Fort Belvoir, Virginia –
For the man who never wanted to pursue a military career, he invested heart and soul into Army life. As a mentor and teacher, retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Gaskill continues to inspire countless others toward careers in the armed services.
Gaskill began his tenure as deputy director of the Defense Logistics Agency in 1978, just one year after the Defense Supply Agency was renamed. He retired from the agency in 1981 and is now a distinguished addition to the DLA Hall of Fame class of 2018 — an honor Gaskill said surprised and gratified him.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the tour of duty at DLA and was grateful for that opportunity to serve in a senior logistics assignment,” he said. “I was familiar with the development of DLA from its inception, because one of my mentors early in my logistics career had been [Army Lt.] Gen. Andrew T. McNamara.”
McNamara, a former quartermaster general and a decorated World War II logistician, was appointed to head the newly created Defense Supply Agency in 1961.
Army Gen. Woodrow Vaughan, another former DLA director, became a mentor to Gaskill while he was teaching logistics at the U.S. Army Quartermaster School in Fort Lee, Virginia.
“I was very proud to be following in their footsteps,” he said.
Gaskill served at DLA under Air Force Lt. Gen. Gerald J. Post, a guiding force in Gaskill’s life, and together they weathered many challenges.
“We were expanding the mission at the Secretary of Defense’s direction, and at the same time, consolidating activities in DLA,” he said, explaining that the agency also faced budget constraints. “Experiencing an expanded mission with those constraints just doubled the challenge, but I think history has proven that we were able to do it effectively.”
The Hall of Fame member’s executive leadership skills and logistics acumen were used to great advantage as DLA matured into a rapidly transforming organization. As the nation recovered from the Vietnam War, an abundance of excess repair parts and other supplies drove DLA to quickly adapt as the military services transferred essential missions to the agency.
Gaskill points to DLA’s then-General Counsel Karl Kabeiseman as another positive influence during his time at DLA.
“We were very close,” Gaskill said. “He kept both [Post and me] straight in terms of legal challenges that we had.”
The ability to grasp the essence of a problem, weigh options and arrive at a decision are all leadership qualities Gaskill said he admired in Post and Kabeiseman.
“They also both had a keen sense of caring for people, so we were able to [manage] the executive team in the headquarters with minimum interpersonal rivalries or squabbles,” he said.
Post retirement, Gaskill has continued his service in a variety of volunteer positions: as a member of the Army Quartermaster Foundation’s Advisory Board, as an elder in the Presbyterian church, as a member of the Northern Virginia Community College Board and for many years as an alumnus adviser to the Howard University Army ROTC cadre and cadets. Gaskill said he advises cadets to recognize their primary mission and then do it to the best of their ability.
“I’ve never had a bad assignment, and I suspect most career officers can honestly say that,” he said. “There’s always something to learn and it’s helpful to be able to rely on good advice; good mentoring — and be willing to give it [as well].”
When Gaskill first joined the Army, he admits it wasn’t an easy time for a person of color to become an officer.
“I did not intend to have a military career,” he said. “But I had a brother and a sister on active duty during WWII.”
In 1948, when Gaskill was still in school, draft laws were in effect. He explained that all male undergraduate students at Howard University, where he aspired to attend, had to be in ROTC unless they had a medical exemption.
“I was a member of the high school junior ROTC program in Washington, D.C., [which] gave me a head start in the university ROTC program,” he said. “When I was a junior at university, I had the option of getting out of the ROTC program. But one of the incentives for staying in was a small monthly stipend, and that helped with the expenses of staying in college.”
As he approached college graduation, Gaskill said he realized his grades were good enough to emerge as a distinguished military graduate, which would give him the option of a regular military commission in the Army.
“My ROTC mentors — that is, the cadre — stressed to me that was a good employment option,” he said. “Then there was a little thing called the Korean conflict that was going on as I approached graduation. It occurred to me that I would probably not escape active duty as long as the war was going on, and it would probably be a good idea to have a regular Army commission.”
Gaskill said one thing that helped going into his military career was having a good work ethic.
“I had to work in order to stay in college. I also had good parental guidance,” he said. “And I prayed a lot! I began that early and the more I applied it, the more valuable it became — and it’s still valuable.”
Gaskill knew his grades and ROTC experience would afford him better career options as an active duty service member.
“That was almost a no brainer," he said. "I came on active duty in 1952, when the war was still raging in Korea, with the attitude that I can’t control how the war is going to turn out,” he said. “By the time it was over, I had been treated very well by the military. And I kept praying. I developed an even more serious partnership with God, and it all worked out.”
Gaskill has felt honored throughout his military career to serve as an example to younger generations of aspiring officers.
“I’ve been encouraged and really inspired by the folks who have come up behind me,” he said. “I can point to the success of folks like [Army Lt.] Gen. Darrell Williams, whom I’ve had the privilege of knowing for a few years.”
He also sees military service as an excellent career option for the current generation of cadets. Gaskill believes they are no less committed to serving their country than the cadets in his generation.
“I don’t think a military career is the No. 1 career for everybody, obviously, but it is a good option for those who are willing to be disciplined, willing to serve and be challenged,” he said. “I think that’s the way I would sum it up — that it is an option worth exploring, especially for those who had the ROTC experience.”
He also speaks to the expanding opportunities in military academies for all individuals of color.
“[We] have not always had that experience, that option,” Gaskill said. “It’s obvious that in all of the academies — and I can speak mostly for the Army — there has been a sea change … and it’s gratifying to look at the senior commander in Korea being a person of color [and a former] first captain of the cadet corps at West Point.”
The retired general also referred to Army Lt. Gen. Nadja West, U.S. Army Surgeon General and Commanding General of U.S. Army Medical Command, who’s also a West Point graduate.
“For the folks who might be inclined to go into the medical field, she’s certainly a shining example of what is possible,” he said. “The idea of serving the nation in some significant capacity [can be] a target for folks who are looking to decide how they’d like to spend their adult lives.”