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UMES alumnus is the 2020 top U.S. Army soldier

  • Thursday, January 21, 2021
    Sgt. James B. Akinola

    The University of Maryland Eastern Shore is the alma mater of the U.S. Army's 2020 Soldier of the Year. 

    Sgt. James B. Akinola, a combat medic assigned to the hospital at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., earned the honor this past fall with the best cumulative performance on a series of physical, military skill and written tests. 

    “I always had that sense to serve,” Akinola said during an interview on a “Military Matters” podcast. “I always wanted to give back to the country.” 

    A 2009 Bowie High School graduate, Akinola shared with podcast host Rod Rodriquez that he is the son of Nigerian immigrants and views military service as a way of showing appreciation for a nation that provided his family an opportunity for a new life. 

    He earned a bachelor's degree in biology from UMES in 2015. 

    Akinola enlisted in 2017 and recalled in the November podcast interview a conversation with a friend where one of them said “let's continue the greatness we started in college” by joining the army. 

    “I took that leap of faith,” he told Rodriquez, “and it hasn't steered me wrong yet.” 

    The 19th annual “Best Warrior Competition,” conducted during the early fall, was modified because of the novel cornonavirus pandemic. 

    Organizers took “unprecedented steps to ensure the safety of our soldiers, while still creating a positive environment to encourage competition and recognize the best," said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, according to the competition's website.

    U.S. Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy greets Sgt. James Akinola

    Akinola and 10 other finalists completed a standard “combat fitness test,” demonstrated weapons' marksmanship, endured a (timed) 12-mile trek known as a “ruck march” over rough terrain that included carrying a rifle and a 45-pound load and performed other “warrior tasks and drills.” Competitors also wrote an essay and met with senior enlisted leaders for an interview. 

    “There's a lot of tests, both physically and mentally,” Akinola told the Federal News Network's Tom Temlin. “My leaders helped me prepare for it. And when it came to actually competing … all I had to do was execute.” 

    While in the midst of pursuing the title of top enlisted man, he earned a promotion to sergeant. 

    In addition to being named 2020 Soldier of the Year, Akinola participated in a socially distanced dedication ceremony Nov. 11 at the Museum of the U.S. Army in Fort Belvoir, Va.  CBS Evening News reporter Chip Reid interviewed him as they strolled among the new museum's exhibits. 

    In the November Military Matters podcast interview, Akinola said he was honored to be among the first to see the museum's 1,300 artifacts, including a moving exhibit about integration of troops. 

    “To see what people who came before you have been through, what they used and what you use today - and how time has changed” impressed him. 

    “I'm very happy and humbled to continue the legacy that was left for me to continue passing (on),” he said. “I feel like I'm holding the Olympic torch.” 

    “I'm just ready to inspire the next generation and continue to (be) inspired (by) my battles,” Akinola said during the interview. “Anybody who feels like they want to make it to this level, I want to assure them they can make it.”

    His immediate career goals include qualifying for an Expert Field Medical Badge and completing Airborne School.