FORT KNOX, Ky. — When Col. CJ King walked through the doors of Garrison Headquarters at Fort Knox July 28, 2019, he entered a world of unknowns.
King was no stranger to Fort Knox. He had passed by the Garrison Headquarters building on numerous occasions in the past while stationed at other units around post. What he hadn’t done before was serve as a garrison commander.
“It’s probably the one job you can get in the Army where there’s no other position that can prepare you for it,” said King. “Every job out there requires leadership, but in terms of expertise, I’ve not been in an organization for the last 10 or 15 years where you’re not the most experienced person in that organization — where you’re able to come in immediately and make an influence.
“What you find in an organization like this is there are so many complexities, and so many things you’re not experienced on, you really have to take an appetite suppressant on the front end and say, ‘Hey, I need to learn some things here before I start making any changes or adjustments.’”
While the amount of knowledge and experience among the employees seemed daunting at first, King said it also amounted to a huge benefit for him.
“The great thing about an organization like this is because there are so many Department of Army civilians and contractors that are competent, dedicated and committed, their experience base provides you the time to get that experience,” he said. “For my first 29 years in the Army, I probably didn’t appreciate the experience, the commitment, and the dedication that was resident in every garrison I’ve ever been to.”
King said it was always easy for him and others in the past to point fingers at a garrison commander when the grass grew a little too long, or take for granted the level of competence and commitment leaders had. Having been at Fort Knox in the past, he already knew the level of competence he would find.
As a result, King decided to make it his primary focus to influence those areas where he felt like he hadn’t been a valued customer at other installations. He started by observing how the different directorates conducted their business.
“By the time I kind of got to a point where I could clearly see things and begin to influence them was about the time that the commander’s assessment program began to rear up, and about the time that the potential for V Corps began to rear up.”
King and his staff worked countless hours behind the scenes to facilitate what started out as the Battalion Commander Assessment Program, and quickly included two more programs: the Colonels Command Assessment Program and Sergeants Major Assessment Program.
At the same time, U.S. Army officials were looking for a home for V Corps. They wanted a place where a corps-level command could stand up with relative ease and cost effectiveness. King found himself working closely with his staff to develop a viable plan that would make establishing the three-star command enticing.
Those plans included where to house the unit, how to get them up and running quickly with everything from office space to military housing.
“There were a ton of other focus areas but those were the two major muscle movements that were consuming the intellectual and organizational energy of the Garrison,” said King. “Then as soon as we began to make progress on those, COVID hit.”
Few, if any, could have predicted what to expect when the White House announced plans to shut down overseas travel and take a nationwide protective stance against the spreads of COVID-19. King said they were in the same boat as everybody else.
“It really was kind of like the year that wasn’t,” said King. “It was just a completely different dynamic for every installation as we worked our way through that.”
COVID changed everything.
King found himself at the center of regular informational town halls and countless installation protocol changes that involved social distancing, the wearing of masks, travel restrictions, stop movements, layoffs, food and product shortages, extreme cleansing and disinfecting standards, contract changes and housing concerns.
“Often, I look back over my time here and wonder, ‘Hey, what could we have accomplished that we didn’t in the year that COVID came,” said King. “Clearly we made some gains in areas, but that was a year that there would have been other focus areas had it not have been for COVID.”
King said he was very fortunate to have the quality of staff in place he had as all the changes came down.
“There were a lot of very smart people that got in front of this thing,” said King. “There were a lot of folks, including me, who thought this was going to be just a blip on the radar; just a standard flu season. Within about 30 to 45 days it became clear we were dealing with something else that was bigger, more challenging.”
As King and others came to grips with the enormity of the situation, leaders across the installation turned to him and his staff to help implement the protocols that later converted into everyday life at the installation.
“This will shape me moving forward. It’s an example of something you could never have prepared for until it emerged,” said King. “I say that, but sure enough we had folks who had looked at this through a lens several years ago.
“Thankfully, they were able to take that plan off the shelf, dust it off, and give us something to go off of — another example of being surrounded by folks who are brilliant.”
One area that had helped shaped King’s leadership philosophy prior to his arrival became a hallmark of his time at Fort Knox. Many at Fort Knox know him to be authentically serious about stamping out sexual assault.
“I came into this experience with formative experience,” said King.
He shows up to every available installation sexual assault training class to briefly share his experience with others: an incident of sexual assault he found out about while serving as a commander at a previous unit: a crime that devastated him personally as he witnessed the victim suffering from it.
“In the last five or six years, what I have realized is that I will never be in an organization, whether it’s military or civilian, where there’s not a predator lurking around somewhere,” said King. “They’re out there. We have to acknowledge that, embrace it and then say, ‘What do we do about it?’
“That’s what I wanted to do from Day 1 is make sure we stop it; that corrosive, if allowed to fester, can tear an organization apart. It destroys trust.”
Despite the restricting effects of COVID over the span of much of King’s command at Fort Knox, he turns back to a couple of key successes that marked his two years.
“The pivotal achievement here, not mine but the organization’s, was to get the Army to acknowledge that Fort Knox is the right spot, not only for the commanders assessment programs, but also for V Corps,” said King. “I get emotional about this organization because there are so many brilliant people, so many dedicated people, who make Fort Knox great.”
King said the installation’s pursuit of excellence bubbles up from an acknowledgement that everybody who works at Fort Knox contributes to its successes, from Soldiers to Families to civilian employees to partners, including contractors.
“Oftentimes people look at installations and say, ‘Oh, we have Soldiers and civilians, and then we have these contractors,’” said King. “What I’ve come to realize, and thankfully I realized it early, is that this is one team here. There is no way on this planet that we can do what we have to do to support Soldiers and their Families without the contractors.
“They help make us one team, one big family.”