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Making History Was Not The Plan

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

Making history in the military was not the plan.

Before he became the first African-American to be promoted to the rank of chief warrant officer 5 in the Army's Transportation Corps, a young Richard Turner wasn't sure what to do with himself.

Growing up in Chicago's gang-riddled inner city during the 1980s made life uncertain.

"Being jumped or held up at knife point, or having your bike stolen, was common in my neighborhood," he said. "I had friends who were killed due to gang activities throughout my high school, so you learn to adapt to your environment. You use your street smarts to stay out of danger."

To stay off the streets and out of trouble, Turner earned a basketball scholarship at a local junior college and spent his time on the courts and in the classroom. But, he said, trouble eventually found him and prompted him to make one of the best decisions of his life.

While at the bus stop late one afternoon, on his way to a home game in which he was the starting power forward, he was held at gunpoint by area gang members. Gang members cried "shoot him, shoot him" as the attacker held the cocked revolver to Turner's chest. Hands raised and duffel bag slung across his shoulder, Turner said he froze.

"My life flashed before my eyes and everything I remembered doing as a kid ran across my mind," he said.

It was a stroke of luck, or destiny, when another teen -- confined to a wheelchair after being shot in a previous gang encounter -- happened by and was able to convince his buddies that Turner was a decent guy and they could let him go.

Shaken, but not deterred, Turner made it to the basketball game, "unproductive at first. I couldn't stop my hands from shaking in the first quarter, but I settled down and had a good game."

After that close call, Turner realized a truth that would serve him well throughout his distinguished military career: Adversity is par for the course, and perseverance is the key to success.

"Learning to deal with and overcome hardship, misfortune and difficulty is what makes us who we are, makes us stronger. In my experience, maintaining a positive attitude, which can sometimes be an even greater challenge in the midst of a storm, is what will help you persevere."

After the gang encounter at the bus stop, Turner's uncle convinced him to leaving Chicago's gritty streets in search of better opportunities. On Oct. 9, 1990, at age 18, he joined the Navy as a seaman deckhand. But it was a tough sell for Turner's mom and biggest fan.

"When I left for boot camp, she wasn't too happy; her baby was leaving home and becoming a man. It was difficult for her to let go, but she's always been a strong woman, and she is the one who motivates me," Turner of his 68-year-old mother, a cancer survivor. "To see what she has experienced in life and how she has pushed through, it is my reason for surviving."

The Navy was a good fit for Turner. He transferred from deckhand to engineman and quickly reached the rank of petty officer 2nd class. Eager and impressionable, he came into contact with several chief warrant officers who would influence his life course.

"I ultimately chose the warrant officer path because of two great warrant officers early in my Navy career. The first African-American officer I had ever seen was a warrant officer, CW2 Zebedee Clark," Turner said. "He was a boatswain mate onboard the shipping port ARDM-4 and he was very intelligent and hardworking. I watched him, secretly, and witnessed his ability to create a cohesive working environment just by his presence."

Turner said he picked Clark's brain, hoping to follow in his footsteps.

"I wanted to be like him. He probably doesn't remember me or doesn't know how much he influenced me, but wherever he is, I would like to thank him for being the person he was," Turner said.

And then there was Chief Warrant Officer 2 Wayne Adgie.

"He was my auxiliary officer onboard the USS Cape St. George CG-71. He was very intelligent, extremely rugged and the best engineer I have ever witnessed," Turner said. "If sailors were huddled around, not working and just shooting the breeze, if you caught wind that he was coming, we would all scatter because no one wanted to feel his wrath."

One day, Turner was chatting with shipmates when Adgie appeared. As the young sailors scattered up ladder wells and disappeared into hatches, anything to avoid the stern warrant officer, Turner stood fast.

"I didn't run. I wanted to see what he would say or do. He walked up to me and we had a great conversation about my family, where I am from and what I wanted to do with my life," Turner said. "After that he became a father figure to me, as well as a great mentor and my biggest influence."

With a newfound confidence, borne from observing great leaders in action, Turner knew it was again time to change the course of his life.

With eight successful Navy years under his belt, Turner joined the Army, immediately beginning training at the Warrant Officer Candidate School, Fort Rucker.

"Leaving the Navy as an E-5 enlisted sailor into the Army's Warrant Officer Procurement Program and achieving the rank of CW5 is unprecedented," Turner said of his historic achievement.

And switching from the Navy to the Army meant new customs, standards and jargon. "Just learning to march was pure comedy for my classmates during Warrant Officer Candidate School," he said.

But Turner did learn. And he excelled.

"What makes any person successful is falling down nine times and getting up 10. If you want something bad enough, put your whole being into it and the universe will allow things to happen for you."

After graduating candidate school, Turner's first junior warrant officer assignment was serving as the assistant engineering officer aboard the Army's Large Tug for the 73rd Transportation Company, Fort Eustis, Virginia. Eight months later he became the chief engineer of the Large Tug.

Commanders began to seek him out for his technical expertise. Technical expertise, after all, is what makes a warrant officer unique, Turner explained.

Unlike commissioned officers, warrants are enlisted service members initially appointed by the secretary of the Army and then commissioned by the president of the United States upon promotion to chief warrant officer. They are technically focused, single specialty officers who undergo rigorous education and training to develop subject matter expertise.

"We are the continuity between enlisted Soldiers and officers," Turner said. "A lieutenant or a captain will have a basic understanding about different systems, that warrant knows almost everything about the system. Commanders rely on this expertise and leadership ability to provide guidance in our fields."

According to the Army Human Resources Command, there are about 15,000 warrant officers in the Army, making up around 2.4 percent of the total force, and close to 15 percent of the officer corps. Most warrant officers previously served as enlisted Soldiers.

Never one to shy from challenge, Turner's next assignment was chief engineer for the 97th Transportation Heavy Boat Company, Fort Eustis. He served on several vessels before deploying to Kuwait where he assumed responsibility for several boats in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Turner redeployed and served as supply officer aboard the Logistic Support Vessel at Ford Island, Hawaii, before a second deployment to Kuwait. In Kuwait, he was promoted to chief warrant officer 3 and became the 545th Transportation Company executive officer at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.

He later served as the battalion marine maintenance officer, Fort Eustis; chief engineer for a Department of Defense counter-drug interdiction vessel, Norfolk, Virginia; and maintenance officer for the 558th Transportation Company, Fort Eustis. After a third deployment to Kuwait, he returned to the United States to assume command of the 545th Harbormaster Detachment, eventually fielding the unit's Harbormaster Command and Control Center and receiving honors for commanding the best trained harbormaster detachment in the Army.

He said his time as commander of the Harbormaster Detachment was, by far, his favorite assignment. As an 881A marine engineering officer, the chances were slim that he would command a detachment. There are only two warrant officer specialties that offer detachment commands, and his was not one of them.

"I should not have been afforded that chance, but my leadership had confidence in me; it was a unique opportunity for a warrant officer," he said. "As detachment commander, I got to lead Soldiers, build cohesion and make our unit family friendly. I took care of them, and they took care of me. I can honestly say if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be a CW5 today. It was their hard work and dedication that ranked me No. 1 warrant officer in my brigade two years in a row."

Turner went on to serve as the 45th Sustainment Brigade's chief of watercraft operations and the unit's senior warrant officer, responsible for the welfare, training, mentoring and job placement of all officers in the brigade at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.

He is currently assigned to the U.S. Army Security Assistance Training Management Organization at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, serving as the chief of the Joint Planning and Assistance Team in Belize City, Belize.

Turner is responsible for advising, training and supervising maintenance for the Belize Coast Guard, Belize Defense Force and Air Wing on activities required for the planning and execution of counter narcotics operations. He is the principal adviser to the senior defense official and defense attaché on all maintenance, operations, communications and training activities for all Belize military vehicles, vessels, aircraft and weapons systems.

On Feb. 1, while serving in this position, he was promoted to chief warrant officer 5, a relatively new rank reserved for the best of the best. The rank of master warrant officer (chief warrant officer 5) was created Dec. 5, 1991, by the Warrant Officer Management Act Pub. L. 102-190.

Turner said he's proud of his historic promotion and will use the opportunity to make a difference in his career field. He said he wants to make a positive impact in the Warrant Officer Corps and the Army's watercraft community by setting high standards. One way he hopes to accomplish this is by inspiring and mentoring junior Soldiers.

For Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jason Milligan, Turner's mentorship was a career booster.

"He took notice that as a new officer I did not have any guidance from other senior personnel, so he stepped in and began to help me, mainly with my transition from enlisted to officer," said Milligan, who has known Turner for five years.

"His work ethic is second to none. He is the kind of person who will not stop at the first correct answer, but will continue to seek out possibilities and options and package it into understandable information that allows you to make the best decision," Milligan said. "And if he doesn't know the answer, which is not often, he will exhaust every avenue to obtain the correct answer."

Milligan also called Turner a humble leader.

"I feel honored that he sees something special in me and takes the time to give wise counsel. But as honored as I feel, I know that he doesn't just focus on me. He offers insight to all junior officers," he said. "He has the whole team in mind when he makes decisions or speaks. A rising tide raises all ships."

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Arian Fernandez agrees and said Turner's technical expertise and candor are two of his greatest leadership traits.

"CW5 Turner defines what a warrant officer is -- a true Army professional. His vast knowledge of watercraft systems has been paramount to the planning and execution of several worldwide missions and commitments," said Fernandez, who met Turner during duty with the 545th Transportation Company in Hawaii. "I respect his views and candid responses when it comes to teaching and mentoring. Whether I am right or wrong in any situation, he will find a way to expand my situational awareness and knowledge.

"What I admire most is his ability to go way out of his comfort zone to complete any given task in the military," Fernandez said. "Watercraft engineer is only a title. What he does above and beyond his scope of responsibilities is what speaks leagues about him."

Turner said he emphasizes overcoming adversity and pushing your limits because it worked for him.

"Know that nothing will come easy. Dealing with hardships and misfortune is what makes you stronger. Take care of people along your journey," Turner said, "and ask the people you took care of to pay it forward."

Article Credits_By Ms. Adriane Foss April 27, 2015

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