By Paula M. Davenport
U.S. Gen. James F. Amos cuts a dashing figure in his crisp, Marine Corps dress blues. They’re a far cry from the bow tie and jacket he was required to wear as a “hasher” at Alpha Phi sorority house some 40 years ago.
Hashers serve lunch and dinner to sorority sisters gathered for proper meals in stately homes along Greek Row. In exchange, servers ate for free. “Then we did all the dishes, scrubbed the pots and pans and headed back to school,” he said, a smile crossing his tanned aviator’s face.
Now the 35th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps – the highest position in that branch of the Armed Forces – Amos delivered the May 12 commencement address at the University of Idaho, where he earned his bachelor’s degree and simultaneously started his military career through the Reserve Officers Training Corps, or ROTC, on the main campus in Moscow.
"I challenge you to think about who you are and what you stand for," Amos told the more than 1,400 graduates. "Ask yourself what defines you. I want you to think about how your character was formed and by whose fingerprints, and understand that it will continue to be a work in progress for the next four decades."
“The first merit badge I earned was the aviation one. It was the only one I was interested in.”
Amos planned to follow his father into military service, he said. “It began with a love for airplanes,” he said in a recent interview. “My dad was in the Navy and as a little boy, I remember climbing around in the airplanes he flew. I distinctly remember the smell of the airplane, the smell of the fuel.” That left a big impression, he said.
As a Boy Scout, “the first merit badge I earned was the aviation one. It was the only one I was interested in,” he said.
Yet he said he didn’t set out to become top dog in the Marine Corps. Rather, he earned his wings as a naval aviator in 1971, a year after graduating from U-Idaho.
In 2003, he commanded the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He led 15,500 troops and 500 aircraft to war after they’d had months of intense, focused training, staging and execution.
The completion of that mission remains one of Amos’ proudest moments in the Corps. Thousands and thousands of people greeted him on his return to San Diego. “I remember getting off the plane and feeling really, really good. Not for me personally -- but good about what we were able to do and how professional we were. And I understood my sense of accountability in that.”
In 2010, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert “Bob” Gates offered him the Corps’ most elevated leadership post. But Amos – Assistant Commandant at the time -- said he had some reservations. “I remember thinking: ‘I don’t need this job for career satisfaction.’ I was feeling pretty comfortable with what I was doing. With the exception of one artilleryman, the commandant was always an infantryman,” he said, “never an aviator.”
Consequently, he told Gates: “‘I’ll only take this job if I’m the best man for it.’ I wasn’t interested in breaking any glass ceilings. I didn’t need it. ‘So if that’s the case, then you need to find somebody else.’ “
Amos was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and accepted the promotion Oct. 22, 2010. “I’ve been plenty busy ever since,” he said with a laugh.
For Amos, it’s not about personal aggrandizement or ego. He’s in it to serve his country and the men and women who rely on his leadership. Serving others, he told U-Idaho graduates, is the greatest gift of all.