South Side native-turned-general commands 25,000 troops providing security for Biden inauguration

JAN 19, 2021 AT 6:05 PM

Growing up in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, William J. Walker longed to be a soldier like the ones he saw on “Combat!” a 1960s television drama about American troops fighting in France during World War II.

But even in his wildest boyhood dreams, Walker — now a two-star general — acknowledges he could not have imagined his current reality.

As commander of the D.C. National Guard, the major general is overseeing more than 25,000 troops providing security for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration in the wake of a domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago. It’s the largest military presence for a swearing-in ceremony in modern history, far surpassing the 9,500 Guard members mobilized for Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.

Unlike four previous inaugurations Walker has been involved with, the majority of National Guardsmen in D.C. this week are armed. The heavy military presence has drawn comparisons to war zones around the world, but Walker said that his troops are there upholding their oaths to protect and defend the Constitution.

“The image we’re projecting is a safe and secure environment for the peaceful transition of presidential power,” he said. “We’re asking the residents of the Capitol area to be patient with us, to understand what we’re trying to do. I know there is some inconvenience, but I hope they understand that it’s necessary.”

The Pentagon has been performing background checks on the National Guardsmen tapped for inauguration mission security, and 12 were removed Tuesday because of alleged ties to right-wing extremist groups. Walker’s spokesman said the general could not comment on the vetting process, citing security reasons.

None of the 300 Illinois National Guard members sent to D.C. for the inauguration have been relieved of their duties because of security concerns, a spokesman said.

Walker joined the military in 1981, enlisting as a private with the Illinois National Guard. Though he later transferred to the New Jersey National Guard, he said he has always felt gratitude toward the Illinois Guard for giving him his start.

He shared that appreciation with several Illinois troops Monday when he met with them at the U.S. Capitol. Amid his many obligations this week, Walker said it was important for him to seek out the units from his home state and share his story.

“I talked to the privates and I talked to the officers,” he said. “I told them you can go as far as your ambition will take you, you just have to be focused and disciplined.”

Walker said much of his focus and self-discipline was shaped by his Catholic upbringing and education on the South Side. He attended St. Sabina grammar school and dutifully served as a parish altar boy at 10:15 Mass each Sunday morning.

He also attended Leo Catholic High School, where he said he thrived under the strict rules and the confidence instilled in the all-male student body.

“The education I received at Leo Catholic provided me the tools to do whatever I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” Walker said. “The discipline, the structure, the order — they provided it to me.”

Those tools proved useful as Walker embarked on an ambitious career path. In addition to being inspired by “Combat!” Walker said he was equally fascinated with “The Untouchables” and hoped to be a federal agent too.

“When I was supposed to be doing homework, I was watching those two shows,” he said, laughing. “They inspired me.”

After graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago and earning a master’s degree from Chicago State University, Walker took a job with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He rose from an entry-level agent to deputy assistant administrator before reaching mandatory retirement.

Throughout his 30-year DEA career, he continued to serve in the National Guard, with deployments that sent him all over the world. He became a full-time officer with the National Guard in 2017.

“I’ve been blessed,” he said.

Walker said he returns home to Chicago about twice a year. Each time, he seeks out Gino’s East pizza and Mass at St. Sabina. He has met with the Rev. Michael Pfleger on several occasions but was unaware until a few days ago that Pfleger had been removed from the parish after a 40-year-old sexual abuse allegation was announced this month.

“I like Father Mike and I think he has done a lot for the community,” Walker said. “I believe in him and I hope things turn out favorably for him.”

Walker last visited Chicago in 2019, when the Leo High School Alumni Association named him its man of the year. A recipient of the Bronze Star and multiple meritorious service medals, Walker is one of the most accomplished military leaders in the school’s history.

Since his visit, the school has begun offering the military aptitude test to students each year. Four Leo graduates also joined the Army after attending an all-school assembly honoring the general.

“He’s such a strong, confident individual. He made a great impression,” said Leo President Dan McGrath. “For the kids to see someone like that from the neighborhood — not just from the school, but from the neighborhood — who had accomplished so much, it meant something.”