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Air Guard colonel champions National Guard diversity, inclusion

  • Published
  • By Spc. Mike Orton
  • Joint Force Headquarters Public Affairs
     Dr. Martin Luther King championed diversity and inclusion 50 years ago this month during the March on Washington, D.C. Nevada Air Guard Col. Ondra Berry continues to champion the causes five decades later as the special advisor for diversity and equal opportunity for the Chief of the National Guard Bureau.
     Nevada Air Guard Col. Ondra Berry knows firsthand a great deal about both adversity and diversity. His personal and military career experiences combine to give him the foundation to become a champion of leadership, diversity and equal opportunity as the special advisor for diversity and equal opportunity for Gen. Frank Grass, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau.
     In his position, Berry is responsible for the overall direction of policies and procedures for diversity and inclusion for the National Guard. As outlined by the Department of Defense's Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, the National Guard is among the most prominent of the nation's military organizations continually working toward the promotion of diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce.
     "Our nation derives strength from the diversity of its population and from its commitment to equal opportunity for all," stated President Barack Obama in Executive Order No. 13583 dated Aug. 18, 2011. "We are at our best when we draw on the talents of all parts of our society, and our greatest accomplishments are achieved when diverse perspectives are brought to bear to overcome our greatest challenges." Executive Order No. 13583 is one of the primary documents that guides Berry in his position.
     Berry is the first person ever appointed as the special advisor for diversity and equal opportunity. Retired Gen. Craig McKinley initially created the position when he was the director of the Air Guard from 2006-2008. When McKinley became Chief of the National Guard Bureau in 2008, Berry followed and became the first joint special advisor for diversity and equal opportunity in National Guard history.
     Long before he became the National Guard's senior expert on the topic, Berry realized diversity could change a person's life and how challenging life experiences could broaden a person's horizons.
     Berry spent his formative years in Evansville, Ind., and East St. Louis, Ill., where violence, crime, drug use and bullying were facts of life. Despite the atmosphere, Berry said it was expected children would go to school and work even at a very young age.
     "A defining moment in my life was when I left a predominately all African-American elementary school and was bused to a predominately Caucasian school," said Berry, who resides in Sparks with his wife and three children when not working at the Pentagon. "It was a major struggle for me, but it definitely launched me on the path of understanding the importance of education and how it provides something internally that can never be removed."
     During his freshman year of high school, Berry and his fellow students protested against racial inequality. Berry said he was fortunate to have strong school leaders who eventually urged him to be part of the solution instead of the problem.
     Barry said the event became a pivotal moment in his own understanding of personal differences and how perceptions and stereotypes can drive a wedge between friends and progress.
     "In school, I was part of a human relations team that worked on programs to make our high school more inclusive," Berry said. "At 14, not only did it cause me to gain an understanding of being a leader, but it also taught me the importance of problem solving, gaining trust, seeing other perspectives, relevancy to high performance teams, and that we are more alike than we are different."
     After high school, Berry went on to the University of Evansville and received a full-ride scholarship for football and track.
     "I was a first-generation college student and did not realize how valuable a full-ride scholarship was in terms of cost," Berry said. "Even though I was on an athletic scholarship, the school heavily emphasized academics. I had to work extremely hard to graduate."
     In 1986, Berry, who had taken ROTC classes in college, decided to get back into the military. He joined the Nevada Air Guard and enlisted as an airman first class.
     Berry excelled in the Air Guard and earned the state's Outstanding Airman of the Year award in 1988. Two years later, Berry received his commission as a second lieutenant after graduating from the Academy of Military Science in 1990.
     Berry's time in the Guard provided experiences that impacted his life. He said he was shaped by the leaders he encountered who exemplified pride and sacrifice in the name of freedom.
     "America sends its sons and daughters into harm's way so Americans can hold onto our democracy," Berry said. "I reflected on that a lot. I just wanted to be a part of something really special and I believe my life is better and more meaningful because I am a member of the Nevada Guard."
     In addition to his military career, Berry's desire to serve was also reflected in his 25-year career with the Reno Police Department. Berry worked virtually every assignment within the department during his 25-year career, but one common theme prevailed no matter what his position: to protect and serve.
     "One of the major lessons always in front of me was the importance of being a protector. We provided service to the entire community," Berry said. "In addition, I recognized long ago the importance of potential. So many people forget that their potential is unlimited. I refused to allow a label, a job title or a position to define my potential.
     "You have to expect more of yourself than the accomplishments that are easily within your reach. That was my motto."
     Berry carried those principles into his current assignment with NGB. As an advisor to Grass, Berry emphasizes how important it is for individuals to strive for greatness, expand their abilities and develop personally.
     Berry is the author of "Ayoba: The Spirit of Awesomeness," a book about the differences in every individual and how those differences allow people to become great leaders. The book applies to everyone, especially members of the National Guard, Berry said. Berry is also the cofounder of Guardian Quest, a company he helped establish to share his ideas on potential and leadership.
     Developing Airmen and Soldiers into leaders and fostering their ability to cultivate their potential should be one of the National Guard's top priorities, Berry said.
     "Every person is a brand," Berry said. "I often ask people if they work on their brand. Are they developing their brand? Do they take pride in their brand? Are they learning and growing everyday to have the best brand? We spend too much time attempting to be like someone else versus being our best self.
     "The Guard needs diversity of thought. If you aren't willing to be open in your thinking, diversity cannot be achieved."
     Berry predicted a bright future for diversity and equal opportunity within the National Guard and said the key to that future is its Soldiers and Airmen.