James Richardson, ’82: Leading from the Front
“Every day that I’m over here, I’m making a difference,” says Major General James Richardson. “I just want the people back home to know that.”
Those who serve in the United States Armed Forces don’t ask to be thanked for their sacrifices, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it every chance we get. Major General Richardson is in his fourth tour of Afghanistan with the United States Army. The resume attached to his military career would certainly be the envy of any West Point graduate, but the Major General is a Gamecock. He was part of the University of South Carolina’s first Army ROTC graduating class in 1982, and the Myrtle Beach native is proving there are no limits to the impact one person can make in the world.
Major General Richardson was promoted to that two-star rank last month while continuing to serve in Kabul, Afghanistan. Interestingly enough, his wife, Brigadier General Laura Richardson, who is also serving in Afghanistan, was there to make the promotion official. Both have served in combat together and were together on the initial invasion of Iraq. She was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot and a battalion commander, while he was the battalion commander of an Apache helicopter battalion.
He called the promotion very humbling and is quick to credit the many people with whom he has served over the last 30 years. No matter how many seemingly stressful situations he explains, Major General Richardson always says, “This is a great job.”
Doing the Job in Afghanistan
Major General Richardson wears two hats as the Deputy Commander of the 3rd United States Army Corps and the Commander of the National Support Element.
“I’ve been charged to man, train and equip all United States forces in Afghanistan and make sure those forces are sustained,” Major General Richardson says. “The second aspect of the job is that I’m in charge of polishing all U.S. forces for the future—for future missions as identified by the President of the United States. That means I am in charge of ensuring that all of the bases we have here in Afghanistan are sustainable, and more importantly, draw those bases down as we start to depart the theater.
“I’m also in charge of retrograding all of our equipment back home. So I’m making sure that all the equipment we have here gets back home so it can be reset and issued out to our forces in preparation for any unforeseen conflict later on down the road. Lastly, I’m in charge of redeploying and deploying all U.S. forces.”
He notes that although the United States is fighting as a coalition involving 51 nations, the United States makes up about 80% of the force and owns approximately 80% of the equipment.
“So it’s a lot of equipment and a lot of people, and you have to sustain them for the long fight,” Major General Richardson says.
Long Time Gone
While his rank is new, Major General Richardson is no stranger to Afghanistan, now serving his fourth tour in the country. His first tour began in late 2001 with 101st Airborne Division as an attack helicopter battalion commander holding the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was the aviation task force commander for Operation Anaconda, which was the first operation in the war in Afghanistan that involved a large number of U.S. conventional forces participating in direct combat activities.
During his second tour, he was an aviation brigade commander with the 101st Airborne Division with approximately 8,000 soldiers and 200 helicopters in 2009. About a year ago, he was the deputy commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division.
“That was a very rewarding job,” Major General Richardson says. “The main focus of my job then was to train, to advise, and assist the Afghan National Army, the police and the border patrol."
Not long after that tour was completed, the chief of staff of the United States Army told him that since he came to Afghanistan when it all began, he wanted him back there to finish the job and come back home with the forces there.
Major General Richardson constantly refers to his job as “very rewarding.” He is often asked whether he thinks the effort in Afghanistan is making a difference. He wants the public to know that they are making a difference every day.
“I will tell you that being here in December of 2001 and comparing it to where the Afghans are today, it’s a night-and-day difference,” Major General Richardson says. “I can remember flying night missions where you didn’t see any lights. Today, you fly over the cities at night and they’re just lit up. I can remember that the kids back then, nobody went to school. There were no schools. Now, you drive down the road and you see kids going to school. People are going to college. Health care has gotten better over here. You have hospitals and medical schools. There’s not an Afghan without a cell phone now. If you look back over the last 12-13 years, it’s just very humbling to be here and to be a part of the cause.”
A large portion of his job is focused on the Afghan national-security forces.
“They are a professional army and professional police force,” Major General Richardson says. “You may hear a lot of negative things at times, but all in all this is a professional force that the people now respect. They rely on them. Do they have what we have in the United States of America? No, they don’t. Do they conduct operations the same way we do? No. What they do have is professionalism, and they’re equipped to conduct the mission. There’s no doubt in my mind that if we were to leave today, the Afghan national-security forces would be able to pick the ball up, run with it, and protect their nation.”
With 68,000 soldiers and 100,000 contractors in Afghanistan, simply trying to synchronize operations and make sure everyone is integrated and executing assignments is a complex task. A typical day for Major General Richardson begins at about 4:30 a.m. and ends at around midnight.
“I like to get out and travel around and see the soldiers,” Major General Richardson says. “That’s how you really know what’s going on. You find out what help they need. It’s very rewarding to see what these soldiers are doing on a daily basis.”
That’s not to say life isn’t difficult there. The hardest part of his job is seeing a soldier fall.
“People over here are sacrificing daily,” Major General Richardson says. “Standing out by a plane and putting the remains of a solider back on a plane is the hardest thing you will ever do. The second hardest thing is go to a hospital and give out Purple Hearts (to the wounded). That’s a life-changing event. A lot of times they will lift your spirit. They don’t want to leave. I’ve sat there with amputees, and they didn’t want to leave. They didn’t want to leave their buddies.”
Major General Richardson explains that the Department of Defense has done everything in its power to make sure our soldiers have the right equipment. He also understands that the families of the soldiers are sacrificing every day, as well.
“When my wife was deployed, and I was at home, it was probably harder on me being at home not knowing what was going on over here than it was being over here.”
Major General Richardson has earned many honors and awards during his career, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal, and two Air Medals with Valor, just to name a few.
“I was just doing my job,” Major General Richardson says. “I was over here when times were tough and there were soldiers on the ground. Being the attack helicopters in support, I was there when they needed me. I didn’t do anything different than any other soldier does every single day. My pilots were out there doing the same thing. It’s very humbling to receive those awards, but I was just doing my job leading from the front.”
Influenced at Carolina
Growing up in Myrtle Beach, Major General Richardson was at the University of South Carolina when the Army ROTC program began in 1980, later becoming a member of its first graduating class in 1982 with a degree in psychology. He counts his time on the Columbia campus among the best four years of his life.
“The reason I am where I am today is because of the people at South Carolina, and the professors that I had,” Major General Richardson says. “They taught me the values that I live by today. They taught me to never quit.”
He takes a lot of pride and is honored to be part of that first Army ROTC class.
“I wouldn’t change a thing, and I am very proud of being a graduate of the University of South Carolina... especially when we win in football!” Major General Richardson says with a laugh. “It’s always neat to see soldiers who are from South Carolina or graduated from the University of South Carolina because it’s near and dear to my heart. That’s where I’ll go back to when I retire.”
Hopefully he will be able to come back soon, but until then, Major General Richardson is proud to be on the job and making a difference where he can.
“I’ll come home when the mission is complete.”