Cambridge native James A. Adkins joined the Army in 1975. In the ensuing decades, he studied Russian, earned a commission, and served Cold War-era assignments in the infantry, the cavalry and intelligence.
In 2007, then-Gov. Martin O'Malley appointed Adkins the state secretary of veterans affairs. The following year, O'Malley named Adkins the commander of the Maryland National Guard.
As the 28th adjutant general of Maryland, Adkins was responsible for a force of 6,000 soldiers and airmen making multiple deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflict zones, supporting immigration enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border, and responding to emergencies in Maryland and beyond.
He also developed the state's partnerships with former Eastern Bloc rivals Estonia and Bosnia — a program that he helped to develop as a young officer in the early 1990s, and relationships on which NATO leaders have called to counter Russian provocation in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Adkins, now 60, formally relinquished command of the Maryland Guard on Saturday in a ceremony at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore. Before that ceremony, he reflected on his career, the state of the guard and its future.
Your ancestors served in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, both sides of the Civil War and World War II. You enlisted during the Vietnam War. What drove your decision?
I probably looked around at a lot of people in my local community on the Eastern Shore and realized that at that point I had no real commitments. And the military was maybe a good vehicle for me to see a greater world. And it certainly did that for me.
You enlisted at a time when the United States was nearing the end of a long period of war. The country now is emerging from a long period of war. What would you tell a young person considering joining the military now?
The military was good to me. I think military service provides great opportunities if you take advantage of them. Really, there's no greater form of citizenship than serving. You're really there to protect and defend the nation. There are tremendous opportunities. It's just making sure you take advantage of them.
You started your military career as an enlisted soldier. What did you learn from that experience that helped you as an officer?
You gain a great respect for the noncommissioned officers and the NCO corps. We always talk about them being the backbone of the Army, and you get to understand the roles and responsibilities and the differences between office and NCO.
If you're an NCO, you learn skills to help you train and mentor, which is important no matter which level you serve.
What part of your military career did you enjoy most?
You learn to grow in the military. You learn to practice your leadership skills. You learn how to lead organizations and large organizations as you progress through the military career. The experiences assist you in trusting your instincts, the ability to place things in perspective. When everybody's getting excited and the world seems to be falling apart around you, it's important that you can say, "OK, this isn't the end of the world. We haven't gotten anybody killed today." There are times to get excited and there are times not to get excited. It teaches you those coping skills to remain calm under intense situations.
The National Guard contributed substantially to the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. As those conflicts seemed to be ending, we see now the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and also the fighting in Ukraine and increasing Russian provocation around Europe. What responsibility do you see the National Guard taking in these and other conflicts going forward?
We've already been there. With the incidents in Ukraine, we were dispatched to Estonia — I went to Estonia last summer to show the flag to reinforce the partnership. We see that happening in all of our partner countries with the National Guard, The commanders in Europe have been calling on us to assist in assuring our partners that we are there in the event that we're needed.
Things haven't changed. We train. We prepare to go where the nation needs us to go and where the president and the Department of Defense orders us to go. I don't know what the future holds as far as where we will go, but the important thing is to know that the guard stands ready to respond and fulfill that need, that critical need, that our nation may have.
In recent years we've seen disputes between the National Guard and the Air Force and the National Guard and the Army over funding, equipment and roles. Has something changed in the relationships between the different components? Where are those relationships now, and what do they mean for the National Guard going forward?
I'm amazed sometimes that the senior leaders in Washington don't understand our history, or why we are organized with the National Guard and the active components the way we are. I think everybody's concerned about in an era of reduced resources their own little world, and that causes undue conflict.
Now we had that conflict in the Air Guard several years ago, but I watch that dissipate with the change in leadership. New leaders at the secretary of the Air Force and the chief of staff at the Air Force level who I think were more visionary in their approach and had more of an understanding of the value of how we defend this nation using all the components that we have.
What are you planning to do in retirement? Are there organizations or causes with which you'll continue to work?
The first thing you do is focus on fitness. I now have the time to work out every morning. The Sons of the American Revolution, because of my involvement in supporting the Maryland 400 [of the Revolutionary War] and as the adjutant general supporting the history of the state and our nation, came to me and recruited me to be president of the society in Maryland over the next couple of years. I reflected back on the service of my ancestors in the Revolutionary War, and I thought the least I could do was support an organization that promotes history and patriotism.
I've got a great love for photography and the Chesapeake Bay and nature, so I'm looking forward to spending some time doing that. I've done a lot of traveling overseas. I want to take some time and travel in the United States. So I'm just letting it unfold, and, as I always say, letting the winds take me where they may.