he has learned while serving his country.
Can you describe your upbringing?
I had a pretty unique upbringing, I think, as compared to most people, just because of the occupation of my dad. My dad is retired military. So, while it's unique to the greater general public, it wasn't all that unique and different for the group of kids that I ran with and had those experiences with. I had both parents in the home. I grew up, born in the 80s, running around in the 90s, 2000s. I come from a mixed race family—My dad's Black, my mom's white. So, I like to think I had both the best and worst of both worlds as far as culture and upbringing goes for the US.
My parents had differing views on how to discipline. My parents had differing views on some of the politics that existed. So, just shaping my worldview, there was a little bit of tension of opposites in my home in terms of how both my mom and dad saw the world. I sort of picked and pulled and prodded to figure out where I landed in all of that.
We grew up in varying parts of the US—the Midwest, the coasts, and then spent some time in Europe as a kid. I’m pretty malleable, I think. I can sort of fit in anywhere, but I really became aware how different I was [when I was] starting high school. At that time we lived in Omaha, Nebraska. There just weren't a lot of people that look like me; there weren’t a lot of people that look like my brothers. It was just noticeable.
It wasn't until we moved to California that I was able to look around and say, “Okay, I see me in all of these different people.” It was just a really unique thing seeing the different folds of societies, all around the US and in Europe.
What branch of the military did your father serve?
He's retired Air Force. He served for 22 years. His dad is retired Air Force. My mom's dad was in the Air Force. You can definitely say it’s the family business. And as I've thought about this as an adult, I've connected my citizenship with service. I have begun to dig into family history and things like that. My great grandfather didn't serve in the military, but some of the quotes that I've found from him online, he talks about community ties and belonging and giving to your community; not just taking as a citizen but giving. So, I think structurally for my family, the legacy was one of service.
What was your mom’s occupation?
She was a homemaker. We were fortunate enough—we weren't rich by any means, you know, nobody joins the military to make a lot of money—but we were fortunate enough that she could stay home with us, and have that presence in the home. My dad would sometimes be gone for long stretches.
Please elaborate on your experience moving around. I imagine your dad had several different PCS (Permanent Change of Station) assignments.
Now I appreciate the adventure, more than I did as a kid. I absolutely hated the act of uprooting and moving. I guess you could describe it as a constant state of unknown or unease. I probably wouldn’t call it crisis, but we always knew that either our friends or we would be leaving sometime soon. Like I said earlier, I love experiencing new places, culture, things like that. But I did not enjoy telling friends goodbye. How it continued to impact me to this day is I'm the type of person that can walk into any room and find a friend. I am a social butterfly. It's very hard for me to be uncomfortable in a new environment now.
What kept you grounded when confronted with the instability of constantly moving, of not fitting in, and not having people look like you?
The one constant everywhere we went was church. Every Sunday, every Wednesday that's where we were. And it wasn't just a Sunday and Wednesday thing. There were constant conversations about faith. I think that helped in times of crisis. I would see my parents turn to faith, so it was child-see, child-do. It's one of those things where even now one of the first things that my family does when we move is—we need to find a church, we need to get plugged into our local community. We need to get our kids into church. It's one of the constants (along with family members). It might be a new church but the lessons, the teachings—those are the same. So you find a common ground there even though the four walls are a little bit different. And then the family aspect of it...I tell my children all the time, and it's the same lesson that I had from my mom and dad—you guys fight like cats and dogs, but when we move, the only friends that you're going to have is your brother and your sister. I'm the oldest child, and my brothers are five and seven years younger. So, they were a little bit closer than I was to them, but it was still applicable to where we looked out for one another, because we were constantly the new kids. So, definitely family and faith and also knowing that we weren't the only ones going through that.
When you said that you didn't see people that looked like you, were you predominantly talking about military friends and peers?
Yeah, predominantly military because if we didn't live on a military base, we lived in an off-base community where there were lots of military people.
Was there a lot of diversity in the military at that time?
The military should be representative of the Republic that it serves. That's the goal that we have, and we've gotten way better at it over the years. Percentage-wise, there are more Black people in the military than there are in America. It's starting to be way more common to see kids that look like I did as a kid, running around our neighborhoods and things like that. But from a skin color point of view... we lived in Southern Illinois, we lived in Nebraska. We lived in Greece. We lived in Arizona. There just weren’t a whole lot of people who looked like me. It really was not until [I moved to] California where I was able to look around and say “this is diverse.”
When you were deciding what career that you want to pursue in life, did you already imagine that you would be in the military, continuing that tradition?
I always sort of knew that the military was going to be what I would do. However, the path for getting there is what changed as a teenager. I had some small success on the football field that led to the Air Force Academy contacting me. But I wasn't really interested in that for some strange reason as a 17-year-old kid. I thought that I would go to college and just do an ROTC type of scholarship, then come out after four years and serve as an officer. However, 9/11 changed my internal clock for wanting to go sooner. My internal dialogue was like “Hey, I don't want this to pass me by. I don't want this opportunity to serve in this time frame to pass me by.” And so I signed up. I went to college for a semester while I was waiting to leave and told myself I’d figure out how to become an officer in the military later on, as opposed to enlisted. And so, here I am. It's been almost 16 and a half years. And it took a little bit longer to actually become an officer. But I would not change the first 13 years of my experience in the Air Force because the lessons that I learned along the way, the people I got to interact with, they were very very unique; not a lot of people at the rank that I was get to experience that.
So, that has certainly helped shape the way that I view military service. It has shaped how I think about civil-military relations which has become an extremely hot button issue with everything going on in our country. It's something that I've studied both formally at institutions as well as my own informal education through reading and talking with other people who are a lot smarter than me. I always knew I was going to serve, just how I got there was a left hook.
Tell us about your time in the service.
The first 13 years I was enlisted. For my first job in the Air Force, I worked on nuclear missiles. And then, I knew that that really wasn't for me. I didn't see a future in it. So, about five and a half years in, I started looking for different opportunities. I just graduated college, and I was eligible to become an officer. Unfortunately, the first time around I wasn't selected. And I had to do some internal self-reflection and figure out, okay, what am I lacking as a leader, what am I lacking as a follower, and how do I become what the Air Force is telling me that they're looking for?
I switched jobs and entered into the intelligence career field. And it was there that my aperture started to open up. Service wasn't only the one job that I was doing...it was much more. After that assignment, I went down to Hurlbert Field, Florida, and it was there that everything was sort of flipped on its head, in terms of my career. After about the first year that I was there, having done a pretty good job with my assigned duties, I was told that I was being hired by a Four-Star General to go work directly for him as one of his aides. At the time that person was John Kelly, the former Chief of Staff of the White House.
I got to know him really well. He has sort of become a controversial figure post-military, but the man that I knew gave me a chance that changed the entire trajectory of my career. He put me in front of members of Congress. He put me in front of heads of state. He put me in front of other people like him...lots of one-on-one conversations and just him mentoring me. And then when he retired, his replacement was a Naval Four-Star Admiral by the name of Kurt Tidd. And he decided to keep me on. So, I got another education from one of those people who were like him in the retired military. At that point that I commissioned. I was accepted.
I had reached the Senior NCO ranks. I was a Master Sergeant at the 10-year mark of service. So I was cruising pretty quickly up the enlisted side. Since then, I graduated Intelligence Officer School, and I stayed behind to teach.
So you went there to learn. And then your instructors were like, wow, let's have you teach.
There was a program that they'd set up where if you were a former Intel professional in any AFSC (Air Force Speciality Code) and then graduated the 14N course, you could stay and teach. It gave me a chance at stability for my kids. It was an opportunity to choose my children first and allow them time to put some roots down for a little bit longer, rather than having to move for a third time in one year. It's been amazing. I may have been the one teaching, but I have learned a great deal about myself. I've learned a great deal about the students who are coming in. Many of them are looking for someone that looks like them...that has had success along the way. It's an opportunity to give back both formally and informally, to say “hey, this is what worked for me. It may not work exactly like this for you, but I have been there. I've been doing this for 16 and a half years now. Let's find a way to make success work for you in this new environment.” It's been monumental to my development.
You’ve had a very impressive career, from working on nuclear weapons to working for a Four-Star General and Admiral. Leadership seems very important to you. What are some lessons in leadership you've learned along the way?
“I would say the biggest leadership lesson is that it's never about you. It's always about how can I better serve the men and women that mothers and fathers have entrusted to my care.”
The military has a client relationship with the American people, and the American people will get to decide whether or not the military is a profession. However, it is up to the individuals that make up the military to decide whether or not they are consummate professionals that should make up the ranks. The lessons that I've learned along the way—every fiber of them wraps around that.
I know that I'm highly capable. I know that I'm highly educated. And I'm also willing to engage and take care of people, ask hard questions, speak truth to power and remove barriers to success for others along the way. One of my favorite things to do is to find young men and women who are enlisted and want help to serve as an officer. Whenever that happens, I clear my calendar, I clear the deck, and we get to work on interview skills and writing and polishing the resume, the application package. There were people who did that for me. Without a doubt, I would not be here without the mentorship, the guidance to be here now paying it forward. The life of service is a constant test of your will. It's not easy, but it is always worth it.
What did you get your degree in?
My bachelor's is in Human Resource Development and my Master's degree is in Global Security Studies, which is very similar to international relations and has a blend of national security to it.
What were some of the things that you were lacking or felt you were lacking on your first attempt?
Leadership experience. That's one of the key drivers for being selected as a prior enlisted officer. For someone who is right out of college or right off the street, the military looks for diversity of experience. I just wasn't in a career field that really offered that to me up until that point. So, when I was told “no,” it was a kick in the gut. But it also served as a catalyst for going out and making it happen in whatever I was going to do next. It happened to be the intelligence career field, which I was much more suited for than what I'd previously been doing. I wasn't always great at it—a lot of failures along the way. But each one led to continued refinement and figuring out how to do it in a way that made sense to me.
If someone wants to pursue your current career path being an officer and leader in the military, what are some things that they should be doing? What are some skills they should be acquiring?
First, learning how to lead people both formally and informally. There's the back and forth debate of whether leaders are born or made. I believe you're born with leadership traits that have to be molded along the way. Nobody comes out being the most natural leader there is.
Public speaking is another tool in the tool belt that we look for... the ability to articulate information in a way that makes sense, that is succinct. The ability to drive an argument which hopefully leads to a decision.
Compassion for people. Compassion for families of the people that you work for and work with, because it's not just about the military member. We have to ensure that we are looking after people's families as well.
So, I would say leadership, ability to communicate, and compassion. That is what I see in some of the most successful leaders that I have come across.
What is something that you want to leave behind for those who follow after you?
Professionally, I want to leave behind a template for others. Coming up in the military I didn’t see a lot of senior leaders that I could look to and say, “you come from similar circumstances. You look like me. Please mentor me. How did you do it?” So, that's one of the biggest, being a template. Sharing ups and downs with others and helping folks reach their highest potential.
There's debate right now about how many African American military flag officers (general officers) we have. And of the ones that we have, only 7% that are African American. A huge goal of mine is to remove the barriers of under-matching in the US military for African Americans to achieve success. We have a history of diversity. But here we are in 2020, and only 7% of senior military officers are Black. That is a travesty. By under-matching, we take qualified candidates and put them in jobs and career fields that do not produce senior leaders, historically. And so while talent is everywhere, opportunities are not.
In the military we like to say that we are a meritocracy where we discriminate based on performance, but that's not always the case that I've seen. We need to remove the glass ceiling, glass gateways to success, by putting African Americans into flying roles in the Air Force. That's where we produce our general officers. In the Marine Corps, it's combat related jobs. In the Army, it's the same way. In the Navy, it's surface warfare officers, those who command ships at sea. Traditionally, most of the people that do those jobs are not African American.
“My goal is to educate and inspire and show people—African Americans and other minorities—that opportunity is there for you, and here's the path forward.”
Personally, I want to leave my children a template as well. I want my daughters to look at me and say, “My dad is a good man.” I want my son to look at me and say, “My dad is a good man, that's what I want. That's what I want to be like, that's what I want to look for in a spouse.” I want to be someone that is home for dinner more often than not. And I want to be someone who left behind a legacy of choosing my family over my career and over my work.
Also, I want to impart to my children connecting service with citizenship. It doesn't just mean military service, but serving your community, whether it's your local community or state level, or federal. It could be Americorps. It could be volunteering to coach or Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts; but giving back is something that's really important. And I want my children to grow up not just taking and benefiting from what they have available to them but also contributing so that others have increased opportunities.