JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. –
Search the Internet for images of military generals from Athens, and you’ll see statues and paintings of ancient Greeks in Bronze Age armor leading phalanxes of spear-wielding warriors into battle.
But not all Athenian generals are from Greece – some hail from the tiny Midwestern town of Athens, Michigan, whose population tops out around 1,000.
For the past year, two such leaders have served less than two miles from each other right here on base – and, until recently, they had no idea about the history they shared.
“I was assigned here as commander of the Army Reserve’s 99th Readiness Division at the end of June of 2021,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Rodney Faulk. “About a year later in August of 2022, the Air Force Expeditionary Center changed command.”
“I had met General Faulk when I first got to the base,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. John Klein Jr., commander, U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center. “We had a few interactions, but I never suspected that we were in any way from the same area.”
After several months of occasionally crossing paths, the two senior leaders attended a Burlington County Military Affairs Committee joint military appreciation dinner in the fall of 2022.
“It came time in the evening to go around the room and introduce ourselves, to say where we were from and what we do,” Klein explained.
“It was after a second young man said that he was from Michigan and I let out a big, ‘Hooah!’ that John turned around and asked, ‘Where are you from?’” Faulk recalled. “I’m from a small town and I figure nobody knows where it is, so I replied, ‘Small town, southern Michigan, you’ve probably never heard of it.’”
“Try me,” Klein challenged, and finally Faulk answered, “A small town south of Battle Creek.”
“That’s when my jaw dropped,” Klein explained, “because there’s only one town south of Battle Creek before you’re almost at the Indiana border.”
“I’m from Athens, Michigan,” Faulk then revealed.
“I thought he was messing with me,” Klein said. “I thought he had somehow found out that I was from Athens and he was just pulling my chord.”
“I’m from Athens, Michigan,” Klein replied.
“There was a short pause while I processed that,” Faulk said. “Then I said, ‘You’re pulling my leg,’ and we went around and around like that for a minute. Then I realized which Klein family he was from.”
“You’re THOSE Faulks?’” Klein asked.
“His mother used to babysit myself and my brother,” Klein revealed. “His sister gave my sister riding lessons.”
“He played football with my brother, Brett,” Faulk added.
“I’ve never had an experience like that,” Klein admitted. “It was the most surreal moment of my career – it was absolutely amazing.”
“I’m still dumbfounded and in a state of disbelief over the fact that two ‘Athens Indians’ seven years apart ended up at the same place as the only two full-time generals on base – what are the odds?” Faulk said.
Faulk and Klein have had success throughout their military careers, both reaching the rank of two-star general. While not every service member will reach the same heights, both leaders offered words of encouragement to young men and women who may be considering joining the military – just as they did several decades ago.
“The military is chock full of opportunity, and if you’re willing to work hard, and if you’re willing to grow and learn and subordinate yourself to something bigger than yourself, then you have tremendous potential,” Klein said.
“It has been for me – so far – a 33-year adventure and continues to be so,” he added.
“Isaiah 6:8 – ‘Here I am, send me,’” said Faulk, quoting the Bible. “Don’t assume it’s somebody else’s job; if you believe in your country and defending the values it holds dear, then military service is absolutely the thing for you. In exchange for service and being willing to step up at times of need and defend your country, you can get a lot out of it personally and professionally.”
“Along the way, you also have the opportunity to, ‘Be all you can be,’” Faulk continued. “The Army has a lot of programs for Soldiers - even in part-time status in the Army Reserve - to get their education and better themselves and build a career.”
Faulk’s 40-year military career came to an end during a retirement ceremony here Aug. 11. Fittingly, the event was held at the Air Force Expeditionary Center that Klein commands.
“I’m looking forward to being John’s ‘advance guard’ back to Athens, Michigan,” Faulk said. “Hopefully, if he comes in for the holidays, we’ll be able to get together – until he’s retired, then we’ll have more opportunities.”
“General Faulk has served for 40 years, and to me that’s humbling,” Klein said. “He’s preceding me, and at some point I’ll hang up the boots and retire, and my plan is to go back to Athens, Michigan, just like he is.”
“I’ll get to go back and continue that relationship with him as a retired general officer and veteran – we joke that we’ll be running the local VFW together,” Klein continued. “It’s like finding a long-lost brother.”