SAN ANTONIO (Jan. 3, 2015) -- More than a decade after the 9-11 attacks, doubts are being raised about the relevance of military service, and the associated job security, as the Army is set to get smaller in the next several years. Indeed, about every two decades since World War II, the Army's end-strength expands and contracts to deal with the changing geo-political situation and budget constraints.

In the past, young people turned to friends and relatives with military service for advice, but the country has seen those ranks diminish continuously since the Vietnam era. This presents the issue of how to educate those interested in military service and the opportunities it provides. More and more often, young people seek informal mentorship from ROTC cadre, recruiters, and military service organizations in order to get the best advice they can find.

Senior Army officials and concerned civic leaders gathered in San Antonio last week to discuss opportunities, leadership and mentorship at the Army's annual All American Bowl, a high school all-star football game, Jan 3.

One civic leader who attended was retired Maj. Gen. Byron Bagby, vice president, ROTC Programs, for The ROCKS, Inc., an African-American military service organization that "provides developmental guidance to members of the Army Officer Corps and ROTC cadets," according to its website. Likewise, The ROCKS helps members transitioning into the civilian sector.

It was Bagby's first time to participate in events at the All-American Bowl, where he hoped to "interact with others on active duty, Cadet Command and USAREC (Army Recruiting Command), and network with others outside of the Army," he said in a telephone interview, Dec. 19.

U.S. Army Cadet Command's Maj. Gen. Peggy C. Combs told reporters this fall that the world is still "complex and dangerous," and that the future will be even more challenging. The Army "will need great leaders who are decisive, and can outthink the enemy to continually exploit the initiative."

"The Army wants cadets who are strong leaders," Combs said in October. "They need to be well-rounded individuals with a strong commitment to academics and physical fitness. They are team players who excel at problem-solving and decision-making."

Retired Maj. Gen. Bagby agrees with these points, and he is working closely with the Cadet Command to help build the Officer Corps of the future. With The ROCKS, Bagby hopes to increase the percentage of American men and women between the ages of 17 and 25 who are qualified to join the military, particularly among African-Americans. He said that members of the ROCKS serve as speakers who go out to speak at churches, civic groups, colleges and universities.

The ROCKS traces its origins to the mid-1960s, when a group of black Army officers assigned to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, met informally in order to get to know each other better and to succeed in school. After graduation, a number of them landed in the Washington, D.C., area, and the group continued to grow. They eventually came to be known as The ROCKS, in honor of one of its founding members, Brig. Gen. R.C. "Rock" Cartwright.

The group set out to "promote mentorship, scholarship, networking, professional development, fellowship and community outreach to produce opportunities and maximize talent across the U.S. Armed Forces," Bagby said.

The ROCKS had only one chapter until the early 1990s. There are now 23 ROCKS chapters and seven interest groups, with almost 1,100 active-duty members (including Generals Lloyd Austin, Vincent Brooks, and Dennis Via), 320 retired members, 34 cadets and 27 senior civil servants.

Bagby said that mentor relationships will vary from the formal, in which "both parties agree to a written set of goals, expectations and milestones, to the informal, in which an officer will call his mentor when facing a career milestone such as the selection of a functional area." Bagby, who retired in 2011, said that "most of mine are informal, and I have several mentees that are still on active duty."

Bagby saw end-strength fluctuation first-hand, coming on active duty in 1978, during the post-Vietnam War era that some people referred to as the "hollow Army." Bagby graduated from Westminster College with a bachelors degree in Business Economics, and was commissioned through the ROTC program as a lieutenant of Artillery. His early assignments included two tours with artillery units at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and in South Korea and Hawaii.

"I remember very clearly my first mentorship relationship during my first assignment at Fort Bragg, where I attended Faith Community Chapel each Sunday. Another member of that congregation was the late Lt. Gen. Robert E. Gray, then a major," Bagby said. "After church service each Sunday, he would ask how my week went and what major events I had coming up the next week. Eventually, he became my long-term mentor. No matter where the two of us were living or serving, I could always call on Gen. Gray for advice. As I progressed up the rank structure, so did he. We maintained contact over the years, from the time we met in 1979 until he passed away in 2011," Bagby said.

Bagby has given back what was so freely given to him. Since his retirement in 2011, he has been a "Soldier for Life," carrying the message of Army culture, traditions and leadership to a number of colleges.

Likewise, The ROCKS works closely with Cadet Command headquarters to encourage qualified candidates to apply for ROTC scholarships, that include 2-, 3-, 4-year opportunities, as well as the Guaranteed Reserve Forces Duty option. The National Board also selects between 15 and 20 ROTC cadets to receive stipends in the amount of $2,000.

The ROCKS also work with Historically Black Colleges and Universities and non-Historically Black College ROTC programs on mentorship and professional development.

Dialogue with the Army is not limited to Cadet Command. "Our senior members and national board regularly meet with the assistant secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and we've had numerous visits with the chief and vice chief of staff of the Army," he said.

In the future, The ROCKS hopes to expand their strategic communication efforts to reach a broader audience, and to establish partnerships with members of industry to provide scholarships for STEM students. Some of these efforts took place during meetings in San Antonio. Bagby also said that they intend to "strengthen the mentorship for senior members of the DOD civilian workforce and Reserve and Army National Guard Officers, and to increase our fund-raising efforts to allow us to raise the amount we designate for scholarships."

Bagby spoke with conviction about press reports this fall on the number of African-American officers in senior leadership positions in the combat arms branches of the Army. "Diversity is a multiplier. (These statistics are) not conducive to a healthy, inclusive force, and will result in a lack of diversity at all ranks, especially the senior commanders and leaders. We need to manage the pool of available officers in a fair and efficient manner."

He cautioned, however, against overnight fixes and "throwing money at the problem."

"You can't grow a combat arms captain, let alone a colonel or general overnight. There is a need to nurture upward mobility with the right assignments. The key is to identify and polish the diamonds. And that's what we want to help the Army do," he said.

Bagby's own experience shows increased responsibility at each phase of his service. As a field grade officer, Bagby commanded a field artillery battalion, and later, division artillery with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. As a brigadier general, he served with Fort Drum's 10th Mountain Division, including its early deployment to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom.

Since his retirement, Bagby has been an independent consultant conducting executive leadership, coaching and training, to include those who are future battalion and brigade commanders going through the "pre-command course" at Fort Leavenworth.

The ROCKS' philosophy of leadership and mentoring fits hand-in-glove with Cadet Command's vision, and the long tradition of mission accomplishment and taking care of Soldiers. Combs has said that "we're looking for folks who want to serve and want to be something bigger than them. Cadets have to be quick thinkers who can apply their intellect in a variety of ways when they are officers, including in split-second, life or death situations."

"We truly do stand on shoulders of giants," she said. "I just think there is no better way to live."