Charleston District hosts USACE South Atlantic Division military Leadership Development Program.
1 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. (retired) James Livingston, a Medal Of Honor recipient, was a keynote speaker during the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers South Atlantic Division's recent military Leadership Development Program. Charleston District hosted the event. (Photo Credit: Dylan Burnell) VIEW ORIGINAL
Charleston District hosts USACE South Atlantic Division military Leadership Development Program.
2 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. (retired) James Livingston, a Medal Of Honor recipient, was a keynote speaker during the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers South Atlantic Division's recent military Leadership Development Program. Charleston District hosted the event. (Photo Credit: Jaclyn Pennoyer) VIEW ORIGINAL
Charleston District hosts USACE South Atlantic Division military Leadership Development Program.
3 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. (retired) James Livingston (left) presents U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Jason Kelly, commander of the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers South Atlantic Division, a signed Medal Of Honor book. Livingston, a Medal Of Honor recipient, was a keynote speaker during the division's recent military Leadership Development Program. Charleston District hosted the event. (Photo Credit: Jaclyn Pennoyer) VIEW ORIGINAL
Charleston District hosts USACE South Atlantic Division military Leadership Development Program.
4 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Jackie Pennoyer, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers Charleston District, interviews U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. (retired) James Livingston (left) and U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Jason Kelly, commander of the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers South Atlantic Division. Livingston, a Medal Of Honor recipient, was a keynote speaker during the division's recent military Leadership Development Program. Charleston District hosted the event. (Photo Credit: Russell Toof) VIEW ORIGINAL

Weathered hands, crisp cuffs, a suit with a matching pocket square, and a deep blue ribbon with a medal, heavier than any metal, joined at the chest, he was seated, head tilted, eyes drawn up beneath his brow. His gaze stern. His message urgent — for America’s youth.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James Livingston earned the medal of honor, the military’s most prestigious distinction, for acts of extraordinary valor and great fortitude during the Vietnam War. On a late spring day in 1968, in the hours before sunrise, Livingston led his company through thick enemy territory into a battle of diminishing odds. They charged across more than 500 meters of rice fields and open fire. Many died. After two hours of tiring close combat, Livingston led a desperate assault to save a dwindled team of Marines surrounded on all sides.

Livingston and his men prevailed that day. It was one of the war’s most significant battles, but it came at a great cost. Livingston was severely wounded. The North Vietnamese had a legion of 10,000 strong in the area, and of the 800 U.S. Marines who fought, very few went home whole.

“It was a mean scene. I won’t attempt to describe it,” he said. “I had a group of young 19, 20 and 21-year-old Marines. I said, ‘guys, we’re going to get involved in this fight. We’ve been playing high school ball, college ball, but this is the NFL now.’”

Livingston went on to lead an industrious 33-year career in the Marines, culminating as commander of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Since that day, Livingston meets the next generation where they are — at events, schools and recruitment offices — to emphasize the qualities that set great leaders apart. At these events, he wears his medal for the 45 young Marines who were killed under his command.

‘An engineering degree is a leadership asset’

Seated before an audience of 42 Army engineering officers and leaders who oversee the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, South Atlantic Division’s complex missions of defense construction, water resource preservation and environmental restoration across the southeast, Livingston shared about his storied military career and important leadership lessons.

“In terms of advantages for a military officer, there is no better degree than engineering,” said Livingston, a trained civil engineer, who graduated from Auburn University before transitioning to active service. “It teaches you about yourself, how to think through a situation, how to think in advance, thoroughly and how to engineer the desired outcome. This benefitted me greatly in combat.”

The event, led by Brig. Gen. Jason Kelly, commanding general of the South Atlantic Division, was a leadership development opportunity for the southeast region’s rising engineering officers and enlisted leaders to grow professionally.

Livingston acknowledged the dual-hatted challenge Corps officers face while managing critical public programs and as leaders donning “the cloth of the nation.”

“I look at you as having a double duty. You’ve got to be a good CEO, but most of all, you’ve got to be a great military leader,” said Livingston, adding, “always remember being in uniform comes with special responsibilities, well beyond those of a normal civilian leader.”

Livingston also reminded those in the room that their missions are vital to the nation and intrinsically tied to a community’s quality of life.

“Your memory in these communities will mean more than you can ever believe.”

‘Every day is a preparation day when you’re in uniform’

The first leadership lesson Livingston shared with the group was a reminder to keep the military’s primary purpose of preserving the nation at the forefront and to reflect on what it really means to be ready.

“I had two jobs when I was a company commander in North Vietnam: to fight and to win. I trained my men hard, I made them physically fit, I pushed them hard. Because I wanted to bring them home.”

Livingston encouraged the young leaders to challenge themselves every day and said that holding oneself to a heightened, demanding standard will ultimately benefit the troops who follow a leader’s example.

“Never limit yourself in terms of what you can do. Every one of us can be better. If you’re demanding of yourself and lead by example, you don’t mind placing those demands on those you lead. At the end of the day, you do your team a service by being demanding.”

Livingston also touched on some of the differences between his time in service and the military environment that incoming service members experience today. One important difference is the need to be intellectually equipped to deal with the complexities of mass information and new technology.

‘Standing on the shoulders of those who endured’

When asked about the lasting impact of the Vietnam era, Livingston said his generation’s legacy is being an example to present-day military leaders and helping to preserve the job of a service member as “one of the greatest opportunities a person will ever have.”

“You want to know what the legacy of the Vietnam War is? It’s you. It’s the commitment of those in uniform, who want to make sure the next generation of those who serve and sacrifice is stronger and doesn’t have the same experiences.”

Kelly, who launched his 28-year career in 1994, a year before Livingston retired, recognizes that his “point of origin” is much better than when Livingston commissioned in 1961.

“As I walked through the airport this morning on my way here, I received a great deal of thanks for my service. In fact, the airline even called for service members to board first as a way of honoring us. This was often not the experience of those serving during the Vietnam era,” said Kelly.

“That’s a reflection of the respect they have for you,” said Livingston. “Don’t ever compromise that.”

Neither Livingston nor Kelly expected to join the military — let alone pursue a full career.

“I had no intent of joining the military, but I got a little love card from Uncle Sam. Then one day a good-looking recruiter from Birmingham, Alabama showed up in his dress blues, and I said that’s for me.”

Kelly shared a similar journey to his current command role leading more than 5,000 service members and civilian professionals across five states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“This is not the race I intended to run. I was an athlete, I had visions of scoring touchdowns in the Army-Navy game, but if you were to check the history of the game, there are no touchdowns by Jason Kelly. Here I stand today because I’m having fun and enjoy what I do.”

‘Don’t hang up your uniform or your spirit in the corner’

Every day, Livingston pays tribute to the Marines who served under and alongside him, especially those he lost.

“When you look at the medal, you always think of them, their contributions, and what they represented on the day of that battle. They gave it all. They gave their country everything they could give. And that was their life.”

With only 66 surviving medal of honor recipients, Livingston is committed to continuing the legacy of the medal of honor. He believes the key to carrying this legacy forward and to building a strong future military rests in the hands of young people who volunteer to serve.

For Livingston, military service doesn’t end when you hang up the uniform. He encouraged all the leaders in the room to continue their leadership after their military service and even consider running for public office.

“I’d like to be remembered as a United States Marine,” he said “You’re never out of the Marine Corps. I joined in 1961, and when they put me away, I’ll still be a Marine.”

In addition to a robust discussion with Livingston, the workshop also featured in-depth presentations and discussions with Charleston-area leaders, including Jim Newsome, CEO and president of the South Carolina Ports Authority, retired Marine Corps Gen. Glenn Walters, president of the Citadel, and retired Army Maj. Gen. William Grimsley, secretary of the South Carolina Department of Veterans' Affairs.

“I think the military will continue to require the best of us. I hope that this noble profession will be something the best of us choose to do,” said Kelly. “I’ve had an incredible run, but the shadows are getting long. There are more yesterdays than there are tomorrows. I hope this gathering will help these Corps leaders be the best because that’s what I think we will need tomorrow.”