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When Colonel Eric Davis of Mount Pulaski called his team into his office, his Soldiers knew his thoughts would flow feverishly as every space on his white boards filled with dry-erase marker.
Now it will be up to those he mentored to fill those white boards with thoughts, ideas and connections as the combat veteran hands over his dry-erase markers and retires after more than 35 years of dedicated service to the U.S. Army and Illinois Army National Guard.
“He’s a problem-solver,” said retired Sgt. Maj. Andrew Weldon, who first worked with Davis in the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and later when Davis was appointed as the Plans Operations and Training Officer (G-3) for the Illinois Army National Guard. “You know the movie, A Beautiful Mind? We’ll that’s what it was like. He sees it and figures it out. He was showing us how he was working it out on those white boards.”
Retired Maj. Gen. Michael Zerbonia, who commanded the Illinois Army National Guard, said that Davis was among the “most professional, knowledgeable, and doctrinally correct officers” he’s ever worked with and “one of the best G3s the Illinois Army National Guard has ever had.”
“He looks at a problem. Then he looks at many different ways to solve that problem and finds a solution that is best for the organization and best for the Soldiers,” Zerbonia said. Davis’ high-intellect and analytical mind was coupled with a rock-hard core. “He’s an officer I would go to war with – any day,” Zerbonia added.
Davis essentially has had two careers, reaching the rank of master sergeant before accepting a direct commission. Davis was an enlisted Soldier and NCO for nearly 14 years, the majority as cannon crewmember in the Illinois Army National Guard’s B Battery, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery based in Macomb. He would be promoted to master sergeant in the battalion’s headquarters battery based in Milan, before being direct commissioned as a second lieutenant and returning to B Battery as a fire direction officer.
“As a senior NCO, Master Sgt. Davis demonstrated the abilities to lead and develop Soldiers, so I encouraged him to assemble a commissioning packet. As I followed his career path, I knew he made the right decision to accept the challenge and has affected many lives as both a senior NCO and field grade officer,” said State Rep. Dan Swanson, who endorsed Davis’ direct commissioning packet as Commander of the 2-123 Field Artillery Battalion. Swanson retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard and now represents the 74th District in the Illinois House of Representatives.
“I looked at my Army career and thought about how long I’d be allowed to do this. I was still young for an E-8. I enjoyed it and knew I wanted to stay at it,” Davis said. “Accepting a direct commission was an opportunity to stay longer in the Army.”
Years of experience as a noncommissioned officer certainly broadened his intellect.
“Colonel Davis has more vast knowledge than anyone I’ve met,” said Sgt. 1st Class Erin Connelly, who works as the noncommissioned officer for the Force Integration and Readiness Office under the G3. He’s a history buff obsessed with the Lewis and Clark expedition, but also has random knowledge about lawnmowers, Connelly said. He scuba dives, rides motorcycles, is a carpenter, blacksmith, and painter.
Brig. Gen. (retired) Alicia Tate-Nadeau, now the Homeland Security Advisor to Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, has known Davis since he was promoted to captain in 2005.
“Even as a young officer, Eric exuded the traits of an excellent officer. He was tactically and technically superior to his peers and lived the ethos of an Army officer in and out of uniform,” she said. “Eric has always been a leader who leads from the front never asking more from his Soldiers then he would do himself. It is a rare breed to find an officer like Eric who could think and lead at the tactical, operational and strategic levels.”
Davis said he doesn’t think of himself as any more intelligent or intellectual than others. “I tend to think of myself as curious. I like to dig in, to understand something – to know it,” Davis said. “If you are curious and work to satiate that curiosity, you can’t help but get smarter.”
Those who have worked with Davis soon realize that his intellect goes beyond just taking in information. “He knows exactly how deep he needs to go,” said Brig. Gen. Rodney Boyd, the Assistant Adjutant General – Army of the Illinois National Guard and Commander of the Illinois Army National Guard. “He delves in just so he understands the problem without getting bogged down in useless data.”
Davis has wide range of knowledge and the ability to accurately and efficiently analyze information, but it is his mentoring that makes him a “true model of a leader,” Boyd said. “He has done a heck of a job mentoring others and, as a result, we’ve had a smooth transition as he retires.”
Most people that meet Davis automatically recognize his intellect, but as they get to know him, they learn how he genuinely cares about his Soldiers. “He is all about developing and mentoring people. He’s demanding, but fair,” Weldon said. “He also checks in on you and your family.”
“He is, hands down, the most selfless officer I have ever worked with,” Connelly said. Davis was the first officer to help her map out her career and life (on a white board color-coded with different potential paths, of course). “If you are married, he learns your spouse’s name. He learns your kids’ names,” she added.
Connelly isn’t married and doesn’t have any (human) children, so Davis learned the name of her Doberman Pinscher, Rohan, and her pet rabbit, Declan. “He even shared some rabbit care ideas. He had raised rabbits as a kid,” Connelly said.
When Connelly was sick at home with the flu and shingles, Davis had Hy-Vee deliver oranges and Gatorade to her home. “He cares to the lowest level how everyone is doing and their thoughts on things,” Connelly said. “He seeks out other points of view as a way to expand his mind and thinking.”
Davis built Weldon a liquor cabinet made to look like a military footlocker. “He cared so much about the quality that he looked up the original GSA contract for lockers, so he had the right paint code,” Weldon said. “That’s the kind of attention to detail he put into the gift. That’s how much he cares.”
Davis’ caring and compassion for Soldiers includes hand-written cards to those struggling and weekly visits to everyone’s desk. It can certainly be traced to his years as an enlisted Soldier and NCO as well as the Army’s emphasis on teamwork and looking after your troops, but Davis also worked with the chronically mentally ill for about 10 years before he started working full-time for the Illinois Army National Guard in 2002.
Davis said caring and compassion are certainly important in a mental health care setting, but these traits are important everywhere with everyone - and it is important to help people “figure out how to solve their own problems.”
Those who worked with Davis knew never to mistake caring for weakness. “I have watched him annihilate staff. He makes them do their jobs,” said Lt. Col. Jason Carter, the deputy G-3 who has worked with Davis for several years. “He’s highly intelligent, able to digest information and then recall that information in perfect situations,” Carter said. More than once that “perfect situation” was during a briefing when a staff officer or NCO hadn’t done all their homework.
“He was tough on everyone,” Carter said. An intelligence officer who hadn’t properly done his or her research faced a particularly tough challenge briefing Davis. “If you were an S-2 and weren’t prepared – he’s coming at you.” But then he’d “definitely take the time to educate you,” Carter added. “He’d sit down and help you work through it.” His goal was to improve the Soldier and the organization. “He’s definitely a teach, coach, mentor type of leader.”
Besides, those who worked with Davis soon learned his kryptonite. “Give him a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and a piece of 550-cord. That will make him happy – at least buy you a couple minutes,” Carter said. “He could sit there for hours eating Reese’s and tying knots in 550-cord – all the while working and barking orders.”
If you want to make the colonel happy, offer him a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup – not a banana. “I do hate bananas. I hate the smell, the taste, the texture,” Davis said, with a look of disdain. In the rough and tumble world of combat arms, knowledge of a deep-seated hatred of this particular fruit would be used to ease tensions in humorous and good-natured taunting, Weldon said. At times, a banana would appear on Davis’ area in the operations center. “He’d launch that banana across the TOC.”
His abhorrence of bananas is one of the few things Davis cannot explain. “The funny thing is, I do like banana bread. I just hate raw bananas.”
While he may have banned bananas from his home, this has not precluded Davis from having a happy married life. Davis and his spouse, Bonnie, have been married for 32 years and have five adult children; Kyle and his spouse, Cheyenne; Joel and his spouse, Shelby; Lindsey, Joshua, and Liam. Bonnie Davis has helped her husband through multiple years of difficult and challenging assignments including the 2011 Bilateral Embedded Support Team A7 deployment to Afghanistan with the Polish. In addition to managing a Wal-Mart and previously a local grocery store in Mount Pulaski, Bonnie often picked up the slack when Eric was on military duty.
“She has been very supportive of my military service through our 32 years of marriage, she is simply amazing, and I love her very much,” Davis said. Zerbonia put it more succinctly. “Bonnie is a saint,” the general said.
Davis grew up as the oldest of four children. His father, Ed, owned and operated a small heating, electrical and plumbing business, Davis Electric in Rushville, Ill.. His mother, Eleanor, worked for the Illinois Department of Public Health’s lead abatement and mitigation team.
Neither Ed nor Eleanor served in the military, but they gave their son a piece of advice that served him well throughout his 35-year military career.
“If you are going to take the time to do something, then take the time to do it right,” Davis said.
Words of Wisdom from A Beautiful Mind: