FORT LEE, Va. – In middle school, three students made a pact to attend high school together, play football together, enroll in college together and follow the same career path.
“We were in the eighth grade sitting at a table, and we planned our whole lives out right there that day in class,” recalled Army Pvt. DeAndre Kinlaw, a member of the trio.
One could argue their ambitions were simply notions of pre-adolescent romanticism, but it was far more than that.
It was about extending their reach far beyond the familiar, actively pursuing goals and drawing inspiration from each other along the way. Those dynamics also played part in the decision to take the plan one step further, joining the Army National Guard and completing basic combat and advanced individual training together as members of the same units.
The three 19 year olds -- Pvt. Joshua Anderson, Kinlaw and Pfc. Derek Jones -- graduated Sept. 10 after completing the Quartermaster School’s Food Service Specialist Course as members of Tango Company, 266th Quartermaster Battalion. They are now on leave in their hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.
Resilience, teamwork, common purpose
Army Capt. Constance Marable, Tango Company commander, manages more than 400 soldiers at any one time. It’s not every day she comes across soldiers from the same school, she said, adding that they should be commended for accomplishing such lofty goals. More importantly, she said, their shared experiences demonstrate resilience, teamwork and common purpose -- attributes that she said are critical to soldiering.
“My initial reaction when I heard that they were in middle school together and all the way through to college was sobering,” she said. “Then I thought of things like ‘band of brothers,’ ‘team’ and a ‘deep appreciation of bond’ -- the very things that complete the total soldier concept and the main ingredient needed to cultivate exceptional leaders.”
They met as residents of Palmdale, a working class neighborhood in the north-central portion of Jacksonville. While attending Ribault Middle School, they found that their ways and personalities were eerily similar.
“We’re the same person,” Kinlaw said. “We just look different. We can all be thinking about the same things, then one of us will say it out loud.”
Strong, supportive families
The three also came from strong, supportive families. Kinlaw and Jones said their mothers were influential.
“My mama didn’t play,” said Jones, shaking his head in a manner that suggested he would never defy her. “She didn’t want me on the streets and wanted me to get an education.” Anderson said the men in his family, including his dad, kept him focused. “My father was a straight disciplinarian,” he said.
Sharing a deep interest in sports, the youngsters used their athletic talents to support their academic goals and other aspirations, despite living in an environment where negative temptations lurked at every corner and dreams often were squashed. They earned spots on the football and track and field team rosters at Ribault High School, feeding off each’s positive energies.
“They were positive role models,” Jones said of his friends. “There were times when I didn’t want to do this or that, but they were always motivating me to do better, to be positive and continue to drive on.”
Jones said all of them had endeavored to gain football scholarships in high school then attend an NCAA Division 1 school. Jones was heavily recruited, but none of the three departed high school with an athletic scholarship. As a result, they all settled upon attending Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. The experience was less than ideal, as each struggled with financial and other issues. Jones remembers his tribulation well.
“I would stay in the library until 4 in the morning and had a class at 9,” he recalled. “There was so much pressure and so much going on. I was always thinking, ‘How I’m going to pay for school? How was I going to pay it back?’”
The preoccupation with finances had a negative effect on each, amplifying an inadequate support network. A military solution to their dilemma came to light during a late-night basketball shoot-around.
“I presented an idea [to join the military] to Derek,” Anderson said. “As soon as I said it, Derek said, ‘Man, I was just thinking about that. That’s something I want to do, too.’”
Enlisting in the Florida National Guard
Jones and Anderson made a decision to enlist and informed Kinlaw, who already had taken steps to join the school’s ROTC program to support his educational efforts. They had no service preference and wound up enlisting in the Florida National Guard, because “they were the only ones to pick up [the phone],” Kinlaw said.
Upon making their decision, he added, the three informed the recruiter they were in school and needed a way to pay for tuition and other expenses. Joining the Florida Guard would be a good decision, the sergeant told them, because it pays 100 percent of tuition immediately following advanced individual training, Kinlaw said.
Jones provided more context about the decision. “We’ve been through a lot together -- a lot of ups and downs; more downs than ups,” he said. “I feel like joining is our stepping-stone to being where we want to be in life right now.”
An opportunity to stay together
To do that, all three made some personal sacrifices. Each had different majors and could have pursued military occupational specialties that supported their academic interests, but food service was the only one that provided the opportunity for the three to stay together.
“I couldn’t imagine going through basic training without them,” Kinlaw said.
That statement brought to light the innocence of three young middle school kids who probably had no concept of foresight or the inherent difficulties of growing up. Whatever agreement they made as school-agers, they never imagined the blessings they have today.
“I thought that we would be friends just for a little bit, and then we would probably meet new ones,” Jones said. “They say you meet your real friends in college, but that really didn’t happen. I met my real friends in middle school.
Jones, Kinlaw and Anderson are scheduled to attend Airborne School together in the near future and will be assigned to the 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne). The three also have plans to attend Florida International University for the spring semester.