Class of 1970 USMA graduate looks back on career, offers advice to cadets

By Michelle Schneider PV Staff Writer

November 14th, 2019 | News, News and Features

Retired Maj. Gen. James Snider graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1970 and served 32 years as an officer in the Army. As a 50-Year Affiliate graduate, he joined cadets during their Branch Night Wednesday alongside other graduates.
He took some time to share with the Pointer View details about his career as well as provided advice for graduating cadets as they embark on their new journey.

PV: What do you consider the highlight of your career?
JS: “There were several. The Army gave me the opportunity to get a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering. After that, I worked at a joint project office to build simulations for Star Wars, a strategic defense initiative by President (Ronald) Reagan to be able to shoot down any type of nuclear missile coming down. It was a huge deal back then, in fact, it was one of the things that forced the collapse of the Soviet Union because they could not keep up with what President Reagan was doing.
“So that was a super-secret program that I enjoyed, but I think as far as the Army goes, I got into acquisition and being a program manager of both the Apache helicopter program and the Comanche helicopter program, those were big highlights.”

PV: How much time in service was it before you took on these types of responsibilities?
JS: “When I worked for the SGI Star Wars program, that was in 1989 and when I was the Apache program manager, I was a colonel, and then a one star as the program manager for the Comanche job. But there were highlights all throughout my career like working at the Pentagon and flying in aviation.

PV: Of all the different experiences you had, which one would you say is your favorite and why?
JS: “I would say when I was the program manager of the Comanche program. That program was cancelled about five or six years ago, but the prime contractors gained so much knowledge by developing the helicopter, which was a super sophisticated helicopter.
“The reason the program was cancelled was because we got into the Iraq wars. The program was unaffordable up against all the other things we needed to buy in aviation and sustaining the Apache and the Black Hawk fleet.”

PV: Do you believe the training you received at West Point prepared you or benefited your career and can you name an example of when you recognized that?
JS: “Absolutely. The discipline for one thing, and West Point really taught us to present ideas in a succinct fashion. We were expected to get ideas out very concisely and quickly. Also, I think the Army value system that West Point puts a lot of emphasis on helps us carry them throughout our whole career.
“I would say I did get a Ph.D. in a mathematical discipline back when everyone got an engineering degree. Now I understand they have choices, but back then, you got a Bachelor of Science degree in general engineering. During our plebe year, we were required to take a full lot of calculus, so that prepared me for graduate school where I got both my master’s and a Ph.D.
“I will tell you that in getting a Ph.D., there are different ways to get it. You can be brilliant like an Einstein and get it and have no problem. The other is organizing your approach throughout the Ph.D. In other words, you must put together a committee, you have to satisfy taking the right courses, and then you have to take a problem and work through it, and it has to be an original problem. It must be something you haven’t worked through before.”

PV: What do you think cadets should focus on as they move forward into their new careers?
JS: “I’ll tell you a little story. Besides Branch Night, we were able to select the unit we were going to down to the battalion level. So, in the spring of the year that I graduated, there was a particular battalion I wanted.
“A year later, I arrived there and when I showed up, they said ‘who are you?’ So, when you go in there as a second lieutenant, going to West Point is one thing, but so many guys went to other great schools. You all start off at the same level. Whatever job the Army gives you, and I think I only got to choose one in my entire career, but whatever they give you, go in there and do the best possible job you can.
“And I would say almost 100 percent of the time, your senior officer is going to be a very honest and hard-working person so you can trust them and there is no reason to doubt them or follow what they ask you to do.”

PV: What was your experience like at Branch Night?
JS: “I wanted to go armor. Back then, aviation was not an opportunity. The rule was you had to spend at least one year in combat arms before you could transfer to aviation. So, I chose armor and was not happy to get it, but our class was quite proud that no one was forced to go into infantry.
“In other words, our class chose infantry knowing we were not forced to go into that which I think was really good and spoke highly of our class.”

PV: Will you share more about your progression from West Point graduate to where you ended up?
JS: “I spent a year in the armor branch and then transitioned into aviation. I spent many years in the Army cavalry and then went to graduate school and got into the acquisition career. So, I was doing both acquisition and aviation. I was in the Pentagon when President Reagan came in and his idea, we are going to the best multicarrier in the world and we started getting a lot of money. The systems we still have today, the Apache, the Black Hawk, those were all bought in the mid-’80s, but the Army’s leadership was terrific in turning around something bad and making it the best Army. So, when Desert Storm came, it was incredible.”

PV: Do you have any advice for students who are unhappy with what they got at Branch Night?
JS: “When I went through Branch Night, we had quotas. I suppose it’s the same way now although there is more combat aviation these days. Some people did not get what they wanted, and I say do not give up on the Army just because of one instance you perceive something as a failure.
“There are a lot of opportunities that are not even branch related that you can get into like other specialties and things that will come later in your career. That is the one message I would give new officers. I had an executive officer who worked over me that had been passed over for lieutenant colonel. He was about ready to give up, but he did such a good job that on the second round, he got selected and landed a very nice job.
“That is one hurdle that you got to get over but there are so many opportunities and not all are just branch related.”

PV: Any advice you can give cadets?
JS: “I would advise everybody who is physically able to, go to Ranger School. You carry that Ranger tab around your whole career and that really means something. And that goes for airborne school. There are a couple of other schools that are career path schools. The war college I actually did not attend, I did it by correspondence, which is probably one of the perquisites for making general officer.
“If you do not get selected, do it by correspondence. If you don’t get promoted, keep going. There’s a place for you.
“I would say as long as you can see a path, move forward in progression. Stick with it because the Army is really a great life and especially today’s Army.
“It is much different than when I came in at the tail end of the Vietnam War. Soldiers were not as admired, but today the American people really support the armed forces and that is a good change.”