Virginia Tech alumnus mentoring today’s military leaders
After serving in the military for more than three decades, Col. Tom Roberts Jr. '62 has spent much of his time since then working to help others.
After retiring from the military, Col. Tom Roberts Jr. simply found taking it easy to be much too hard.
Instead, he prefers being tired to being retired.
Roberts ’62 spends much of his time these days serving on various committees, councils, service clubs, associations, and boards of directors, including the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets Alumni board of directors. After graduating from Virginia Tech with a degree in business administration, he spent 34 years in the military before retiring, but he’s unretired on multiple occasions, all to help those around.
Roberts established and was the principal instructor for the criminal justice program at Augusta Technical College in Augusta, Georgia, then later was appointed U.S. marshal for two presidential terms as one of 94 U.S. marshals in the U.S. Marshal Service. To the surprise of many, he returned to the Army at the age of 70 as an international political officer, serving a tour in Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division. His volunteer law enforcement liaison work in public-private partnership development with ASIS International earned him the singular Roy N. Bordes Council Member Award of Excellence for 2014.
Arguably, no one has lived the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), more than Roberts.
“Service has been my life,” Roberts admitted.
Today, the 84-year-old’s most important role may be the one where he serves in a mentorship capacity with the leadership in the 385th Military Police Battalion headquartered in Fort Stewart, Georgia. Roberts lives in Savannah, and he regularly makes the hour drive to Fort Stewart to meet with officers and the battalion commander who oversees approximately 800 military police whose units constantly are rotating overseas.
Recently, Roberts received recognition for his efforts when the commanding general of the 3rd Infantry Division awarded him “rock star” status for his service as a volunteer soldier mentor.
“Today’s Army is very tactical with a lot of things happening, high-readiness posture, and high burnout for leadership,” Roberts said. “I drop in and establish a dialogue with the incoming battalion commander – and I say incoming because the Army rotates them out of command every two years, two-and-a-half years. These guys hit the ground running, and then they move on.
“Basically, we start off doing is talking about leadership challenges – guys getting in trouble or going in the wrong direction, or officers or noncommissioned officers getting out of the service or law enforcement challenges. We would talk about alternatives and strategies. It’s a free-flowing conversation.”
The military police hold a special place in Roberts’ heart after spending much of his career working as a military police officer. He originally started his military career in the Army Reserve, enlisting after his high school graduation once his father, who spent nearly four decades in the Army Reserve, deemed him not ready for college. Roberts ultimately went on active duty as a military policeman. After serving his time, he enrolled at William & Mary, where he participated on the drill team in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).
In the spring of his first year, Roberts took a bus trip to Blacksburg to meet with Gen. John Devine, then the commandant of the Corps of Cadets, about enrolling at Virginia Tech as a cadet. A couple of weeks after that trip, Devine indicated that the university had agreed to accept Roberts, and he came back to Blacksburg.
“I wanted to go to a military college and get a commission like my father,” Roberts said.
After graduation, Roberts served in various capacities while in the military, but retired as a military police officer. The military police started in 1778 under Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge after Washington put together a group of highly skilled soldiers to ensure discipline both in the field and within garrisons. They provided reconnaissance, accepted prisoners of war, and safeguarded the movement of supplies. They remained with Washington until he resigned his commission. Their jobs have little changed for more than 200 years.
“The military police mission is to assist, protect, and defend the Army members, their spouses, employees, and those who support them in peace and war. I thought that was a very worthy cause,” Roberts said. “After I retired, I felt that, with my background and experience, I could provide historical perspective and leadership decision-making alternatives to the present serving young men and women. This would, hopefully, help them to make my corps better. It certainly would contribute to Army readiness in this time of smaller budgets and decreasing numbers of military members and military units.”
Roberts’ definition of a mentor probably differs from that of most people. He doesn’t try to influence or necessarily reassure. He simply offers possible options or alternatives to alleviate issues.
“A mentor is basically a sounding board,” Roberts said. “He should be the next rank above the individual he's mentoring. He should have the prerequisite experience so that the individual realizes he's getting thoughts from a person who has had to deal with the same challenges in the past."
“We, as mentors, just throw out alternatives on what to do with this or that, and what's best for the unit or what's best for the individual. Then we would move on. A mentor does not buy into anything. He just basically is there to use his experience to give the mentee other options to take certain action on his own and to make his own choices.”
Roberts made an interesting career choice in returning to the Army when he turned 70. The commanding general of the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart knew of Roberts’ background and of his mentoring work with the military police. He asked Roberts to come with him to Iraq as an advisor on policing and security.
Eager to accept the role, Roberts first received the blessing from his wife and then spent the better part of a year flying in helicopters all over northern Iraq to meet with, observe, and talk with the Iraqis about military and policing operations. After analysis, he then provided the commanding general the “on-the-ground picture of the status of Iraqi police-military interaction."
Most soldiers would not be eager to return to active duty at the age of 70, but Roberts said he felt that calling.
“That's just the way I'm built,” he said. “My father spent about 37 years in the Army Reserve. Service before World War II was voluntary without pay. From 1923-39, he never received a penny for his service. He felt proud to serve his nation. He went to war and came back and continued in the Army Reserve. That’s just in our family. That’s just the way we are.”
His sons and daughters chose to serve in education, law enforcement, and state government. Two grandsons, Virginia Tech graduates, serve in the Army.
A traditional post-retirement life just isn’t in Roberts’ DNA. In fact, he currently is mentoring the planning of a large military-civilian law enforcement symposium with local chiefs of police and sheriffs of seven counties surrounding Fort Stewart.
Right now, Roberts doesn’t plan on slowing down his mentoring efforts with young men and women. For him, this is his retirement plan.
“As long there are very bright young officers and NCOs, even older officers doing God's work in our military looking after the troops, I'll be there,” he said.