January 28, 2013 10:14:12 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
Brigadier General Calvin H. Elam likes to say he came to Columbus Air Force Base to get an education, but he ended up taking home a bride.
Recently that bride, Mary Glenn Elam, and a host of in-laws, watched him make history as he became the first black brigadier general in the South Carolina Air National Guard.
His path to the top has not been easy.
It is a story that begins in 1980, when the Greenwood, S.C. native realized that if he wanted to become the first member of his family to go to college, he would have to pay his own way. His parents were divorced and money was tight, so he turned to the Air Force, intending to "do four years and call it a day."
But to his surprise, he enjoyed the structure of the military. He liked being around older people who were able to teach him things about how to be a professional and make his way in the world. And before long, he was racking up honors and climbing the ranks.
When he arrived in Columbus in 1984, he found the Friendly City was similar to Greenwood and Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C. He liked it. And he liked it even better when he looked across a crowded room at a Mississippi State homecoming party and saw Mary Glenn, a 1981 graduate of S.D. Lee High School and a student at MSU.
In 1988, he became an officer and they married and moved to Irmo, S.C.
As far as he could tell, color wasn't much of an issue in the military. As long as he did his job -- filled in the appropriate squares, dotted the right "i's" and crossed the right "t's," tried to make a difference in his field and performed at a high level -- he easily made rank and was promoted.
Still, there was a time when he didn't believe he had a chance to climb the upper echelons, no matter how hard he worked. When he looked at the top, he saw no upper-level black officers. There were no footsteps to follow.
Being the state's first black brigadier general is humbling, Elam said via telephone. He feels a grave responsibility to perform his best so the way is paved for those who will come behind him. He knows the spotlight will be on him over the next year, but he is also aware of the opportunity that awaits.
It is important for those in the lower ranks to understand what it takes to become an officer and "how to play the game," he said.
He immediately started out at a disadvantage by entering the Air Force straight out of high school, without a college degree, which is required to become an officer. He worked all day and went to school at night, earning a bachelor's degree in business marketing in 1988 from the University of South Carolina's Darla Moore School of Business, then received his commission after completing the Air National Guard's Academy of Military Science.
The daunting workload could have been a stumbling block, but instead, Elam saw the Air Force as being like any corporation -- they would leverage him to get what they needed and he would leverage them to get where he wanted to be.
"You have to really focus on goal setting," he said. "There are certain milestones and hurdles you have to clear in order to get to the rank of general. Once you clear those hurdles, the road map is laid out for you. You have to set high standards and high goals and really make an effort to achieve them."
And then, you have to be given a chance to prove yourself.
"Somebody has to let you in the game," he said. "If no one ever lets you in the game, or they take you out when it's really important, you kind of get left out. I was fortunate."
He has had the opportunity to see a lot of changes since he entered the Air Force -- most notably the shift from a country prepared for war to a country embroiled in a global war on terrorism.
"When I first came in the Air Force, it was in the period of the Cold War, nuclear disarmament and that era," Elam said. "We were training to protect and defend the U.S. or our allies if war broke out or there was a skirmish around the world, but there were no real events going on that required U.S. involvement. Now it's what we call an expeditionary force -- always in the constant rotation of being in a theater of war."
As a brigadier general, Elam is only one rank away from being a major general and three ranks from being a four-star general, but at the moment, he's concentrating on the job at hand, not looking too far ahead.
Last year, he moved up from mission support group commander, where he was in charge of five squadrons, to assistant adjutant general, which makes him responsible to the adjutant general for directing the entire South Carolina Air National Guard's operations.
"The enlisted corps is still the finest part of the military -- they're the guys doing all the work, for the most part," Elam said. "But they need good leaders. If I never get any further, I've made it further than I thought I would."
During his pinning ceremony Jan. 13 at the Multi-Unit Readiness Center at McEntire Joint National Air Base, more than 300 people packed into the auditorium to witness history.
"Cal has had a long and distinguished career in the Air Force and the South Carolina Air National Guard, and this promotion to brigadier general culminates many years of hard work and dedicated service to this state and nation," said the South Carolina Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston, who presided over the ceremony. "He is the epitome of the citizen-airman."
Elam was unanimously chosen because of his work in the support arena as well as his work connecting with the community, Livingston said during the ceremony, encouraging him to "put that star to work, because your potential is unlimited."
Livingston, along with Elam's wife and their children -- April, 31; Erin, 22; and Forbes, 15 -- pinned stars onto his uniform and hat, making his promotion official.
"I didn't get here by myself," Elam told the crowd. "As a military leader you quickly learn, particularly as a commander, to take none of the credit and all of the blame. The best piece of advice I received when I joined the military was from my uncle, a former Air Force guy, J. Randolph Elam. He said something one day that was so profound and stuck with me. He said to me, 'Son, whatever you do, don't stop 'til you quit.'"
This article includes reporting by Lt. Col. Jim St. Clair of the South Carolina Air National Guard's Joint Force Headquarters public affairs office.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.