Laughs, Tears as McKnight Retires, Says Goodbye
To get to the end, James McKnight has to start at the beginning. It sounds fairly intuitive, sure, but for McKnight, who retired from the Army on July 10 during a small ceremony at Fort Detrick, the launch point of his near 30-year military career is perhaps the most important part of the story.
"I told the recruiter I wanted to be a medic," said McKnight, who most recently served as the deputy director of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command's (USAMRDC) Military Operational Medicine Research Program (MOMRP). "And when they told me no, that I'd have to wait four years to do that, I signed up to be a parachute rigger instead."
It is perhaps that position – which McKnight describes as both grueling and yet intensely rewarding – that gave him the discipline he needed to excel in his Army career; a career that started with a posting in Germany at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, continued with a pair of deployments to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and finished – after a few stops in between, of course – with a four year stint at the USAMRDC. For McKnight, it seems that no matter where he wound up in nearly 28 years of service, those hard, initial lessons about Army life were never far behind.
"This is what I've known for 20 some years," said McKnight, tugging on his dress uniform. "This will be the toughest transition."
It's a transition that will certainly be felt on the other side as well. After he was awarded a Doctorate of Public Health (DrPH) degree in Global Health in 2014 – near the tail end of his posting to the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) in Tampa, Florida – he quickly put both his academic and institutional know-how to work at MOMRP in 2016 by serving in a variety roles. Most notably during that time, McKnight served as a representative for a U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Soldier Cross Functional Lethality Team; a position which CDR Christopher Steele, director of MOMRP, found was able to make use of McKnight's unique and substantial talents.
"The best thing Jim has brought to the Command is a mature understanding of how the Command is supposed to do business with the rest of the Army," said Steele. "He does things the right way."
Steele is quick to comment on McKnight's role as a friend and teammate as well, running down the list of funny anecdotes and hard-fought victories from the past several years in rat-a-tat fashion. There's McKnight's love of cartoonish, Saturday-morning wrestling matches (it's a long story, says Steele), as well as the fact that everyone refers to him as a "Great American" around the office ("An inside joke," says Steele, "but it's actually true!"). Add them all up, and the team at MOMRP is left to deal with the loss of substantial presence.
"He is, very simply, a guy that makes things happen," said Steele of McKnight.
Now, that can-do attitude will shift to a different set of responsibilities – namely, family. After 22 years of active duty, of moving efforts and station postings for the sake or service, McKnight thanked his wife Trisha, son Gabe, and college-bound daughter Sydney – all of whom joined him at the ceremony – and made it clear where his energy will be focused in the future.
Said McKnight, "The picking up and going, the hugs and the tears. It doesn't go unnoticed."
And yet, in the end, past all the handshakes and tears, McKnight still goes back to the beginning again – to that rigger position, to those very first lessons learned about duty and respect – knowing how important it is to thank the people around you for opportunities, friendships, and the simple satisfaction of a hard day's work. In short, the little things.
"In my career, I had the opportunity to do everything I ever wanted to do," said McKnight, turning to his coworkers in closing. "And this job [at MOMRP] is nothing like the rest of the Army. You guys make it tops. I love you guys."