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Inner-city native travels arduous path to become National Guard officer
Inner-city native travels arduous path to become National Guard officer

Missouri National Guardsman Gregory Rhodes prepares to rappel down a tower during officer candidate school training at Fort Leonard Wood.
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Oct. 8, 2009) — Most people probably don’t know Gregory Rhodes, but his story, which can be considered inspirational, is worth a look. It starts with humble beginnings, continues with a long battle through adversity, and culminates where it is today — with Rhodes as a happily married family man and a graduate of the Missouri National Guard’s officer candidate school at Fort Leonard Wood.

“I understand that everything I have overcome has led me to where I am today. I am a survivor,” Rhodes said. “Even before joining the Missouri Army National Guard, without realizing it, I have been living by the warrior ethos and the Army values. I want to inspire others to do the same. I know that I can and will fulfill that duty as an officer in the United States Army.”

Rhodes had to struggle and fight to survive from day one. He was born three months premature in October of 1970, the youngest of six children. Often sick as a child, Rhodes required braces to strengthen his legs due to his premature birth, and by the age of 4, he needed glasses.

His home was on Newberry Terrace in inner city St. Louis, a place he calls one of the poorest and rundown neighborhoods around.

“Our home was hardly what most would consider a home,” Rhodes recalled. “The wallpaper was peeling off the walls in nearly every room, and the rats and roaches outnumbered us all. I lived in a one-family flat that had a total of four rooms and a bathroom with my mother, brother, two sisters and six nieces and nephews.”

When Rhodes began school, he was already labeled by the actions of his older kin.

“Regardless of my actions, good or bad, my teachers would say, ‘He’s just another one of those Rhodes kids. He probably won’t amount to anything either,’” Rhodes reminisced. “I felt like they had given up on me before I could show them I was different from my siblings.”

Rhodes also was ridiculed by his peers.

“I had to face my classmates, who would tease me because of my hand-me-down clothes that were always too big and out of style,” he remembered. “I was mocked for just being a member of my family — for being a Rhodes.”

It was in these formative years that Rhodes started taking steps to rise above the hand life had dealt him.

“I was determined that I would not let anyone dictate what I would become,” he recalled.

At the age of 10, Rhodes took on the responsibility of his first job working at a neighborhood store.

“I started earning money for myself and the job allowed me to keep myself occupied,” he reminisced. “I started doing my own laundry at the laundromat instead of washing my clothes in the sink at home. I tried to distance myself from my home environment as much as possible.”

In 1985, Rhodes, who is black, was part of the desegregation program and was bussed from inner-city St. Louis to St. Louis County, where he attended Lindbergh High School, a predominantly white school.

“For the first time in my life I saw how things could be for me and that there was more to life than what I had previously seen on Newberry Terrace,” Rhodes recalled. “But I had to face some difficult times along the way. Neighborhood kids, who I would have been attending school with, began to call me ‘sell out’ for being part of the desegregation program. There were many fights in which I had to defend myself.”

As a sophomore, Rhodes became the first black student to run on the school’s cross-country team and he was a member of the track and field team.

“I would stay with my teammates at their home when we had weekend meets and I began to realize what my home life was lacking,” Rhodes reminisced. “Their parents treated them with respect, showed them love and compassion, and gave them guidance and encouragement. None of that was practiced at my home.”

The next year, Rhodes enrolled in a two-year child care assistant program at North Technical High School.

“I wanted to find a job utilizing the skills I was learning,” he said.

In the summer between his junior and senior year, Rhodes began to work for the St. Louis Association for Retarded Citizens at their summer camp program for mentally and physically challenged children and adults. Over the next four years, Rhodes worked his way from assistant camp counselor to the position of unit director for the summer camp program. In his first leadership role, he supervised more than 50 staff members and was responsible for about 90 campers each summer.

Also during that time, Rhodes, in 1989, became the first member of his family to graduate high school. He then began attending college at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg.

“I knew I wanted more for myself than what was offered to me in St. Louis,” Rhodes recalled. “I began taking my general education classes.”

Rhodes transferred to Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield to study recreation therapy and learned to budget his time.

“Although I had to work two to three jobs to support myself while maintaining a full class schedule, I found time to volunteer by being a part of the Big Brother Big Sister Foundation,” he said.

In 1992, Rhodes took off a year from school and worked as a nanny in charge of two children for a family in Connecticut.

“I became like a member of their family. I experienced a life that would have never been possible had I remained in St. Louis,” he reminisced.

After he returned to school, Rhodes lost interest in the degree he was pursuing and considered serving his country in the military.

“Unfortunately, I allowed friends and family to talk me out of it,” he recalled.

In 1995, Rhodes met his future wife, Kristina. Now with a support system, Rhodes got his life back on track by taking a job as a phlebotomist at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, which led to a position as an EMT and then as a Springfield firefighter, a job he has held for the last nine years.

“She was always telling me I could do anything I set my mind to, and I did,” Rhodes remembered.

The longing to serve his country in the military continued to pull at Rhodes, so in 2007, he joined the Guard.

“I had no idea what I was in for, but I have never felt more at home,” Rhodes said. “At my age, I was one of the oldest in my platoon at basic training, which I believe gave me an advantage. I was able to understand what was expected of me and I performed accordingly.

“As I was given more responsibility and placed in leadership roles, I began to realize this is the path I wanted to take and the challenge I have been searching for.”

Today, Rhodes, who lives in Ozark, is a specialist with the 1107th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group of Springfield. After he graduated from the 2nd Battalion, 140th Regiment Missouri Regional Training Institute Officer Candidate School last month at Fort Leonard Wood, Rhodes deferred to take his commission until the end of this year where he will hold a slot within the same unit.

“Graduating officer candidate school means I set a goal and I accomplished that goal by adapting and overcoming every obstacle and challenge that was placed in my path,” Rhodes said. “I am seeking a full-time position with the Missouri National Guard. I hope to be a company commander, full-time Guard or active Army, in the next three to five years.”

Rhodes credits his platoon sergeant and officers at his advanced individual training for pushing him down the path of an officer.

“They said, ‘You are a real sharp solider,’” Rhodes said. “And with my telling them I wanted to make a career out of the Guard, they suggested it. Initially, that was not my intention, but the more I thought about it and with the encouragement, I knew that would suit me just fine. I’ve always wanted to serve and hate that it took me this much time to join the Guard.”

Along with the grueling physical requirements, officer candidate school was challenging for Rhodes because of the amount of written material candidates needed to absorb.

“We were presented and tested on regulations, laws and procedures,” he said. “Then we were required to implement them effectively within our platoon and squad as a leader.”

The training offered at officer candidate school reinforced something Rhodes has seen throughout his life, that it sometimes is necessary to dig deep within to find success, despite the circumstances.

“I have learned and experienced that no matter how hot or cold, tired and sore the human mind and body may be, as a soldier and officer, I can and will do more to accomplish the task and complete the mission,” he said. “I’ve learned perseverance.”

For Rhodes, the Guard has had much to offer.

“I feel like I’ve got a good sense of leadership in the future with the United States Army National Guard, as far as leading men and women, whether it is in combat or just in a unit,” Rhodes said. “I’m eager. If I can just talk to one person and tell them about my experience and the benefits of being in the Missouri National Guard, that’s what excites me.”

Rhodes is supported in his military career by Kristina and three children, Declan, 10, McKenna, 6, and Aiden, 3, as well as his in-laws, James and Mary Roberts, all of Ozark.

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