Cadet Kenya Nelson, now 39 and an Army second lieutenant, sings the national anthem during the Dec. 16 commissioning ceremony at California State University-Northridge.

NORTHRIDGE, Calif. -- Kenya Nelson always knew he'd get by on his gifts. His mother and big brother both had flashes of music stardom. Kenya had all that talent, too. Four years ago, with things going well, and a budding family, a new idea came clear: Nelson felt the call to stop getting by on himself and become part of something bigger.

So he joined the Army. In December, U.S. Army Cadet Command commissioned more than 700 lieutenants at colleges and universities across the United States. Nelson was among them, earning his Army commission at 38.

It's rare for people in their late thirties to join the Army -- let alone earn an Army commission. According to Maj. William Ritch, assistant professor of military science at the University of California Los Angeles, it's a feat that would take "tremendous drive, focus and dedication" to achieve.

Nelson was ready for the challenge. His love of leadership, instilled by a single mother raising the Nelson boys in the poorest part of Philadelphia, led him to military service.

"My mother instilled in us that following others can get you into trouble," Nelson explained. "With my mother and my aunts and uncles watching over us, it became easy for us to know how to find who I should and who I shouldn't surround myself with."

Nelson's mother, Phyllis, whisked the boys, now young men, off to California in the mid-1990s when she was offered a recording contract. Kenya worked various retail jobs, attended college, and followed his brother Mark, a successful record producer and recording artist, into the Los Angeles music scene. He also married and started a family.

"I grew tired of the day-to-day," Nelson said, "with no one having my back. The Army was the best organization I could think of to join."

Nelson shipped out to basic training in May 2008, a day he won't forget. His desire to lead became clearer. His service as a non-commissioned officer in his California-based Reserve unit and his attendance at California State University -- Northridge created a gateway to officership.

Nelson uses tactics to raise his children similar to the ones his mother used to raise him and his brother. He and his wife, Aubrey, amid their three children in a flurry of shoelaces and backpack straps, head out the door to start their day. Dropping his charges at school, his leadership instincts kick in and the daily mantra begins:

"What are we?," Nelson asks.

"Leaders!" his kids reply.

"What do we do?," he asks.

"Lead by example!" they shout back.

"What happens when we don't lead?"

"We get into trouble!"

Savion, 13, Ajani, 10, and Kadir, 6, pour out of the truck to school. As a father, and now as an Army lieutenant, leadership has become something that Nelson breathes -- not leadership for the sake of notoriety or self-promotion, but for the sake of service.

"I spoke with an Army general at Fort Knox," Nelson explained. "I asked him, 'How did you become a general?' He said to me 'When I was a second lieutenant, I thought about being a second lieutenant.'

Nelson said the lesson has stuck.

"I'm not even thinking about becoming a first lieutenant. My main focus is knowing how to take care of my Soldiers. The rest will come with the territory."

Page last updated Wed February 29th, 2012 at 00:00