FORT LEE, Va. – A career shaped by an immigrant barber at a time and place far, far away.
Jose Hernandez, director of the Quartermaster School’s Petroleum and Water Department here, has told that story many times over his 38 years with the Army. It’s about his father – a tough, scrappy kid savvy enough to withstand family and economic upheaval in the 1930s-era Dominican Republic.
“He became a man at age 9 when his father left my grandmother and his two sisters,” Hernandez recalled. “He had little more than a 3rd-grade education.”
It was the era of the Great Depression, a time difficult for most and particularly so for an adolescent dropout forced to shine shoes, sell candy on the street and routinely outwit those who wanted a cut of his profits.
“He was fast for a short, stocky kid, so he was able to run from them,” Hernandez shared. “That’s how he lived until age 16 when one of his uncles (taught him) how to cut hair.”
Which lead to a profession notorious for long hours, seven-day-a-week schedules and no sick time. When others his age normally graduate from high school, the focus of the elder Hernandez was a simple rule of his profession – “get sick, no cut; get injured, no cut; no cut, no pay.”
His son, now 57 years old, has carried that barber’s grit and work ethic like corporate execs carry an American Express card. Hernandez drew strength from the account time after time over the course of a 20-year Army career that he began as an enlisted medic in 1983. It bankrolled him through officer candidate school, the field artillery basic course and the Army Logistics Management College, where he became an officer in the Quartermaster Corps, leading to multiple deployments.
The balance has sustained him through his civil service years that included stints with the City of Richmond and Virginia Department of Transportation. Hernandez’ drive made him a recognized leader at PWD where he became a division chief in 2008 and director four years later.
Pondering his many successes with retirement a few weeks away, Hernandez expressed how clearly thankful he is for the dividends of his father’s example. “That hard work ethic and determination … somehow stuck to my DNA,” he said. “I carried it with me every day.”
Marshall Jones, civilian deputy to the QM School commandant, witnessed Hernandez’ potential on many occasions since the 1990s when they served together as staff officers with the now-deactivated 49th Quartermaster Group on Fort Lee.
“I recognized him as a self-starter, very attentive and a hard worker,” Jones recollected. “I knew he had great potential as a leader of the sustainment community.”
Thus, no surprise, Jones becomes PWD director after retiring; Hernandez joins his team as a Laboratory Training Division manager and, subsequently, gains oversight of a second division in the department; and then he is selected for the top position when Jones began his current post nine years ago.
“Everyone knew he had the qualifications to do it,” Jones summarized.
PWD is responsible for training military personnel “in the fields of bulk fuels, petroleum laboratory testing, and water treatment and distribution,” according to its website. Each year, it trains around 4,500 troops – most of them advanced individual training students – and supports instructional programs for about 1,500 officers at the Army Logistics University. The cadre is comprised of about 250 military members, DA Civilians and contractors.
Hernandez reflected on the challenges the department has faced during his tenure – the many changes in leadership and business practices; budget and personnel reductions; and the drawbacks of lagging technology.
“When I came in, I saw we were well-postured to support the current fight,” Hernandez noted, “but we (he and senior leaders at CASCOM) questioned whether we were ready for the next fight.”
That position rested on the argument the Army could not sufficiently supply and distribute petroleum, oil and lubricant needs on all fronts during the initial phases of a joint, multi-domain, high-intensity conflict. It took years and the collective efforts of Brig. Gen. Gwen Bingham, Brig. Gen. John O’Neil IV, Brig. Gen. Ronald Kirkland, Brig. Gen. Rodney Fogg and Brig. Gen. Douglas McBride – all Quartermaster Generals – to fully define and bring attention to the problems and develop plans in synchronization with CASCOM to right the course.
“It’s why you see such modernization at PWD today,” said Hernandez, noting the process to identify and address POL issues is now part of the department’s fabric. “All of our fleets of tankers, pipelines – you name it – is being modernized because the Army recognized we had a challenge.”
The PWD mindset had to change as well. Hernandez – trained as a last-century logistician – shook off the “old quartermaster” image, preferring not to glorify the Army of his time or harp on “the way things used to be.” This forward thinking led him to one of the highlights of his civilian career – laying the foundation to transform the way liquid logisticians learn their profession.
“I joined the Army in 1983 (when schools) had viewgraphs and a projector,” Hernandez remembered. “If the lightbulb went out, you couldn’t teach. In the years that followed, all we did was digitize viewgraphs and turn them into PowerPoint presentations. That too is outdated. Today’s Soldiers need more than that.”
PWD, with Hernandez as it cheerleader, began a crusade to capture additional funding and eventually lassoed a $4.6 million Army Virtual Learning Environment contract in 2018 to upgrade computers and software in order to build a blended learning environment featuring guided instruction, virtual reality and portability. The result has been shortened courses, greater retention of material and other positive outcomes.
“The new learners – they’re jumping on this; they love it,” observed Rodney Smith – a PWD training administrator. “They learn quick and its cuts time on the program of instruction. By the time, we get them to the actual equipment; they’ve had multiple repetitions inside of the classroom. So, we’re no longer teaching them (as much) when we get to the field site.”
Hernandez happily reported that other training departments across CASCOM are following the path PWD carved by setting their sights on virtual learning platforms. “What we started is going to spread,” he assured.
Another achievement that’s close to Hernandez’ heart is the 2014 dedication of PWD’s fire suppression facility. It pays tribute to Spc. Trevor Win’E, a petroleum supply specialist who died May 1, 2004, during a deployment to Iraq.
“If you ask me what Jose Hernandez is most proud of, it’s meeting that family,” he said, pausing in mid-sentence to contain his emotion. “Holding (parents) Debi and Rick Win’E’s hands and dedicating that facility to the Win’E family. … That young man made the ultimate sacrifice. … The Win’Es are forever in my heart.”
That sense of family along with a philosophy that everyone can contribute and good ideas are never ignored are what the staff at PWD said they will miss the most about their departing director.
“Every day, he is in it wholeheartedly,” Smith said, “and if you have an idea – no matter who you are – he’ll bring it to the table. He’ll ask you to do your homework without a doubt, but if you’ve got something good, he’s going to champion it.”
Furthermore, he has no problem downplaying his contributions to a particular project as a mere facilitator, giving credit to a staff he calls the “team of teams.”
“Who am I?” he posed. “I’m the voice who can speak to a general officer or the Secretary of the Army on exactly what the future looks like … and I can show them. That’s the skill set that God gave the son of a barber.”
Hernandez also has the God-given wisdom to know when it’s time to let go.
“It’s time for someone else to take this to another level,” he said. “Sometimes, when you’re sitting in the chair for too long, you might think you’re doing the right thing, but you’re missing something. I’ve seen folks whose usefulness has come and gone, but they don’t see it. Sometimes, you have to make room for those coming behind you.”
The departing director said he and his wife are heading for Florida where they can enjoy coastal living and fun in the sun. He has plans to play golf, travel and support a church ministry.