By Mr. Robert P Johnson (Leonard Wood)February 27, 2009
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. - This year has been designated "Year of the NCO," and that got me thinking about noncommissioned officers that influenced my 30-year career. With hundreds of outstanding NCOs crossing my path it might have been a tremendously difficult task to single out one that made a great impact on my life, but there was one that did stand out and truly changed my life.
Staff Sgt. John Bull would not make anyone's Soldier of the Quarter list. Enlisting in the 60s, Bull was one of then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's Project 100,000 - Soldiers with less than stellar records and at the bottom of the intelligence scale for enlistment. In those days, a recruit had to score a minimum of 31 on the aptitude test for military service, but under Project 100,000, scores as low as 10 were accepted. In all, more than 350,000 volunteered under this category - not one of the Army's finer moments.
Project 100,000 individuals were brought in the military to shore up personnel needs for Vietnam, and Bull could have been the poster child.
He could barely read or write, but had advanced to staff sergeant by 1975 and was my first infantry squad leader. To be truthful, I am not even sure his first name was John as everyone of higher or equal rank just called him "Bull." He couldn't read a map, struggled with field manuals and simple math was a constant challenge - but he could lead Soldiers.
Bull's concept of leadership was to get people to do things because they wanted to - and he mastered getting his squad to want to do things with either his praise or his wrath, neither of which he dispensed lightly or unwarranted. When you got a compliment from Bull, it made you feel 10-feet tall and when the "discussion" was a bit critical, you wanted to crawl under a rock and hide. Looking back, I never got a "discussion" from him without deserving it - and those "discussions" were usually one-way.
In every category (other than intellect), Bull lead by example. You couldn't out run, out shoot or out soldier this NCO. His values were that of today's Army - they just weren't in vogue yet. He built confidence in his squad and taught us teamwork. I realize now that this NCO laid down a large part of the foundation of my own character.
One of Bull's greatest assets in my opinion was his ability to read people and know immediately how to motivate, challenge and lead them. He could spot talent, developed his junior NCOs and flushed out the duds from the squad, and on a summer day in the 70s, took me aside and told me to apply for an Army ROTC scholarship. He said he didn't want me to leave, but he knew it was the right thing for me. Coming from a man with little education, this was monumental praise and advice that changed my life.
A few months later, I departed his squad and began a new phase in my life. I completed college, received a commission and served 28 more years as a commissioned officer.
While Staff Sgt. John Bull probably never earned his GED or any educational certificate for that matter, he was one of the smartest men I ever met.