WASHINGTON -- It was an emotional night in the frigid, early morning hours of Christmas 2019 on the windswept runway of Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. It was a moment the undersecretary of the Army would remember as one of the most solemn in his career.As holiday cheer spread across the nation, a young mother and her two children anticipated the arrival of the remains of their loved one in a flag-draped casket, said James E. McPherson, the Army’s outgoing No. 2 civilian.The grieving family was accompanied by Army senior leaders, including McPherson, who was the Army’s general counsel at the time. He had stepped in for Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy, who typically takes part in dignified transfers.“I’ll always remember [the family] of the young Soldier,” McPherson said in an interview Jan. 11, ahead of his retirement Tuesday. “For his wife and those two small children, Christmas Day will [never] be the same.”For them, the holiday will always be associated with waiting on a cold tarmac for their fallen loved one to come home, he said.A life of public service Even in the hardest moments, being an Army senior leader has been a privilege, said McPherson, who was sworn in as undersecretary in March after McCarthy left the post to become secretary.After more than three decades in public service, “my fondest memories are times spent with Soldiers,” he said.He started his career as an enlisted military policeman and served at the Presidio of San Francisco, the Eighth Army in South Korea and the 1st Infantry Division.“The Army gave me self-discipline,” he said. “It gave me a clear vision of where I wanted my life journey to take me. I wanted to finish school, go on from there and see where that journey led.”That journey led him to the Navy, where he commissioned as an ensign with the Naval Reserve Judge Advocate General’s Corps in 1979. The California native moved up through the naval ranks, and eventually retired in 2006 as judge advocate general of the Navy.McPherson, a graduate of the University of San Diego School of Law, later went on to serve as the Army’s general counsel. He briefly served as acting secretary of the Navy after being sworn in as the Army undersecretary last year.It was the non-commissioned officers in McPherson’s early years who gave him the confidence and motivation needed for success, he said.“I would attribute those first three years of my professional life serving as an E-1 to E-4 [in the Army] that molded me for the rest of my life,” he said. Being a Soldier, “brought me to where I am today.”People firstAs undersecretary, reminders of being an enlisted Soldier were often around every corner. Like at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where McPherson watched a basic training graduation ceremony that reminded him of his own graduation in 1972.“They were so proud [with] tears streaming down their faces as they got that beret and patch,” he said. “I was emotionally able to join, and reflect upon how I felt on my graduation day from basic training.”Like the young graduates, it’s the Army’s people who “make it the strongest and best” force in the world, he said after being sworn in last year. “Our people ensure our success” as an Army.To do that, he said that leaders must know their people and also be a person of character who people can trust.“If you don’t have that character, [the kind] somebody else can place their trust in, you don’t deserve to be in that leadership position,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s a leadership position with your battle buddy, within your squad, platoon, [and] company -- any leadership position you find yourself in, be a person of character so you can earn trust.”McPherson also urges Soldiers “to have a vision” as leaders, he said, adding this needs to start at the lowest levels. This means to have a vision “in leadership as a squad leader, or have a vision for your squad.”Army of tomorrowAs he steps down from his post, McPherson will leave behind a modernizing force.“Our future is dictated by the National Defense Strategy that was put out a couple of years ago, and we've been pursuing the [modernization] priorities” in tune with that strategy ever since,” he said. “We have to modernize the Army today.“We know that going forward, there are probably lean years ahead [concerning] the budget, but we can't lose sight of the fact that we need to continue to modernize our Army,” he added. “We need to put the very best weapon systems in the hands of our Soldiers. To do anything less is to break that trust with them.”However, not all modernization efforts involve the latest, high-tech hardware. It also includes new ways to promote the diversity and inclusion of its people.While recently there have been “great strides” in those efforts, the journey has only begun, he said."We've been doing Army stuff for over 200 years, [but] we've only been focused on diversity and inclusion for just a handful,” he said. “I think in the next 10 to 15 years, we're going to see great growth in the area of diversity and inclusion.”Regardless of job title or uniform, “one of the things we all have in common is that we raised our right hand and we took an oath to the Constitution,” he said.McPherson urged everyone to remember that while the Constitution has guided this country for centuries, it will continue to guide it for more.“Our oath to the Constitution will ensure that our children and our children’s children are going to enjoy the freedoms of this country,” he said.Related links:Undersecretary of the Army James E. McPherson BioArmy News ServiceARNEWS archives