ATLANTA — Staff Sgt. James Richardson joined the Army to get an education. He's stayed in for ten years for the opportunities and experiences he's had and the pride he feels wearing the uniform.
Richardson, a multimedia illustrator with the 335th Signal Command (Theater), produces visual displays, creates graphics, and makes artwork that the command uses for its publications, signs, charts and posters.
As the only active component multimedia illustrator in a theater-level signal command, the demand for his skills is high.
Richardson chose his job after a recommendation from his mom, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Twila Richardson, an Information Systems Technician with the 106th Signal Brigade.
"My mom wanted me to have a safe job," he said. "I joined right after the surge, and she didn't want me to deploy a lot. I've always liked the arts. I like to create things. I wanted to get trained to create, learn, and improve on that."
A self-described "stick-figure kind of guy," Richardson chose multimedia illustration to learn graphic design.
He's expanded his abilities beyond stick figures in the decade he's served.
"I learned a little bit about drawing, photo manipulation," Richardson said. "I've learned photography, which I'm becoming a big fan of. I learned a little bit about website design."
His favorite part of the job is combining imagery to tell an exciting story.
"My favorite thing is making collages. Taking a bunch of photos and merging those into one to create a new story."
Richardson says the Army has been his whole life and being raised in a military family, the choice to join after high school was natural.
One of six children, his father served during Desert Storm, and his mom, Twila, retires later this year after serving for 20 years.
Seeing her hard work through the years inspired him to join.
"My mom worked pretty hard to do what she does," he said. "After high school, I saw the opportunity to be a better me based on what I experienced as a child, so I decided to take that route and join the Army."
Richardson feels that serving in the military has helped him become a better person.
"I like the person I've become. I'm getting my education. I'm working on myself as a leader and working on myself financially. I'm a different person than I was ten years ago. I'm more responsible," he said. "I don't shy away from leadership anymore. I'm more comfortable speaking in front of people. I'm more confident in myself."
He also enjoys the Army's family-like atmosphere and the opportunities to develop others.
"The Army is a big family," Richardson said. It's like the drill sergeants used to say, "I'm now your mom, your dad, your auntie, your uncle," he said. "It's true when you get up there in age and rank, and you have those new privates, new 18 year-olds you are almost raising another person. When they achieve something under your tutelage, under your wing, it's a great feeling".
His favorite two experiences during his time in uniform come from serving with a Special Forces group and being an Airborne Soldier. He described jumping out of a plane as terror followed by peace and then terror.
"I've jumped out of a plane 20 times. It's scary. It's terrifying. Like as soon as the doors open and you see all of that blue. The green light pops up, and you have to start shuffling toward the door", Richardson said. "It's terrifying, but once you're out and the parachute opens, it's a bit of peace and freedom for about five seconds before you hit the ground."
He also enjoyed the prestige and challenge that came with serving in an Airborne unit.
"Being attached to a Special Forces group. That's a different side of the military that most people don't get to see. You train a little harder. You learn a little more about soldiering, and there is a separate pride to have when you are airborne 24/7. You walk around with your maroon beret, and everyone else has regular patrol caps on, you feel special."
Although growing up in a military family, Richardson had misconceptions about serving in the Army before joining.
"The Army isn't as scary as we all like to make it out to be, Richardson said. "Depending on what you choose in the military. You aren't going to join, and the next day you're in a foreign country shooting a weapon or anything like that. You are there to learn. You are there to help other people be better versions of themselves. It's not all jumping out of planes behind enemy lines and killing."
For Richardson, the Army as a place where you can develop yourself to the fullest extent, and the Army's slogan from 1980 to 2001 still resonates with him.
"My favorite Army motto we've had has been 'be all you can be' because it's true," he said. "You have to be prepared to be a better person than when you joined, training your body, training your mind, going to school, furthering your education, leading and teaching people."