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By 1st Lt. Franklin McGuire,
South Carolina National Guard
COLUMBIA, S.C. - The Olympic-level balancing act demanded of National Guard service members and their families is well known to anyone who has ever woken up Saturday morning to put on a uniform and make the predawn drive to their unit, perhaps leaving behind a spouse and kids who will have to enjoy their weekends without mom or dad.
Soldiers and Airmen in National Guard units across all 50 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia live this life, navigating responsibilities in and out of uniform.
Brig. Gen. David M. Jenkins, the assistant adjutant general for the South Carolina Army National Guard, is one such Soldier. But he has never subscribed to the belief that to have a great career in the Guard, you must give up having a great civilian career.
“I’ve heard that, and I have been told that to be true,” Jenkins said. To Jenkins, that is a false dichotomy, and every Guardsman has the opportunity to blaze their own path.
“I believe that’s the difference between a pathfinder and a trailblazer,“ he says. “When you are a trailblazer, you look for new paths that don’t exist yet — you don’t just accept what’s already been established as a path.”
Jenkins has been blazing his own trail since starting his Army career as an ROTC cadet in the late ’80s at South Carolina State University, a historically Black public institution in Orangeburg. But Jenkins would probably tell you his commitment to being a trailblazer started long before college.
“I was at a dance in middle school, and all the boys were lined up down one wall facing all the girls who were lined up down the wall opposite,” he recalled. “And I decided to go across and brave the ice.”
Unfortunately for Jenkins, things didn’t go so well for him. “She said no,” he laughed. “So I asked the second girl, and she said ‘no.’ Third girl – also ‘no.’ I made up my mind that I was going to ask every single girl on that wall to dance because my definition of success was to dance, and I didn’t care how many ‘no’s’ I’d have to go through to get a ‘yes.’”
For Jenkins, that middle school dance was representative of all areas of life.
“If you don’t see the path you want, you create it,” he says. “Ultimately, success is inevitable because it depends on you. If you want to do something and you never stop until you achieve what you want, then you will achieve and be successful. You just have to be persistent and realize that a setback is just a setup for a comeback.”
Those initial rejections for the young David Jenkins were setbacks, but he knew his definition of success and was unwilling to settle for anything less.
So did anyone ever say yes? “I danced all night,” Jenkins laughed.
This month, Jenkins will be an honored guest at the 2024 BEYA Stars and Stripes Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, where he will receive an award recognizing his achievements in STEM-oriented work, corporate management and military leadership.
Jenkins will be honored for his contributions and career success as an engineer, corporate executive and military officer. But when you ask him about his achievements — like being the first African American general officer in the South Carolina Army National Guard — he demurs.
“I would say, first of all, that I stand on the shoulders of hundreds of thousands of African American men and women who came before me and who weren’t given the opportunities I’ve been afforded,” Jenkins said.
While he is quick to share the credit, he acknowledges the good he can use his platform for, especially for young minority students who may be wondering what kinds of opportunities the Guard could provide.
“Being able to show them that it is possible, that there is a path, is an honor — but they also need to know that getting there doesn’t come without hard work, without discipline, and without sacrifice,” he said.
Jenkins has taken his commitment to success in his craft to his day job, too. He is a 27-year veteran of Lexmark, an international technology and manufacturing company based in Lexington, Kentucky. He has moved from engineering and development roles to management and leadership.
And he commutes from Kentucky to Columbia, South Carolina, for drill every month.
On top of his career as a Lexmark executive and brigadier general, Jenkins is a committed family man.
“Being present is extremely important. Not just showing up, but being present,” he says. “I’ve got a son who’s 15 and twin girls who are 13, and they’re active in sports, school and their community, and I make it a point to be at their games and events.”
The arc of his career provides a roadmap for any National Guardsman that shows that, with the right attitude and a commitment to never quitting, all of us can pursue success across the various facets of our lives.
“At the end of the day, though,” Jenkins notes, “don’t get caught up in trying to be someone else — instead, just be your best self. Because all of the other positions are already taken.”