Come summer and on into the fall you might run into retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Michael Hampton on the golf course, or find him taking time to enjoy the simple things in life, like a leisurely cup of coffee at home while the rest of the world rushes off to all the places it has to be.
Maybe you’ll find him helping his son off to college, or bouncing a grandkid or two on a knee, or working out in his home gym.
You just won’t find him where he’s spent much of the past five years, serving as senior army instructor for the Bryan County High School JROTC program – a job cadets say he made full time in every sense of the word.
“He put the program and cadets before anything else,” said Cadet Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Bath, a senior and aspiring Georgia State Patrol trooper.
“Colonel Hampton is very motivational, and helps you out a lot. If you need something done, he’ll get it done fast,” Bath added. “If you want to talk to a recruiter, he’ll have one there the next day. But it’s not just about the military with him. He’ll help you with anything you need.”
Cadet Maj. Wesley Padgett and Cadet 2nd Lt. Taylor Gooley attest to that. Both juniors said Hampton is equal parts mentor, father figure, financial manager and career counselor to the 80 something cadets who attend JROTC classes at BCHS each semester.
And if at times he yells, it’s because he’s got something to say, they say.
“When I got in here (JROTC), one of the first things he asked me is what do I plan on doing for the future,” Padgett said. “And he doesn’t do that just for me, he does that for everyone. If you want to become a doctor, he’s going to do everything he can to help you, to include looking up colleges for you.”
“He is very understanding,” Gooley said. “But he will set you straight if you need it. And he’s there to help if you need it.”
Hampton spent three decades in the Army as an infantry officer, and in dress uniform his ribbons and badges reflect a career spent preparing for and then fighting wars. Among them are the combat infantry badge, and both jump wings and the air assault badge. His walk, too, is that of a man who’s spent decades running PT and “jumping out of and planes and stuff,” as a cadet put it.
When it came time to retire from the Army, Hampton was on Fort Stewart and not quite ready to hang it up. Instead, he wanted to do for kids what his mentor, Lt. Col. Artis Lofton, did for him.
Pass it on, if you will. Pay it forward.
“I wanted to pass the torch,” said Hampton, who grew up in Arkansas and went to Arkansas Pine Bluff on a track scholarship. There he met Lofton, an ROTC instructor now in the Arkansas Veterans Hall of Fame. “I wanted to do as my mentor did, and help kids be successful in life,” Hampton said.
Part of that involves what the soft-spoken Hampton calls the “Million Dollar Book,” a paperback guide he uses as a textbook for cadets so they can learn how to manage their money.
“Financial management is one thing I’m very big on,” Hampton said, noting he wants students to start planning their finances while in high school so they’ll be ready for life when it comes through college, or the military, or in the workplace.
“I try to teach them the success and failure of their life depends on them,” he said. “I want young kids do better than what I’ve done. I tell them, don’t do what I’ve done, do better. It’s what every parent wants for their kid, it’s what I want for my kids and my grandkids. I want them to be successful.”
To drive the point home to students, Hampton relates that he grew up poor and at times had to use water with cornflakes.
“It hasn’t always been easy,” he said. “But if you persevere through it you can get to where you want to be. It just isn’t always going to be easy.”
In a speech to students at the school’s recent JROTC military ball, Hampton said he tried to reinforce the message of hard work in what was in a sense his formal farewell to the troops.
“I told them ‘you can’t give yourself any excuses,’” he said. “Regardless of where you come from, no excuses. Regardless of the hand you’re dealt, no excuses. I’ve got aches and pains, but no excuses, I’m here.”
It hasn’t fallen on deaf ears.
“Being in JROTC has brought my grades up,” Bath said. “I feel the school holds JROTC to a higher standard than regular students, and when you walk through the hallways in uniform it makes you feel like you have a purpose.”
Padgett said without the program he wouldn’t have a plan or a goal for what to do after high school. Now, he plans on joining the Air Force and getting into cybersecurity.
Gooley said she plans to score high enough on the AVSBAB to get into the Coast Guard, and then announces her backup plan, which is to spend two years at Georgia Military College to get her score up and then joint the Coast Guard as an officer.
And if Hampton can at times be a stern taskmaster, well, “If he yells, it’s for a good purpose,” Gooley added.
All three cadets say Hampton did more than just lecture, however. He brought in speakers, held swearing in ceremonies for families of cadets who joined the military, took cadets on trips to colleges and managed to get students flights on C130s so they could experience what it was like.
The gold star
If there was a battalion objective for Hampton during his time at BCHS, it was winning back of the gold star, the highest award a JROTC unit can achieve.
They did it.
“Every cadet is proud they got that gold star back,” Hampton said, and got a little emotional as he credited the students for doing what it took.
“They did it. They put in the work.”
Padgett called the Gold Star, “a big deal” that has a real life impact on cadets down the road if they enter ROTC or a service academy.
“It meant a lot to us,” he said. “It gives us a better chance to do what we want for the future.”
Another source of pride is the school’s Raider course, which was built in 2018 thanks to Home Depot and a lot of hard work by cadets and volunteers. Hampton said his small school, with only about 80 cadets a semester, can hold its own with anyone out there, including a very large department in the same county.
“Everyone knows about Richmond Hill,” Hampton said. “I want you to know about Bryan County High School JROTC. These cadets we have here are just as good.” Nowadays, the course has a name on it. Hampton’s.
In the meantime, Hampton’s looming retirement likely will get play on the school’s social media pages, but it might have gone unreported in more traditional forms of media were it not for retired Sgt. First Class Lorenza Ross, the program’s assistant senior army instructor.
And here, take note cadets such as Bath also take pains to mention the role Ross plays in their education, and Padgett said if Hampton is the battalion’s father, then Ross is its mother. Naturally, it was Ross who reached out to the local paper with this simple message about Hampton.
The man deserves some recognition in the community.
“He is not just a co-worker, brother in arms or teammate,” Ross added, later. “It is easy for me to call him brother.” Hampton said he’s wrapping up his time at BCHS because he accomplished what he set out to do, and thanked the school board and administrators for the opportunity to teach cadets. Now, he said, even though he can’t sleep past 8 a.m., he’ll be able to take things slower and get in a lot more golf and family time. He’ll be missed, of course. Bryan County High School Principal Mary Beth Blankenship said the school is excited for Hampton as he “retires and begins a new chapter.”
“We are very grateful for the contributions and the investment he has made in the students at Bryan County High School,” she continued, in an email. “The impact he has had on our students was evident at the military ball and how the students responded to him.”
Blankenship added: “He works very hard each day to show our students that anything is possible and to follow their dreams. He is an inspiration to us all and we will miss his presence on campus. We wish him nothing but the best on his journey.”
It’s a journey that won’t be without some reminders of the present for Hampton, who cadets say routinely gives them his cell phone number in case they need to reach out for help, advice or just someone to lend an ear.
By now, hundreds of cadets have it, Hampton said, and regularly use it to call or text.
He doesn’t mind, he said. It’s why he stuck around five more years after a military career that spanned three decades and several deployments.
“I got involved in this because I wanted to give them what they deserve,” he said. “I wanted to give them pride in themselves.”
He did that, cadets said, and probably then some.
“We were actually trying to pay him to stay here,” Padgett said. “That’s how much we wanted him to stay.”