Gen. James McConville smiled as he reminisced of when he was chosen to lead the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), before he became its longest-serving commander. 

It was the same week in 2011 he commissioned his eldest son into the Army after he graduated as an ROTC cadet from Boston College.

But, perhaps the most proud was his father, a former enlisted Sailor who had served in the Korean War and then spent nearly 50 years working at the Boston Gear factory. 

At the ceremony, his father, Joe, was asked by a local newspaper how he felt about his Family’s generations of military service. 

Sixty years ago, he told the reporter, he was a junior seaman on a ship. And today, his son was about to command a famed Army division and his grandson was now a second lieutenant. 

“’What a great country this is,’” McConville recalled his father saying. “I don’t think I could have said it better.”

McConville, who was sworn in as the Army’s 40th chief of staff Friday, said he credits his father for inspiring him to join the military. 

After high school, McConville left Quincy, a suburb of Boston, and attended the U.S. Military Academy, where he graduated in 1981. Since then, his 38-year career has been marked with milestones and key assignments. 

McConville has led multiple units in combat before most recently serving as the 36th vice chief of staff under Gen. Mark Milley, who will be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also oversaw the Army’s G-1 (personnel) and legislative liaison offices. 

The idea of serving the country was sparked by his father, who, now nearing 90 years old, still passionately shares stories of his time in the military.

“I was always amazed that a man who I had tremendous respect for, who had tremendous character, just really loved his time serving in the Navy,” the general said. 

Currently with three children and a son-in-law in the Army, McConville and his wife, Maria, a former Army officer herself, are continuing the Family business. 

 People first

The sense of Family for McConville, though, extends beyond bloodlines. 

As a father and leader, McConville understands the importance of taking care of every person in the Army, which he calls the country’s most respected institution. 

“People are the Army,” he said of Soldiers, civilians and Family members. “They are our greatest strength, our most important weapon system.”

Fine-tuning that weapon system means, for instance, providing Soldiers with the best leadership, training and equipment through ongoing modernization efforts. 

As the vice chief, McConville and current acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy supervised developing Army Futures Command’s cross-functional teams. 

He believes a new talent management system, which is still being developed, will help Soldiers advance in their careers. 

As the Army pivots from counterinsurgency missions to great power competition against near-peer rivals, the system could better locate and recognize Soldiers with certain skill sets the service needs to win. 

“If we get them in the right place at the right time,” he said, “we’ll have even a better Army than we have right now.”

The talent of Army civilians, which he says are the “institutional backbone of everything we do,” should also be managed to ensure they grow in their positions, too. 

As for Family members, he said they deserve good housing, health care, childcare and spousal employment opportunities. 

“If we provide a good quality of life for our Families, they will stay with their Soldiers,” he said. 

Winning matters

All these efforts combine into a two-pronged goal for McConville -- an Army that is ready to fight now, while being modernized for the future fight.

“Winning matters,” he said. “When we send the United States Army somewhere, we don’t go to participate, we don’t go to try hard. We go to win. That is extremely important, because there’s no second place or honorable mention in combat.”

Readiness, he said, is built by cohesive teams of Soldiers that are highly trained, disciplined and fit and can win on the battlefield.

“We’re a contact sport,” he said. “They need to make sure that they can meet the physical and mental demands.”

Soldiers also need to sharpen their characteristic traits that make them more resilient in the face of adversity, he said. 

Throughout his career, especially in combat, McConville said he learned that staying calm under pressure was the best way to handle stress and encourage others to complete the mission. 

In turn, being around Soldiers in times of peace or war kept McConville motivated when hectic days seem to never end. 

“Every single day, I get to serve in the company of heroes,” he said. “There are some people who look for their heroes at sporting events … or movie theaters, but my heroes are Soldiers. My heroes are Soldiers, because I have seen them do extraordinary things in very difficult situations. I’m just incredibly proud to serve with them.” 

And given his new role overseeing the entire Army, he is now ultimately responsible for every single one of those “heroes.”