Since 2008, Columbia restaurateur Bill Dukes, as founder and chairman of the Honor Flight of South Carolina, has helped fly more than 2,500 World War II veterans to the nation’s capital for free to see their memorial.
Now Dukes will be frequently going to Washington, D.C., in a more formal capacity – as South Carolina’s civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army.
The 71-year-old Air Force veteran said he hopes to use his organizational skills and business and social contacts to tighten the bonds between the Army and the Palmetto State.
“I want to ensure good relations between the community and the military,” Dukes said, sitting in a back booth of his Blue Marlin restaurant in Columbia’s Vista, surrounded by dozens of photographs from the 19 Honor Flight trips his group has organized. “That’s something I thoroughly love doing.”
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Dukes, who founded and then sold the LongHorn Steakhouse franchise, takes over as civilian aide in place of the late Ike McLeese, the former chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce. McLeese died after heart surgery last year.
Dukes said he will carry on the mission McLeese started.
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Dukes said. “Ike developed the bridging techniques between the community and the Army.”
Dukes will be an ex officio member of the South Carolina Military Base Task Force, which is tasked by Gov. Nikki Haley with protecting and enhancing military missions in South Carolina. The task is critical as the military is drastically downsizing after 13 years of war.
The state’s military structure – which includes the state’s eight major installations, the National Guard, defense contractors and retirees – has a nearly $16 billion annual economic impact, according to a study by the S.C. Department of Commerce.
Dukes said his No. 1 priority will be to educate the public about the cuts and assist in efforts to expand Army missions here as they are consolidated.
“We should be on offense and not be in a defensive mode,” he said. “Let’s think positive about how we can encourage the Army to bring more missions to Fort Jackson.”
Fort Jackson is the nation’s largest training base, churning out about 47,000 new soldiers each year. Dukes said the installation, located in Columbia, has the capacity to absorb the initial combat training missions of the Army’s three other training bases: Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Benning, Ga.; and, Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
“Let’s bring all of that initial training here,” he said.
Dukes is scheduled to meet with Fort Jackson commander Maj. Gen. Bradley Becker next week. He is to meet with Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, the commander of U.S. Army Central, formerly Third Army, when Terry returns from the Middle East. U.S. Army Central is based at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter.
Dukes met Secretary of the Army John McHugh last month during a civilian aide convention at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Olympia, Wash.
The two didn’t talk about any potential cuts at Fort Jackson or U.S. Army Central – “It was my first day on the job,” Dukes said – but he did get a sense that the secretary wanted to make any cuts responsibly.
“He’s concerned about us getting it right,” Dukes said.
There are civilian aides in each U.S. state and unincorporated territory, such as Puerto Rico and Guam. South Carolina has two – one in the Midlands and one in the Lowcountry. Linda Green of Beaufort County represents the Lowcountry.
According to the military, an aide must be a United States citizen “of outstanding character, integrity, and patriotism” have a “deep interest in military affairs”, be a leader in community affairs, be in a position to disseminate information about the Army to a broad cross section of the public, be a prominent citizen in their area and be able to “interpret and affect public attitude toward the Army.”
Aides are nominated by Army leaders in the state and reviewed by a panel of Army commanders at the Pentagon. The Secretary of the Army, who is nominated by the president and approved by the U.S. Senate, makes the final decision.
“We had a number of candidates for the South Carolina position, all of whom were very qualified,” said Laura DeFrancisco, director of Civilian Aides to the Secretary of the Army. “Mr. Dukes was highly recommended and had strong endorsements from military and civilian leaders in the state.”
Dukes was nominated by retired Maj. Gen. Steve Siegfried, who was commanding general of Fort Jackson from 1991 to 1994. He met Dukes in 2008 when Dukes was starting the Honor Flight chapter. Siegfried now serves as its co-chairman.
“I’ve seen the love he has for service men and women and seen how he’s been a leader in this city and state,” said Siegfried, who, like Dukes, lives in Chapin. “I thought, ‘This guy would be the perfect guy.’”
Siegfried noted Dukes’ passion for a challenge and seemingly unlimited energy. “He’s a doer. He wants to make things better.”
Former Columbia Mayor Patton Adams, who served as civilian aide until his term expired in 2002, echoed Siegfried’s sentiments.
“Bill’s energy is boundless,” Adams said. “He not only conceived the idea of Honor Flights for our veterans, he actually made them happen. It takes an unusual individual to not only put that together, but make it happen so many times.”
Dukes decided to begin an Honor Flight Chapter in South Carolina after taking his father, William E. Dukes, an Army veteran of the World War II Pacific Theater, on a trip to the National World War II Memorial in 2008.
“It was so emotional for him,” said Dukes, whose father died a year ago at the age of 97. “I wanted every veteran to experience that feeling.”
Dukes put together an organization from scratch and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from individuals, school groups and corporations. He has led 19 flights from Columbia and his group has advised new chapters in Myrtle Beach and Charleston that have hosted seven and five flights respectively.
Dukes chaired the committee that oversaw the construction of the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and has received the Order of the Palmetto - the state’s highest honor. He is also an honorary commander of the South Carolina Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Wing, “The Swamp Foxes,” among other honors.
He recently began raising funds to drill wells in Africa, assists with the We Care Center in Chapin and is hosting a 20th Honor Flight in September.
Dukes said he has turned over the day-to-day operation of the Blue Marlin to his son, Ryan, and is ready to dive into his new role as civilian aide with vigor. He said he even started exercising and lost 30 pounds to get ready for the demands of his new duties.
“I’m excited about this,” he said. “I’m honored.”