Col. Johnny K. Davis, says he has learned a quintessential lesson while serving as The Old Guard’s commanding officer for two years: Well-trained Soldiers, even in the toughest of days, will overcome.
Davis, who is the regiment’s 80th commander since its creation more than two centuries ago, is set to relinquish command this summer to become the executive officer to U.S. Army Gen. Vincent K. Brookes, commanding general, United States Forces Korea.
A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Davis said his path to service in the U.S. Army was not a straight one. While attending Cardinal Stritch University, he was on a different career path entirely, he said.
The church, the classroom or the Army
“I was on a career track to become a teacher or a pastor in the Lutheran Church,” said Davis. “All that time going through my educational journey, deep down in my soul I just wanted to serve our country in uniform.”
In 1992, Davis entered the Army as an infantry officer. He spent the next 24 years serving in a multitude of assignments.
Describing military service as “a calling,” the skills that Davis had that first inspired him to be a teacher or pastor are wholly applicable to the Army, he said.
“Both of those professions really focus on people, and I think that has allowed me to easily cross the bridge between being a teacher or pastor and a Soldier,” said Davis.
Know thy Soldiers
The emphasis on interaction has helped Davis to be an accessible and disarming leader who takes care of his Soldiers.
“I go out of my way, as many in the unit know. I try to, every single day, I can never walk by a Soldier without shaking their hand, and after two years I probably know every Soldier in the unit,” said Davis. “I really like that opportunity to share who I am and find out about them. Remember we’re all one team; separation from the subordinates isn’t very healthy for any organization.”
“He’s probably the best commander I’ve served with at breaking down those barriers,” said Maj. Russell H. Fox, officer in charge of Regiment Public Affairs. “His ability to interact at the personal level is a testament to his character and way of caring for Soldiers.”
Davis credits the noncommissioned officers he’s worked with for teaching him the importance of Soldiers’ welfare.
The interactions have helped Davis implement several initiatives that have directly impacted Soldiers day-to-day, helping to replace the air conditioning system at the Fort Myer-based headquarters building for the U.S. Army’s Fife and Drum Corps to obtaining warmer gloves and boots for Soldiers performing ceremonial services at funerals in the winter time.
Davis has also tried to help get special duty pay for members of the U.S. Army Caisson Platoon and sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, two duties that have huge demands on individual Soldiers’ time, he said. That request is still going through the approval process, he said. If approved, it will increase the pay of the Soldiers assigned to those positions.
Many of those ideas came from the feedback provided by Soldiers during Davis’ interactions in his first 30 to 45 days as the commander, he said.
“Soldiers deserve a wonderful facility, and a wonderful barracks, after a hard day’s work,” he said. “I spent a lot of time trying to do that.”
Family man and Soldier: A balancing act
Davis’ daily life as commander involves an average of three to five uniform changes a day to meet the various demands of missions and ceremonies.
Balancing his command responsibilities with his family is only achievable by compartmentalizing and leaving work at work, said Davis.
When Davis gets home for the day, his focus changes to helping one of his six daughters with school work, and readying everyone for bed.
The Old Guard beckons
Davis took command of The Old Guard on June 18, 2014. This was his second assignment to The Old Guard.
The first assignment was in the late 1990’s, when he was the commander of Delta Company.
“While I was a company commander in the 82nd Airborne in the 90’s, my goal was to command a second company,” said Davis. “At the time the two options available to us were Ranger Regiment or The Old Guard.”
Davis’ decision to come to The Old Guard placed him just miles away from the events that unfolded on Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, Davis’ company was the primary company for performing all ceremonial details for the day’s funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, he said.
He had just returned from a full-honor funeral when he saw on the news the first plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City at 8:46 am.
“At the same time while standing there, we saw the second plane on live T.V.,” said Davis. “Everyone up in the company dayroom saw this; I didn’t know what to say. I was just so taken back.”
Walking outside Delta Company, Davis saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon.
“Immediately, we were notified to prepare for security operations since we are an operating force,” said Davis. “Funerals were stopped, there was aircraft debris in Arlington cemetery. We put up our ceremonial uniforms immediately and put on our battle dress uniforms.”
As a reactive force for the National Capital Region, The Old Guard boarded buses and headed to the impact site.
Davis and his Soldiers assisted in recovery operations.
“The site was unbelievable,” said Davis. “No Soldier was trained for what we were exposed to.”
Six years after witnessing 9/11 events first hand, Davis was sent to the Pentagon for a tour of duty as the aide-de-camp to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also served as the joint capabilities staff officer.
In 2010, Davis returned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he commanded 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment and deployed to Afghanistan (OEF 10) as a Task Force commander until 2011.
On June 13, 2010, while serving in Afghanistan, a rocket-propelled grenade and an improvised explosive devise (IED) struck Davis’ vehicle. The grenade hit right at the seam of the vehicle, penetrating the hull and injuring Davis.
The incident would earn Davis a Purple Heart.
“Life is very precious,” said Davis. “When Soldiers put themselves at risk to protect other Soldiers, that’s something I will never, ever forget. I am driven to continue to do as much as I can to help Soldiers achieve all the things they want to achieve in life.”
Forging new leaders
Davis’ Army career now tasks him with finding the leaders of tomorrow who will take the Army into the future, he said. Davis said he looks for Soldiers who are dedicated and “hungry” to lead today’s generation of Soldiers.
“I’m looking for someone that may not know all the answers, but they’re so fired up and motivated to get it right,” said Davis. “Who does not want that type of Soldier in their organization?”
Davis said he cares deeply for what The Old Guard does, and who comprises The Old Guard.
“I love what we do each and every day, honoring our nation’s fallen and the living,” said Davis. “We do it with such care, with such precise movement, we do it with honor, and each and every one of us takes that responsibility very seriously. I know that will continue for years to come.”