June 30, 1982, this then-17-year-old walked through the main gate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. It was the eve of Reception Day for the incoming Class of 1986, and, in anticipation of the next day’s events, I went on a reconnaissance of the academy grounds.
Abruptly, a red Jeep stopped, and a gruff colonel called out, asking me where I was going. After mentioning the academy’s Michie Stadium, he invited me into his Jeep, since it was a long walk up a steep hill. I would later learn he was then-Col. Robert Berry, head of the Law Department and the lead officer representative for the Black Knights football team. And so began a valuable, lifelong mentor relationship.
Berry’s passion was mentoring and inspiring legions of cadets and officers. The Army family was his family, and he treated his mentees like his own sons and daughters. Sometimes this entailed encouragement and affirmation; other times it was candid feedback to improve; sometimes it was consolation. Recognizing its positive impact on the Army and leader development, Berry diligently mentored hundreds, if not thousands, of Army officers and cadets from his days as general counsel of the Army in the early 1970s until his death in 2011.
If not for Berry, this cadet would have quit West Point; this lieutenant would not have gone to Ranger training; and this captain would not have stayed in the Army past the five-year commitment. Berry was always accessible to provide advice, listen to concerns and share perspectives. Importantly, he would tell me what I needed to hear, which was not necessarily what I wanted to hear. He attended changes of command and promotions, served as best man at my wedding and was the godfather of my children. I am not unique. Berry invested the same personal time, energy and care in many.
Suffering from cancer at age 85 and knowing he did not have much longer on earth, Berry’s mentees held a party for him in early 2011. As usual, Berry delighted in being around his Army family, and he used the opportunity to continue mentoring instead of focusing on himself.
I was able to pull him aside and ask him, “What can I do to be worthy of your generous investment in me?” Berry’s simple reply: “Pay it back. Do the same for others.”
Berry died a few months later, leaving behind a wonderful legacy and a huge contribution to the Army. His final words gave me renewed vigor to be a better mentor, to mentor more people and to make mentorship a higher priority. As a Soldier For Life, retired from active duty, it remains incumbent on me to invest in others and provide mentorship. It is perhaps the greatest contribution a retiree can make.
Others to Emulate
I was fortunate to benefit from the mentorship of other great leaders. Leaders who have passed but who were incredible mentors.
Former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno was fond of saying, “You have to make the personnel business personal.”
Gen. Robert Cone, former commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, reinforced that “mentorship is a duty, but mentees must also make themselves worthy of mentoring.”
Brig. Gen. Charles “Ben” Allen, who was the 4th Infantry Division’s assistant division commander for support, reminded me that “mentorship is about life, not just the military.”
These three successful leaders left us way too early, but they leave behind a powerful legacy: the people they mentored. All three knew Brig. Gen. Robert Berry. As Berry implored, Odierno, Cone and Allen paid it back.
Well done. May these selfless mentors rest in peace.
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Lt. Gen. John “J.T.” Thomson, U.S. Army retired, served more than 34 years in the Army, retiring in October 2020 as commander of NATO Allied Land Command, Turkey. Previously, he was commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas, now known as Fort Cavazos. He deployed four times to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan. He is a 1986 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and has a master’s degree in leadership and counseling from Long Island University, New York. He is an Association of the U.S. Army Center for Leadership fellow.