FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- A year ago, Sgt. James Akinola would have never pictured himself as an honored guest in the Army’s national spotlight or mingling alongside senior leaders so early in his career, but there he was.
On Veterans Day, the combat medic and the Army’s 2020 Soldier of the Year, was front and center for the National Museum of the U.S. Army’s livestreamed grand opening.
The 185,000-square-foot building that sits atop a hill at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, was built to tell the history of the Army’s people through times of war and peace. It’s also roughly an hour from where Akinola graduated high school in Bowie, Maryland.
During the big launch, which was closed to the public because of COVID-19 restrictions, Akinola felt uncharacteristically nervous around the senior leaders, he said.
“I met so many people I only read or heard about,” he recalled. “When I met Sgt. Maj. of the Army [Michael A.] Grinston, I was a little tongue-tied, even though I’m not a shy person.”
As an honoree, despite his age or rank, the 30-year-old played a central role in the virtual grand opening. After he received a ceremonial sabre from the Army’s parachute team, nicknamed the Golden Knights, he handed it to Tammy Call, the museum’s director, who then cut the ribbon.
While the museum serves as a reflective monument to the Army’s 245-year history, it’s opening also served as a testament to Akinola’s past. As a Texas-born son to immigrant parents, he grew up in an ever-changing, borderless world, he said.
Army’s Best Warrior
Since winning the Army’s Best Warrior Competition in October, he has settled into his role within the public eye, although “it still doesn’t seem real,” he said during a recent interview.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said, adding that his title wasn’t something he planned for. “[Becoming the Best Warrior] wasn’t a goal of mine until I got the opportunity.”
Akinola, who represented U.S. Army Medical Command’s Moncrief Army Health Clinic here, took top honors following three weeks of competition in the fall that included knowledge-based and physical assessments, like the Army Combat Fitness Test, a 12-mile road march, and other warrior tasks.
Even under extraordinary circumstances, Akinola proved he had “what it takes to compete and win,” Grinston said during the awards presentation at the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition.
Twenty-two Soldiers from 11 Army commands vied in the competition. Sgt. 1st Class Alexander Berger, who is assigned to 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Carson, Colorado, was named the Army’s top noncommissioned officer.
Paying it forward
Akinola’s story is all over. Although born in Texas, he left with his family a few months later. He has lived in London, Philadelphia, Nigeria, and then back to the United States for high school in Maryland. It seems Akinola, the son of a computer engineer and health care worker, spent his early years always on the go.
In Nigeria, he lived with his grandparents as a small child. Then a few years later, in Philadelphia, he picked up English for the first time at age 5. Since graduating high school, he has returned to Nigeria a handful of times to visit family.
Despite the accolades he has collected, the Soldier never enlisted for the attention or fanfare. He had a much more down-to-earth approach to enlist: help others and serve his country.
“Enlisting into the Army seemed like an opportunity to thank the United States for the opportunities it has afforded immigrants,” he said, regarding his 2017 enlistment.
In addition to honoring his country, Akinola hoped for self-achievement through military service, he said. But Akinola’s choice to serve grew into much more fulfillment than he had planned.
After being recognized as the top Soldier, he realized it was about more than an award, he said. Like the Army museum he helped open, the award was built on a storied history of Soldiers who wore the uniform before him.
“Being able to represent those who came before me, [and] those who walked that path and made it easier to succeed no matter what the situation or position is,” he said. “There are always people who paved the way before you.”
Akinola, who mostly associates his heritage with family in Nigeria, deeply appreciates the African-American Soldiers of past generations who helped make his success possible, he said.
“For me to be where I am, especially with the honors I have received, I know I’m better because of the people who came before me,” he said. “They laid the foundation to be where I am today. I’m better because of them.”
It’s that pay-it-forward attitude that he has brought into the NCO corps with him. When asked about his plans, and whether he was interested in vying for the Army’s top NCO award, he said he wanted his Soldiers to achieve their best.
“As soon as I got back [from winning], I put on my NCO rank and made sure my Soldiers started working on their strengths while focusing on their weaknesses,” he said.
To help his Soldiers, Akinola has implemented the SMA’s signature initiative “This is My Squad,” he said, because “it’s not about me. I’m here for the bigger picture of the Army” by returning to the health clinic, and learned as much as he can about his Soldiers.
Like the previous generations, for whom he credits his success, Akinola’s goals are to help future generations succeed. Their accomplishments, and what he’s able to push them to do, is how Akinola will measure his own career fulfillment, he said.
“The best way to achieve success is to know your Soldiers on a personal level,” he said. “[NCOs] have to know their people. If my Soldiers have an issue, I want them to be comfortable coming to me and expressing their situation to me. Then, I can reach out to them with my background and knowledge and help them.”
Helping others is what being a top Soldier is all about, he said.