“I was actually recruited right off the streets of New York City, into the National Guard,” said Trinidad-born Brigadier General Renwick L. Payne, speaking to BMCC’s Organization of Student Veterans (OSV).
“I enlisted and did my basic in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, then I came back to the City as a PFC [Private First Class], and told the Gunnery Sergeant, ‘I want to go to OCS [Officer Candidate School]. He looked at me and said, simply, ‘No’.”
Not to be dissuaded, the general-to-be “kept working, becoming pretty good at what I do,” he said. “As an E5, I went back to them, and made a very strong suggestion that I should go to OCS—and again, the answer was ‘No’.”
Eventually, promoted to the rank of E6, he was sent to OCS, and became a Field Artillery Lieutenant, then Captain. He was dispatched to the Persian Gulf War and for sixteen years, led the distribution and modernization of transportation equipment for the Army National Guard.
“Most people think fighting is what we do,” he says. “But there is a tremendous amount of pressure on people behind the scenes, putting it all together.”
Today, General Payne is Director of the Joint Staff of the New York National Guard, responsible for domestic operations marked, for example, by the presence of U.S. Marines in Penn Station. He also led disaster relief efforts as Operations Officer for 2005 Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans.
A strategy for success
“I started by figuring out what the guy above me did, and set out to learn how to do that stuff,” said the General. “And when he couldn’t get everything done, I was ready to step in.”
He advised student veterans “to get a feel for how things are shifting,” in today’s employment patterns, by visiting Web sites for the U.S. Departments of Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, and Defense.
“Look at the qualifications for certain jobs,” he advised. “The Department of Defense, IBM, General Motors, General Electric, all recruit from only one pool of individuals,” which comprises 27% of the population.
“Get yourself into that pool,” he said, “by building the skill sets employers are seeking.”
The African-American military legacy
General Payne sees himself as having benefited from the example set by African-American military pioneers who came before him.
“The hallmark of all those individuals is that they worked hard, applying what they learned,” he said, and told of the 369th Infantry Regiment, popularly known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” a group of African-American soldiers from World War I.
He also cited the example of Brigadier General Julia J. Cleckley, the first African-American woman to be promoted to that rank, and who served in the Army National Guard—having started her education with a B.A. in Psychology and Education from Hunter College, CUNY.
Vets reaching out to vets
Father Neil O’Connell led a multi-denominational prayer, before the group broke to continue their discussion over a complimentary buffet luncheon.
One of the attendees, education major Patrick Williams, is secretary of BMCC’s veterans club, where, he says, “You meet people who can assist with school issues, if you need help.”
Williams has also been an active Army Reserve member for eight years, and served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq as a cavalry scout, tracking terrorist targets for surveillance reports.
Justin Fiorella, a criminal justice major and president of the veterans’ club, served for eight years as a “Seabee,” a member of a U.S. Navy construction battalion, in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. Now, he said, “I want to work with kids, in the juvenile justice system.”
The veterans’ club, he said, “is reaching out to all the vets on campus, sharing information on benefits, both within CUNY and through the Veterans Administration.”
Also, he said, “Everyone benefits from the camaraderie the club provides.”
OSV participants also earn credit for their Co-Curricular Transcript, and are eligible to receive recognition for community service, if they serve on the club’s governing body, said Eric Glaude, BMCC’s Coordinator of Student Veterans Services.