Retirement brings closure to nearly 42 years of Kentucky Guard history

Story and photos by David Altom, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office

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Brig. Gen. Mike Richie (right), congratulates Joe Wilkins during a retirement ceremony at Boone National Guard Center in Frankfort, Ky., Aug.8, 2012. Wilkins was honored for more than 40 years of service to the Kentucky National Guard. (Kentucky National Guard photo by David Altom)

FRANKFORT, Ky.— When Joe Wilkins joined the Kentucky National Guard in 1960, he had no idea that the path he began would lead him to playing a key role in Kentucky’s military legacy.  After a one year mobilization during the Berlin Crisis and selling men’s clothing while attending college, he thought his military career would be short-lived.“When I joined the Guard it was my intent to serve three years and get out,” said Wilkins.  “My best friend who joined with me followed through with our plan.”

But fate had other plans for him.  Wilkins, who recently retired as the civilian director of facilities for the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs, was a major influence in the development of the Wendell H. Ford Regional Training Center, the Guard’s flagship training site in the western part of the state, as well as Bluegrass Station in central Kentucky.

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Often referred to as the “NTC of the east” – a reference to the National Training Center in California – WHFRTC is a 12,000 acre facility built on reclaimed strip mine land in Muhlenberg County.  Where temporary shacks and house trailers once stood, a fully equipped and dynamic military installation is now in full swing, complete with multiple classroom buildings, shooting ranges, maintenance and long-term storage facilities as well as a mess hall and medical station.  Thousands of Kentucky National Guard troops, active duty members from all branches of service and even civilians have trained at the facility.

“I have to credit Major General Bob DeZarn for his vision to make a lot of my dreams for the Wendell Ford Training Center become reality,” said Wilkins.  “I am grateful to all of the professionals that I’ve worked with, from our troops and state employees to agencies like the state finance cabinet.  I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of good people.”

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Joe Wilkins is presented a framed aerial photo of Bluegrass Station by retired Maj. Gen. Steve Collins during a retirement ceremony at Boone National Guard Center in Frankfort, Ky., Aug. 8, 2012. As the former civilian director of facilities for the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs, Wilkins oversaw the economic development of the site just outside Lexington, Ky. (Kentucky National Guard photo by David Altom)

Bluegrass Station was an economic development project taken on by the department in the wake of closing down the old Lexington-Bluegrass Depot Activity.  Under Wilkins’ tenure there the facility’s occupancy grew to more than 90 percent, attracting military contractors and equipment redistribution programs and bringing thousands of jobs to Kentucky.”We did a lot of great things at both of those facilities,” said Wilkins. “It was a lot of hard work, but it was fun and it brought prestige to the National Guard and the state of Kentucky.”

Brig. Gen. Mike Richie, Assistant Adjutant General, said that Wilkins’ wisdom and leadership were instrumental his success.

“Joe has a fatherly leadership style that is authentic and persuasive,” said Richie.  “He was able to see the big picture, put together all of the pieces and then convince you this was the right thing to do.  The proof is in his legacy at the Wendell Ford Training Center and what he did at Bluegrass Station.”

“It has been my privilege to have been nurtured and mentored by Joe,” said State Command Sgt. Maj. Greg Armstrong. “I have long admired his positive actions and gentle professional manner.  He has provided countless positive impacts on Kentucky Guardsman from young enlisted to our most senior general officers during his career.”

Wilkins’ legacy with the Kentucky Guard lives on with his sons, Lt. Col. Brent Wilkins, Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Wilkins, his daughter Spc. Susan Wilkins and daughter-in-law Sgt. 1st Class Angela Wilkins.

In case you’re interested, Wilkins plans to keep busy in his retirement.  “I’m looking forward to spending time with my hobby, collecting and repairing antique clocks and traveling about these great United States with my wife, Frances.”

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