From private to general: Florida National Guard getting a new leader

Army Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun, his wife Sophia to the right, is congratulated on his promotion by Gov. Rick Scott at the historic St. Francis Barracks on March 6, 2015. State Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Hosford looks on.
Army Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun, his wife Sophia to the right, is congratulated on his promotion by Gov. Rick Scott at the historic St. Francis Barracks on March 6, 2015. State Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Hosford looks on. FLORIDA GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

When Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun takes command of the nearly 12,000 troops of the Florida National Guard this weekend, he becomes Florida’s 22nd adjutant general and the first African American to hold the post.

Firsts are nothing new to this 1976 Florida A&M University graduate. In 2011, he became the Florida Guard’s first African-American brigadier general and is now the first major general.

But ask the 61-year-old former Costco pharmacist — also a likely first for a National Guard general — and he attributes it to one part luck, one part drive and lots of sacrifice since he began his Army career as a private in 1977.

“You need to be lucky,” he says. “You do have to be good. And you need to be blessed because you affect many lives.”

In an interview ahead of a ceremony installing him Sunday at Camp Blanding, near Starke, the Florida native and father of a FAMU student spoke of missed funerals and family reunions, a year-long deployment and weekend drills away from home along the way to becoming the state’s top commander and Gov. Rick Scott’s senior military adviser.

During a family vacation in the Virgin Islands, he recalled, he left his family sunbathing on a beach for the quiet of his hotel room to crack critical thinking textbooks. He lugged military strategy books along on a training exercise in Kiev, the Ukraine — giving new meaning to the “distance learning” — all to earn a correspondence-course Master’s Degree in Strategic Studies from the Army War College in 2009

More and more leadership roles in the Guard, on a part-time basis, meant cutting his civilian professional life to part-time, too, finishing up recently as a day-rate pharmacist at the Costco in Lantana, so he could devote more time to his Army duties.

Another kind of sacrifice came in September 2011 when he pinned on his first silver star as brigadier general, becoming the first black general officer in Florida Guard history. The historic ceremonies were held at an armory in West Palm Beach, where Calhoun enlisted in 1977.

Son Evan had followed his dad to FAMU, and was a drummer in the band. Promotion day coincided with the televised Atlanta Classic football game, pitting the Rattlers against Southern University.

The newly minted general said he didn’t want to deprive his child of the chance to be on TV with the Marching 100. So the dad told the son to miss the historic moment. Evan, now 22, was on hand, however, earlier this month when Calhoun pinned on his second star in St. Augustine to become a major general.

It was suggested to the general, partly in jest, that service in the Army and fidelity to FAMU could test a man’s loyalties. Not so. “FAMU is family,” he replied. Evan was six months old when he attended his first FAMU game.

The Florida Guard has full-time fighter pilots, part-time infantry troops and, just like his alma mater, a band — the 13th Army Band which, Calhoun boasted, put down their instruments and handed out tarps and bottled water like their fellow weekend warriors after a 2005 hurricane.

His forces, like all guard units, have a dual function, meaning Gov. Scott can call them up to a natural disaster, something he hasn’t yet done, and President Barack Obama can divert them to Middle East duty, something that has happened in more than 100 mobilizations since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Calhoun’s turn came soon after the invasion of Iraq; he spent nearly a year in Kuwait with a combat support unit in 2004.

To those who wonder why it took so long for an African American to attain the rank of general in Florida’s National Guard, yet alone command it, consider this:

The storied guard, which claims its roots in a Spanish militia set up in 1565, only got its first black soldier in 1963 — postal worker and Korean War Air Force veteran James Bryant — because a fellow postal worker, a white first lieutenant in the Florida Guard, recruited Bryant to the command headquarters motor pool.

Fourteen years later, Calhoun had graduated from FAMU and signed up during a pause between graduating and passing the licensing exam as a pharmacist. He did basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., trained as a medic in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and had risen to the rank of sergeant when then-Gov. Bob Graham mobilized the guard to two nearly back-to-back call-ups in 1980 — a year of tumult for Florida.

First he went to Key West, he recalled, to provide first aid to seasick, malnourished Cubans arriving in waves in the Mariel boatlift. Soon after, he was part of a unit standing by at Hollywood baseball field in case they were needed to treat National Guardsmen called to Miami during the McDuffie race riots.

Calhoun left after six years but said he missed the military. He returned in 1989 as a first lieutenant in the 131st Mobile Army Surgical Hospital because of his day duties as a pharmacist. He would switch from medical corps to the broader military occupational specialty of the quartermasters corps because a pharmacist can only go so far in the Army.

In Florida he led the Special Troops Battalion of the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, was commander of the 865th Quartermaster Battalion, and spent more than six years in a variety of roles with the 50th Area Support Group, nearly all part-time jobs.

One exception: He wore a battle-dress uniform continuously for nearly a year in Kuwait.

Now, he’ll don the uniform most days as a full-time employee of the state, earning $157,251.60.

The job comes with a house, an official residence at 86 Marine St., adjacent to the St. Francis Barracks in St. Augustine, which traces its roots to a 1580s outpost for some Franciscian friars. He and his wife Sophia will move in in May, after the current “TAG,” as The Adjutant General is called, moves out and the state undertakes some renovations.

Fellow FAMU alum, Bobby Calhoun (no relation), said his College of Pharmacy classmate’s military career really took off once he traded his pharmacy specialty for logistics. Even as he spent his years in service, said Calhoun, a pharmacist at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, they met several times a year at football games or for continuing education seminars to keep up their licenses.

“Once he gets focused in a direction, he’s unturnable,” his classmate said, describing him as a “softspoken” man with the unmistakable carriage of a general — “serious, assured, open-minded, decisive.” Plus, Bobby Calhoun added, “He looks good in a uniform.”

While he’s never before worked full-time with the Guard in the state, the increased tempo of his part-time duties dictated that he devote less time to work, he said. So by the time he pinned on his second star as a major general, he’d already cut back his pharmacy work to per-diem patch-and-fill jobs at Costco, something he recently gave up entirely.

For his part, Gov. Scott would not say whether the idea of making history with the first African American TAG figured in his first genuine selection of a military advisor after inheriting Maj. Gen. Emmet “Buddy” Titshaw from Charlie Crist.

“It’s never one factor,” the governor said by phone this month. “The most important thing is he’s a leader, he’s had five commanding roles since 2006, he’s had a lot of medals and my experience with him has always been positive.”

Like Scott, who joined the Navy as an entry-level sailor, an E-1, Calhoun started in the army as a private — on the way to establishing his business career.

“When you're around him you'll feel comfortable that he will lead, he will do a good job if there's a crisis,” the governor said. “He also treats others with respect — he's very respectful to people who work with him — and he started at the bottom.”

General Calhoun calls his rise “humbling,” and something he never imagined as Private Calhoun.

“That’s the beautiful part of it,” he said. “To have been around back then and now to walk next to a private or a sergeant today and tell them you were a private and a sergeant, too — see that light bulb go off.”

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Read more about the Florida National Guard, and its transition from a decade of deployments here.