News | Nov. 25, 2020

‘Never borrow from yourself’: Customer account specialist shares best advice of his 50-year career

By Kristin Molinaro DLA Land and Maritime Public Affairs

This week marks five decades since a young Chester Parker entered an Army recruiting center and embarked on a federal career that took him around the world.

Today, Parker is a customer account specialist with the Defense Logistics Agency Land and Maritime’s Land Customer Operations. In this capacity he serves as the “face” to Army and Marine Corps customers and engages with them daily to understand their specific logistics needs. 

To put his half-century of service into perspective, things younger than Parker’s federal career include the Illinois state constitution, NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, videogames, personal computers, Microsoft Windows and the minivan. Parker easily shrugs off these signs of age, however, because he’s constantly redefining himself – whether it’s as a family man returning to school after two decades to ensure his children succeed or as a weekend woodworker fashioning footstools for his neighbor’s children. 

“The greatest lesson I learned was perseverance – to never give up on what you want to accomplish,” he said. “As long as you’re persistent you can do anything.”

Parker’s career began Dec. 7, 1970, after graduating from high school in his hometown of Muskegon Heights, Michigan. Parker looked to better his situation but permanent work wasn’t available.

“I walked into the recruiter’s office and I said, ‘I need to go into the military because I have no prospects.’ He said we can’t take you until next year. And I said ‘You don’t understand. You take me today or I go next door.’ He put me in a hotel that night and then put me on the bus to Fort Campbell the next morning. I always remind my kids that I entered the military out of desperation, but I stayed out of admiration – because of the people I met at the jobs I had. Once I got into the Army, the whole world became open.”

The young private started off as a clerk typist and quickly gained the attention of his instructors, who sent him on for additional training as a medical records clerk at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, home to the Army Medical Department. Parker spent the majority of the next 23 years assigned to medical units including stints at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, the U.S. Army Hospital in Berlin and 2nd Infantry Division’s 2nd Medical Battalion in Camp Casey, Korea. Parker said his most defining assignment came midway through his military career. “I think the most challenging and rewarding assignment for me was being selected to attend Drill Sergeant School and train the Soldiers that would eventually replace me,” he said.

It was during his second military assignment – to the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon, Vietnam – that Parker met his future wife, Phuong. Next year, the pair will celebrate their own significant milestone – 50 years of marriage. Together they have four children and nine grandchildren. The two oldest children followed their father’s footsteps into federal service as government civilians at Fort Lee, Virginia, and Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, respectively. The Parkers third child owns her own salon in South Carolina, and their youngest is set to graduate Ohio State University next May.

“I’ve never looked outside my family for heroes or celebrities – my family members are my heroes,” the proud father said.

Parker retired from the Army in 1993 as a master sergeant and took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a rural development specialist the following year. With only a high school diploma under his belt, he knew he wanted to expand his education to be more competitive on the job market, but the primary reason Parker said he returned to school was his family. After Parker earned his associate's degree from the Georgia Military College in 1995, he made a deal with his son.

“My oldest son was having trouble with college. So, I said to him ‘To make sure you go to school every day, I’ll go with you,’” Parker recalled. He kept to his word, enrolling in the same university and attending classes almost daily with his son.

Together they earned their bachelor’s degrees in public administration. When Parker’s next child was ready for college, Parker told him “If you’re going, you can come with us.” At one point, all three Parker boys were attending classes together to earn their master’s degrees in business administration.

“We shared many classes together, but it was never well known that we were father and son,” Parker said, laughing. “What 18- or 19-year old kid wants anybody to know that his 45-year old dad is sitting next to him?”

Parker’s work paid off and with his MBA under his belt, the father of four joined DLA Land and Maritime as a demand planner in 2007 and worked his way to his current position in 2016.

When asked what advice he received throughout his 50-year career that stood out the most, Parker recalled a moment early on during a thrift savings program briefing: “The man said if you put in 15 percent of your income from now until retirement you’d be a millionaire and we laughed at him and said you’re crazy. But I’ve learned since then. Save everything you can while you can so you can have the retirement you want to have. Never borrow from yourself.”

That advice – and the inherent lesson of laughing in the face of wisdom – translates well to other aspects of life, Parker explained. 

While Parker has no immediate plans to retire, he said he’s looking forward to the days when COVID restrictions are lifted so he and his wife can continue their goal of traveling the country.

“There are 61 National Parks within the United States - I’ve visited 21 so far - and it’s our goal to visit all of them,” he said.

And as for the question of what changes within the Department of Defense he’s noticed over half a century, Parker had this to say: “I think what has changed today is that the Department of Defense is keeping abreast of its counterparts in the industry. We’re as competitive or more competitive than our competition.”