CLEMSON, S.C. -- An extraordinary U.S. Army career came to an end April 29 as Lt. Col. Jimmy Mullinax, commander of Clemson University's Reserve Officers' Training Corps, retired on the same stage he was commissioned on 21 years earlier.
This is the first time a graduate of Clemson's ROTC has retired as the commander of the very program that molded him into a leader. Army officers do not get to choose their assignments, so getting orders to come back to Clemson was a highly unusual but serendipitous twist in Mullinax's career.
He noted the fortuitous nature of his last mission in his speech at the ceremony, posing a rhetorical question he said he'd been asked many times:
"How do you get to go back to your alma mater?" he said. "I only have one answer for that: God brought me back here. Because it wasn't my doing, and it couldn't have been the Army because it made no sense. It was orchestrated for me to come back, and I'm blessed to be here."
Retired Col. Eric Schwartz, who was Assistant Professor of Military Science for Clemson's ROTC in the early 90's, returned to help retire the young officer he had mentored more than two decades before and recalled the instantly recognizable potential of the young cadet he knew.
"I wanted to tell stories about little Jimmy Mullinax when he was a cadet in the Army ROTC program and I was his instructor. I wanted to tell you stories about Jimmy getting lost in the woods, or showing up late for physical training, or losing his weapon, or afraid to rappel of a cliff -- but I got nothing," said Schwartz. "From the moment he stepped out on the parade fields of Clemson he was a beautiful young man to serve with. Everything about him represented what we believed were the core values of being a good soldier, a good leader, and a good American. He was mature beyond his years, and that's exactly what we expected out of him to be a young Army officer."
Mullinax and Schwartz traded compliments throughout the ceremony for the benefit of the large crowd gathered in the Tillman Hall auditorium. Mullinax described how he came to idolize Schwartz, who went on from his position at Clemson to become a highly decorated commander for the 3rd Infantry Division that led the initial raid into Baghdad that later came to be known as "Thunder Run".
"I'm blessed to have my professor of military science instructor here. It's an honor to have him witness the beginning and end of my career," said Mullinax. "He was a tank commander in Desert Storm and Iraq. He's my hero. He's the guy that shaped me into who I was going to be as an officer."
Mullinax graduated Clemson in 1994 with a Bachelor's Degree in industrial management and was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the quartermaster branch (supply and logistics support), detailed to the Air Defense Artillery Branch. He earned a Master of Military Studies from the Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama in 2010. His first assignment was in Battery C, 1st Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment as a fire control platoon leader and then as the battery executive officer. He went on to hold numerous positions of leadership in quartermaster and logistic elements, including two tours of duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, culminating in his assignment to the chief plans branch, G3, Human Resources Command, Fort Knox, Kentucky prior to arriving at Clemson.
Retired Lt. Col. Bill Millar, who was the commander of the Clemson ROTC during Mullinax's years as a cadet, was also on hand to bring the unique circle of Mullinax's career to a proper close.
"It's really hard to believe that 22 years ago I stood on this same stage with then-cadet Mullinax and gave him his commissioning oath," said Millar. "That day he promised to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. During his distinguished military career, to include two tours of duty in Iraq, he made good on that promise. I was very pleased four years ago to learn that Jimmy was coming back her to be the commander of the Fightin' Tiger battalion. I knew that he would be a great role model for cadets and that he would ensure that Clemson had one of the best ROTC programs in the country. Sure enough, Clemson has one of the best ROTC programs in the country - and it was due to his hard work and the hard work of his cadre."
Mullinax said it was a blessing to return to Clemson in a military capacity, because the school has such a rich military history and goes out of its way to support its ROTC program.
"I appreciate the support this university gives to the ROTC," he said. "President Clements even authorized a red, white and blue cord for our graduates to wear during graduation, to show they are going into the armed forces. He makes the commitment to come to our commissioning ceremonies. It says a lot that a president of a university with 22,000 students comes once a semester to shake the hands of our future officers and hand them that cord."
Mullinax consistently returned to the theme of being blessed in his remarks, emphasizing a point made at many Army retirements; that he made it through because of his faith and family. He noted that he and his wife, Angie, moved their family to nine different duty stations together over the course of his career.
It was a sentiment Schwartz also touched on in his speech.
"Over your 20-year career I know you've had those talks with Angie and the kids where you've told them, 'I've been promoted and we're going to be moving,'" said Schwartz. "Out of the state, out of the country. And you've even had those talks where you've said, 'I've got to deploy again.' Those are tough conversations to have. There were probably a few tears. But like good Army families, you saddled up and you moved out. The strength of our nation comes from the strength of our soldiers, and the strength of our soldiers comes from the strength of their families."
Mullinax spent a good portion of his time on stage addressing the ROTC cadets in attendance, taking the opportunity to advise them one last time.
"I will say this to my cadets: I appreciate you coming today. I am here today where I started this career, but when I left 21-and-a-half years ago I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't know how long this Army gig was going to last," he told them. "You will think about staying in the Army multiple times in your career, and you will decide whether it's time to stay or go. I've tested that decision several times. I decided to stay."
He closed by addressing all the people who had taken the time to be there for this seminal moment in his life.
"I started this saying I was blessed. I hope you can truly see why I'm blessed. It's not about me. It's about you and what you've done in my life. You've given me the best life I could ever dream of. Continue to support our military men and women."
Schwartz, who has a couple years' head start on Mullinax as a retired Army officer, had some advice of his own for his former student:
"Here's the deal, Jimmy: 'Retirement' is a dirty word. You are prohibited from this moment on from using the word 'retirement'. You must now use the word 'transition' because retirees slow down -- but not you, Jimmy. You're speeding up, partner. There's a lot of work for you to do. Still a lot of lives to change. Keep up the fight."