As the Adjutant General, Brig. Gen. Aaron R. Dean II, is keenly aware of the day-to-day operations within the District of Columbia National Guard. And just as no two states or territories are the same, neither are his days. There are political aspects, military branch and Guard specific policies that impact mission, and relationships with regional stakeholders. As the principal advisor to the Commanding General, he dissects complex operational and strategic second and third order affects that may impact D.C. National Guard members.
Next month, Brig. Gen. Dean celebrates 42 years of military service. Over four decades ago, he was a teen living in Washington state, recruited into the Army National Guard by his own father. He had a broad goal: To be as tactically proficient as his active-duty counterpart. He accomplished that and a whole lot more as D.C. National Guard TAG since 2018. Below, Brig. Gen. Dean answers what it took for him to get where he is today.
Describe your childhood and what called you to service?
As a child, I saw my father wearing the uniform every day. As such, I was exposed to military life while living in Seattle. My father was my role model. When I became a high school student, the concept of the Army was not foreign to me and since my father was a recruiter, he recruited me and my sister into the Washington Army National Guard. We weren’t pressured into serving. Do you call something you love doing service? It is, but for me, it was more like a passion. My advice to young people is to follow your path. The military is one path, and it’s a good path: Discipline, leading people, being professional and continuing education. If one seeks those things, no other organization does it better than the military.
How has your perspective on service changed over the last four decades?
Initially, I sought to learn and grow as a leader. I wanted to be successful tactically, meaning my goal was to be a company commander and lead a unit into complex training environments and combat operations. Over time I learned that the National Guard is unique. National Guard members have talents beyond those listed on a military record brief—we’re multifaceted and multi-capable and given the proper training and equipment, the National Guard is not only on par with the active component in most areas but has extended capabilities that goes far beyond expectations.
What is your perspective on recruiting shortfall challenges and how should they be addressed?
One of the big reasons I see for the shortfall is that many youth aren’t exposed to the military in their daily lives. When they are exposed to the military on television, the internet, social media, and film, many story lines feature the challenges that military members face during and after deployments. In my opinion, this gives our young people a skewed view of the military. There are many positives to the military, but it’s not conveyed. I think a way to meet young people where they are is to use the tools that get to young people. Social media and influencers are the way many young people receive information. We need more collaborations to ensure positive military stories are in their decision-making matrix. Additionally, we need more community outreach and engagement. Capability events can provide invaluable connection and education opportunities to those never exposed to the military.
Is recruiting an “all hands-on deck” effort?
Think about it this way. If one person recruited one person, our strength would increase by 100%. In other words, we would double our strength. We must continue to create incentives for current members to recruit others. There are no better recruiters than someone that can talk about what they do and what the Army or Air Force has done for them. Furthermore, if a member of a unit recruits someone into that unit, they will have a vested interest to ensure the member is taken care of. This will improve retention.
You received an Army ROTC Commission in 1984 and have extensive experience in policing and policy. Provide more insight into your military occupational specialty, and civilian expertise.
I was commissioned as a Military Police (MP) officer. Ironically, so was my father, my sister, and her husband. I studied Criminal Justice at Washington State University. Prior to being selected for an Active Guard Reserve (AGR) position, I worked for Blue Cross for 10 years and progressed to the position of manager of the enrollment department. In these positions I learned process accountability, structured goals, how to train in the civilian sector, and process management. I often used what I learned in the Army to achieve success at Blue Cross.
How has your work in the civilian sector contributed to the National Guard?
I believe that I learned how to use the soft skills of people management in the civilian sector. I also learned and brought the idea that for every function there are goals. The goals must be measurable. That is something that I always tried to implement to measure success in program areas. I also learned that you don’t have to yell at people to influence their behavior. One must understand that I came up in an era when leaders yelled at you to get your attention. I believe in motivating Soldiers and Airmen to be the best they can be through positive reinforcement and course corrections if necessary. It involves clear expectations and constant communication. I also believe in implementing ideas of those who come with innovation or process improvements and giving them credit and praise.
What has been your most pivotal moment and highlight of your military career?
The most pivotal time and the highlight of my career was being selected for battalion command and leading the battalion into combat operations. The best part of that experience was the team that made the battalion successful. It was the leaders such as (rank at the time) Maj. Moses Robinson (S3), Maj. Dan Fulford (XO), Capt. Tekesha Allen (S1), 1Lt. Darien Toedtman (S2), Capt. Cadetta Bridges (DET CDR), Command Sgt. Maj. Calvin Williams (BN CSM), Master Sgt. Paul Abraham (DET SGT), Chap. (MAJ) Stewart Kenworthy, CW3 Byron Lee (MAINT) and Capt. Alex Shaw (Planner).
I call these Soldiers the “Dream Team”. They were simply extraordinary. I couldn’t have deployed with a better group—highly proficient, highly motivated to perform above and beyond expectations. It was truly a pleasure to serve with these heroes. As a result of their performance, we provided guidance, leadership, and support to 11 companies consisting of over 1,100 Soldiers and Airmen. The span of control for the units under the battalion presented a tremendous workload. The staff met and exceeded every metric associated with administration, operations, maintenance, and equipment support. The 14-month deployment was a tremendous opportunity to show what a determined group of Soldiers can do on a large scale in combat. Many thanks goes to those warriors and it was the best time of my career because of them.
What is your favorite quote and why?
My favorite civilian quote is from Booker T. Washington, “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” And another is from Malcom Gladwell, “The key to good decision making is not knowledge, it is understanding.” My favorite military quote is from Gen. George S. Patton, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
What do you believe are your three greatest contributions to the D.C. National Guard?
Leadership, operations, and mentorship. I’ve coached and mentored those who asked for it and some that didn’t. I’ve been a sounding board for concepts and ideas that an individual or group thought would move the organization forward. And I’ve led with integrity, honesty, and fairness. Soldiers and Airmen are our most precious resource. Our organization must give members the tools, training, equipment, and administrative support to make each individual successful. If you put work in on the front end, you don’t have to pay on the back end. Paying on the back end is more time consuming and more painful.
What legacy do you believe you will leave?
I hope I left a legacy of leaders that understand the complexities of Washington, DC. I also hope our officers continue to place value and trust in the NCO Corps as a capable force ready, willing and able to implement tactical, operational and strategic mission, vision and goals.
What takeaway do you want to give to all Soldiers and Airmen currently serving?
The military is what you make it. You can sit on the sidelines, or you can get involved to learn and grow as a person and leader. No entity does leadership better than the military. What other entity gives one the ability to lead so early in one’s career. What other entity spends thousands of dollars to ensure you have leadership and career training? What other entity pushes you to be the best you can be? Serving is a privilege and sacrifice. Make the most of it. One day, your life may depend on the person serving next to you. Take care of each other. There is nothing more special than your brother or sister in arms.
Do you believe it’s important to recognize Black History Month, and what does the month personally mean to you?
I think it’s important in that there is a significant history in the D.C. National Guard of Black Soldiers serving during times when it was thought that Black Soldiers did not have what it took to serve on the battlefield in a combat role. The 372 Infantry Regiment, during World War I, completely destroyed that myth. But these members still faced discrimination as the military was not integrated until July 26, 1948. Many of the contributions are not well known and many do not know how the D.C. National Guard played a role in proving a desegrated Army is more effective. It is also important to know that Black history is American history. However, many contributions of Blacks in early America are not taught or mentioned in mainstream textbooks. So, to me, it’s important to take a step back and recognize the many contributions of American Blacks to American society. Often, these contributions were made under the harshest of social conditions.
Diversity of race, ethnicity, talent, experiences, beliefs, regions is very important and makes a stronger force. It should be intuitive, but I don’t think it comes naturally. Many of us flock to groups that are similar. For example, many professions such doctors, lawyers and other specialties socialize and group together. People that have the same political and religious affiliations do the same. In the military we are one entity where people from all walks of life come together to defend our Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. To do this, our military must know different cultures, races, ethnicities, and beliefs as these factors drive many actions and reactions.
Who is your role model and why?
My role model is my father. He was tough but fair. He taught me most of what I know and he did this being 19 years older than me. He grew up in poverty and made sure that we did not have to. He was working, studying, and obtaining college degrees when many from his upbringing did not. He explained early on that the military taught him discipline and the value of an education. He taught me that hard work and diligence pays off. He taught me honesty and integrity. I saw how hard he had it, even as a little kid, but he always had a positive attitude. I learned that with his positive attitude, he was able to come from poverty and his upbringing did not define him. He taught me that if you want better, you must do better and always believe in yourself, and a positive attitude always wins. But lastly, it was my mother that taught me visualization: Determine the position you want, picture yourself doing it, work toward it and achieve it.