Col. John C. White has traveled far from his Western New York roots. This career U.S. Army Soldier has led units featuring nearly every aircraft in the Army inventory. After various assignments in the Middle East and South Korea and a stint at the Pentagon, White took command of the 21st Cavalry Brigade (Air Combat) in May in Fort Hood, Texas.
This Starpoint and Niagara University graduate is now in charge of a group that trains personnel – from the U.S. and abroad – on aircraft including the Apache, which he terms “the most highly advanced attack helicopter in the world.”
White’s mother, Jacqueline, said, “Our family, along with thousands of other families, are thankful for the sacrifice each of our service men and women make in the military today. We know the price that is paid and are proud of all who serve. … We consider John a local hero who loves Western New York and is so proud to call Buffalo his birthplace.”
White was awarded the Bronze Star, and his accomplishments over a 24-year Army career fill a page, but White remains humble and gratified by the opportunities his chosen path has provided.
He recently spoke by phone from his office in Fort Hood about growing up in Wheatfield, his family, his career and his responsibilities to his country and to the parents of those who entrust their sons and daughters to his care.
Tell us about the several members of your family who have served in the military.
My grandfather was in the Navy during World War II (stateside), and my dad (Thomas) was in the Navy for five or six years, and now I’m in the Army and my son is in the Air Force ROTC program at Virginia Tech, so maybe he’ll serve and become an Air Force pilot. My older brother, Bill, was in the Army for a while after he graduated from high school, and my younger brother, Paul, graduated from college and went in the Army and was in the Reserves for seven or eight years. And then after 9/11 he went into the active Army, and he just got out. I’m the only one to make it a career.
How did you find this career path?
I always kind of knew when I was a kid that I wanted to become an officer – it didn’t matter if I became a pilot or not. I graduated from Starpoint High School and went to Niagara University, and after my freshman year, I got an ROTC scholarship that paid for the next three years. In your senior year, you get to select what you might want to do in the Army, and I ended up getting it.
And you’ve continued your schooling, haven’t you?
They stress professional development in the military and education, as well. Being an officer, it’s a lot like taking graduate-level college courses. It’s sort of an upper-level management course – I earned my master’s in human resource management at Webster’s University in Kansas. I also went to the National War College in Washington, D.C., and earned my master’s in strategic studies.
I was promoted to colonel in summer of 2011, then started the war college.
Serving in the military is hard on the entire family. What’s been your experience?
Command tours are generally two years and are board-selected. Other assignments are two to four years. Where you’re going next is generally a gamble, but you can ask the Army, and they’ll help you get where you want to go or where they may have needs for your skill sets.
We’re hoping to get back to Virginia someday. My wife, Dawn, is a schoolteacher, and our daughter, Brianna, who graduated from Western Kentucky University, is a schoolteacher now, too. Our son, Casey, is a sophomore at Virginia Tech.
Families make a lot of sacrifices. My wife has followed me around for 24 years. Our kids have gone to multiple schools. My wife has been mom and dad while I was on four different deployments. But some soldiers have been deployed many more times than I have. It’s kind of amazing.
So a love of travel and ability to adjust to new environments are required for a career in the service?
You need a sense of adventure. You are doing something different all of the time. It really becomes second nature to you after a while. In fact, after two or three years in one place, my wife and I get the itch to move and start clearing things out of the house we haven’t used in a while. It makes for a pretty versatile child, too. You take any Army brat and set him or her down in a room full of other Army brats, and they’ll make friends within minutes.
I went to school in the same district – kindergarten through high school – but I think my daughter went to five or six different schools, including two different high schools. But my daughter graduated from college and now teaches school, and my son is at Virginia Tech, so they’ve turned out pretty well.
What do you think the average U.S. citizen knows about a career in the service?
The average American has no idea what it’s like to be in the military. It’s a lifestyle they just don’t understand. … They see the Army or military on TV and think that’s what it’s like, like Gomer Pyle or the old movies. And they only hear of the bad things that happen, but it’s really completely different. We are held to a higher standard, and we should be. No organization does some of the programs we do any better than us, and that goes for Equal Opportunity Employment or just about anything you can name. We have programs that are light-years ahead of what most civilian organizations have. The Army’s got it down.
What’s been your greatest thrill?
It’s such a neat career. You go up through the ranks and have so many different jobs, go different places and have different levels of responsibility. After graduating from NU, I was a second lieutenant in flight school and then was immediately deployed to Desert Storm. After a year or so in the Army, I was already in combat. I was company commander in South Korea – it was not a war zone then, but there were still things going on there. That was thrilling. Then, I was a major at Fort Campbell, and 9/11 hit and the whole world changed. A few months later, I was in Afghanistan. Five months later, I was in Iraq. It’s been one thrill after another.
But the biggest thrill? I was battalion commander in Afghanistan most of 2009 and had 500 soldiers and 30 to 40 different helicopters. We fought the whole year and brought everyone home. That level of responsibility was thrilling. Moms and dads entrust their children to the Army, and the Army entrusts Col. John White to bring them all back home.
You were elevated to colonel in 2011 and took command of the 21st Calvary Brigade (Air Combat) on May 31 in Fort Hood, Texas. What are the responsibilities in your current job?
It’s a training brigade. We bring battalions in here and train them, and then they go back to their parent groups. We have the most advanced attack helicopter in the world here – the Apache, which was built to destroy the enemy. That sounds gruesome to civilians, but we’re aggressive folks. This is just a neat aircraft. And when our soldiers were fighting in Afghanistan and they were in trouble on the ground, they called for the Apache. They said they always felt safer when they saw the Apache.
We also train battalions on the unmanned aerial systems or what they call on Fox News “drones.” I am responsible for training people here or sending my people elsewhere to train others on these. Plus, I have 75 soldiers from the Netherlands (Royal Netherlands Air Force and Army) here now. They bring their aviators here to train and then go back home.
The joy of this job is that for all of the responsibilities and headaches, I still get to fly. Flying helicopters is such a neat thing to do, and the average person doesn’t get to do it. It’s breaking the bonds of earth and being above everyone and everything. It’s having the chance to fly the most advanced attack helicopter in the world.
Know a Niagara County resident who’d make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.