When he was 4 years old, Tony Shepherd's uncle took him to an Army parade ... a spectacle the child never forgot.
"Man, I remember this; it's one of those watershed moments that is still etched in my brain," Shepherd says now. "I so admired what those guys represented -- they were warriors. They were defenders."
His uncle, who was just graduating from high school at the time, eventually joined the Army himself.
"Because he joined the Army, I was interested in service," Shepherd says. "I grew up in Guyana, down in South America. It's part of the Caribbean community. And the U.S. Army, the U.S. military, was the force -- and still is the force -- to be admired across the world. It is one of the things that we do well as a country, standing up for the rights of others and intervening on [behalf of] others. That's hallmark kind of behavior. So growing up, I wanted to be a part of the U.S. Army."
Fast forward to this summer, when Shepherd was chosen to become the state's sixth land component commander in charge of the 6,700-strong Arkansas Army National Guard.
He took command June 12 at a ceremony at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock, having been promoted to the rank of brigadier general just before the change of command ceremony. He's the first Black man to hold that position, and only the second Black man to be a general officer in the history of the Arkansas National Guard. Shepherd's promotion was reported not just by Arkansas media outlets, but by outlets far and wide.
Shepherd, 54, commands the Arkansas Army's eight land power units headquartered at Camp Robinson Maneuver Training Center. And he does so while working a civilian job as a corporate executive working out of California. But then, he has proved again and again to be a true Renaissance man, going the distance and excelling on multiple fronts.
"Brig. Gen. Tony Shepherd is a magnificent officer who embodies leadership, energy, and a relentless spirit of execution in everything that he does," says Brig. Gen. (Ret.) William J. Johnson Jr., the state's first Black general in Guard history. "These words ring true to all enlisted soldiers, officers, and civilians who know him and who work with him.
"He has a strong commanding presence, yet it is his bright smile, warm personality, and devotion to those with whom he serves that draws people to love and respect him."
After the ceremony, Shepherd's first official duty as commander was to meet with the staff and outline his priorities, which include raising Guard awareness of the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. "That's going to become part of my platform," he says.
When it comes to challenges he faces as the Guard's leader, the biggest, faced not only by the National Guard but the Army as a whole, "is strength -- the amount of soldiers we have in our formation," Shepherd says. "The problem is twofold.
"We're struggling with competing organizations for young people to be interested in serving their communities in uniform. It's not that they aren't; they're doing other things. We've got competing interests, whereas 30 years ago, when I joined, the Army National Guard and Reserve and Army were outlets for opportunities. Today, when you look at Google, Amazon and the other big-tech companies, we can't compete with [the] salaries and the attractiveness of that. Those are the challenges. So my ... number one focus for the Army National Guard is to increase our strength input -- how do we get more young people to join our organization as quickly as possible?"
Educational enhancement among Guard members is also a goal, one he's personally working to reach.
COMING TO AMERICA
Shepherd's "coming to America" story occurred during young adulthood. The son of Gwendoline Shepherd (a retired registered nurse) and the late George Shepherd was a 20-year-old adult when he left Guyana and came to Philadelphia. "I barely made it," he says.
"Most Americans don't know about sponsorship, parent sponsorship. You sponsor what is considered a child." That child cannot have reached his 21st birthday at the time of sponsorship. His dad, in fact, had made the decision for the family to migrate at the latest possible time: The elder Shepherd, a high school principal, wanted to stay as long as possible so that he could receive his pension from the school system in Guyana.
The biggest adjustment the Shepherds had to face: the cold. In Guyana, there are no winters.
"Fast forward to Labor Day of 1988. It was like someone turned off the heat. It got so cold for me and my brothers. And when we're talking cold, we're talking 65 degrees." Not so bad for Americans but to the young Shepherds, it might as well have been freezing. "We were in winter coats ... in September."
The worst was yet to come. They stayed in those coats, as Shepherd recalls, "all the way through a miserable 1989 winter, January, February, March. It was crazy. That was a memorable adjustment." But adjust the family did.
Upon his graduation from community college, Shepherd entered military life on the advice of a cousin. He began his military career with the Army Reserve in Philadelphia on July 23, 1992, attending basic training at Fort Knox, Ky. His relationship with Arkansas began in 1994 when he left the regular Army, coming to the Natural State from Kentucky's Fort Campbell.
COMING TO ARKANSAS
"When I enlisted, I was an X-ray tech," Shepherd explains. "So as an X-ray tech, I wanted to pursue the medical field." He wrote letters to the Oklahoma and Arkansas national guards, asking for a slot to study at Physician Assistant school. (The school -- a regular active-duty Army school also attended by members of the Guard and Reserves -- is housed at the Medical Center of Excellence, Joint Base San Antonio, Fort Sam Houston, Texas.)
"The guy from Arkansas wrote back in a handwritten letter, saying 'I would love for you to come to Arkansas.' He made that clear in two pages," Shepherd recalls. "The guy from Oklahoma wrote back on a typewritten official Army memo. What resonated with me at that time was that [the Arkansas official] took the time to write two pages of why I should be here. And being from the Caribbean, that sent a different message to my brain, [one that] this person cares." Shepherd rented a car, drove to Arkansas and had an interview. Six months after leaving active duty, he moved.
The then-captain who urged Shepherd to come to Arkansas finished his military service as a colonel. "Last year, I was telling his wife that story. And he said, 'I wrote that letter because I didn't have a typewriter.' ... I don't know if it was a joke or not." But all turned out well.
Shepherd went on to thrive in Arkansas. In 1997, he enrolled in Officer Candidate School; he received his commission and in August 1998 was appointed second lieutenant. He was assigned as a signal officer in the 212th Signal Battalion in Little Rock, serving as a platoon leader, then a company executive officer, for four years. Promoted to captain, Shepherd was transferred into the 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team as a signal officer with the 1-153 Infantry Battalion in Malvern, where he served for three years.
The first of Shepherd's two deployments into Iraq were 2004-2005. After his return, he was appointed a company commander of the 1-153, then was selected to serve as the brigade signal officer for the 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. His second deployment into Iraq found Shepherd responsible for Camp Victory's post signal capabilities; command, control, communications and computers.
Returning stateside once again, he was assigned as the battalion executive officer of the new Brigade Special Troops Battalion in Conway before transitioning back to signal operations as the systems chief and deputy G-6 officer.
In 2015, he assumed command of the second and third battalions at the 233rd Regional Training Institute; in 2017 he took command of the 233rd RTI Regiment. Shepherd went on to the job of deputy chief of staff/director of tactical communications.
Along the way, the military awards and decorations piled up, among them the Army Legion of Merit Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, the Combat Action Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Overseas Service Ribbon, Operation Iraqi Freedom Service Medal, the Bronze Order of Mercury.
Shepherd attributes his military career success to "the group of guys that I went to the Officer Candidate School with."
"This is a unique kind of situation," he says. In the 1998-2000 time frame, "we had seven Black officers go through the OCS program out of my class. And General Johnson, at the time Colonel Johnson, took a special interest in us within that group.
"All of those guys decided that 'We want to make sure that we excel, and the only way that we could excel was through education -- civilian education and military education. We wanted to check those boxes. So everybody encouraged each other.
"So we went to school, and General Johnson took a special interest in us ... saying, 'This is where I would like you to go after you graduate from the officer program.' And because he did that very close tutoring [of] us, we ended up in positions that allowed for the opportunity to excel."
Some of the men "sort of fell off" due to other priorities, Shepherd says, but "I wanted to check all of those boxes. I wanted to continue to move up, because ... what I state, and I believe firmly, is 'You cannot be what you cannot see.' What I wanted to be able to do was provide that [image that would cause someone to say] 'look what I can see.'"
Shepherd's longtime friend, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Marshall Cooney, admires Shepherd's determination the most.
"Tony has always been self-driven," Cooney says. "He motivates himself and he always inspires other people to be better. He never stood just for ... a plain old standard. He always wanted to exceed the standard. ... Being around him drove you to do better ... be better in your own craft."
When Shepherd faces obstables and challenges, he just sees those as "fuel" to keep pressing forward, Cooney continues.
"In all the military schools we had to go to and all our training ... whether it was a rough situation that we were handed at times, he always found light in every situation; he's always been that spark."
HANDFUL OF DEGREES
Shepherd also doubled down to earn a handful of college degrees. A graduate of Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania with an associates degree in electronic engineering, he holds a bachelor of business administration degree in organizational management from Philander Smith College. He also holds a master's degree in information technology management from Webster University and another master's in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College. He tops these off with a doctorate in executive leadership from the University of Charleston.
Not a small task for someone who's also a family man: He and wife Zandral Shepherd have five children: Anthony, Ryan, Wells, Logan and Lukas. (Two of his four sons are military officers themselves.)
"My wife has afforded me that space to do this stuff," Shepherd says. "Big kudos to her for taking care of the family ... . Our partnership is so great in that way that I want to recognize her for the things that she's allowed me to do and for our family to do as a unit."
When not serving as a citizen soldier, Shepherd worked in the communications industry ... Alltel Corp. and Verizon in Little Rock for a total of 15 years; and as chief executive officer of Choice Communications in the U.S Virgin Islands for seven years. Shepherd is now a regional vice president of operations with PODS, the moving and storage container company, working out of Los Angeles and returning to Arkansas for monthly drills. (He plans to move back to the state sometime in the future.)
"This is where the military really, really aided in my pivot to this company," he says, "because the type of people that I'm leading at PODS are very similar to the soldiers. So in the Army, we've got truck drivers, Humvee drivers, etc. Those are the type of people that work on my team at PODS -- they're drivers. The 400 people that I lead on the civilian side, 98% of them are drivers. So it's logistics, right? I'm dealing in logistics. And part of what I still do for the Army is logistics."
THE VALUE OF MENTORS
Shepherd also credits several mentors for his successes, including Johnson -- and his boss, Maj. Gen. Kendall W. Penn, adjutant general of the state of Arkansas.
"He is really walking the talk," Shepherd says. "What he stated is, over the 243 years of the existence of the organization, that we always see ... white men. What we need to see are African Americans, females and other minority groups. He stated that this is not a new phenomenon with him. He has been true to that word. And he has been placed in a position ... to select ... amongst [those of] my rank ... and he chose to select me."
Acknowledging that Shepherd was the obvious choice is no problem for Penn, who has known Shepherd since they deployed to combat more than 20 years ago.
"I admired how he motivated and led his soldiers back then, and I still do today," Penn says. "He's always had an infectious energy that brings out the best in everyone around him.
"There's an old saying that soldiers follow orders either because they have to or because they want to. With Tony, it's because they want to, because they respect the man and the vast experiences he brings to the table."
CORRECTION: Brig. Gen. Leland Tony Shepherd is the second Black man to hold that rank in the history of the Arkansas Army National Guard and the first to command the unit. Shepherd’s numeration status was incorrectly stated in the headline of a Sept. 18 High Profile story.