SWANTON — Joel Clark is quick to evade the spotlight when it comes to his military career. There are plenty of people overseas kicking down doors, he says. There are plenty of veterans in this state to choose from.
But Brigadier General Clark is unique for two reasons. First, he is a native Franklin County resident, born and raised in Richford. Second, he is the Vermont Air National Guard’s chief of staff, a position that demands Clark oversee more than 1,000 airmen, as well as control missions, the largest of which is a 900-person operation flying F-16 fighter jets out of Burlington.
Clark said overseeing an operation of that magnitude boils down to coordination and trust. “You have a lot of good people that work with you, and for you,” he said. “They know what they need to do. You just help them do what they need to do and it takes care of itself.”
Clark first served in the U.S. Navy. He got his naval commission in 1981, and stayed on active duty for six years before transitioning into the naval reserve. He then worked for the Air National Guard part-time, and then full-time from 1993 to 2014.
There aren’t many Franklin County residents who have been to Taiwan, Japan, Spain, Norway, Italy, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Senegal and Macedonia — to name a few. “I’ve been to a few different places,” Clark said. “I’ve been fortunate. I’ve gotten to touch a lot of countries.”
His international experience is a far cry from his experience growing up in Richford. “It was a small working town,” Clark remembered. “Lot of farms. Small farms, unlike what you see today. It was a small community. Little boring at times, I guess. That was a time with two or three TV stations, and one of them was the Canadian station. You start to see a bigger world, and you get interested in learning about that bigger world.”
Clark said his interest in that “bigger world” was initially spiked by his father’s stories of military service during World War II. Toward the end of high school, Clark decided he “wanted to fly” — specifically, to fly naval aircraft, excited by the challenge of taking off from Navy carriers. But his poor eyesight disqualified him. “They were very strict on being 20/20 uncorrected back then,” Clark said.
Though Clark’s siblings decided not to engage in military service, Clark’s interests seem to have been passed down to his five children. Two of Clark’s kids are in the Air Guard, and another is on active duty with the Air Force. A fourth is in Air Force training while studying at the University of Alaska, and a fifth, a freshman at Norwich University, in the Navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Clark’s perspective must be contagious.
That perspective is about shifting focus from oneself to something larger. “What you find is it’s not about you,” Clark said. “It’s about whatever the mission is. It’s a group of people trying to get something done. There’s a lot of teamwork. A lot of loyalty. You just get this sense of dedication to something that’s bigger than you.”
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