The Power of the Human Spirit
The unusual adventures of Major General Tom Mullikin
By W. Thomas Smith Jr. Photos courtesy of Maj. Gen. Mullikin
When Maj. Gen. Thomas Stowe Mullikin retires from command of the historic South Carolina State Guard (SCSG) in December, he will leave behind an impressive legacy of change matched by few, if any, previous SCSG commanders and accomplished in fewer than four years both within the SCSG and for the broader S.C. Military Department.
That change – more an infusion of relevancy and necessity into what was otherwise a little-known and often marginalized volunteer military organization with roots stretching back to 1670 – has won for Mullikin the praise and accolades from state legislators to CEOs of multinational corporations, to fellow general-officers and at least one Medal of Honor recipient.
Mullikin, 58, is an unlikely success story, or so he says. Born with the challenge of having both feet pointing backwards, literally his toes touching his calves, Mullikin’s parents were told he would never walk. Surgeries corrected his feet, and a set of determined parents (a loving but tough mother and a demanding father who served as a soldier in an ad hoc special operations unit in World War II) drove young Mullikin to walk, run, play sports, and eventually climb some of the world’s highest, most daunting mountain peaks in the world.
Those who know Mullikin best will say his early challenges, the aforementioned unlikeliness stemming from those challenges, his determined parents, and an innate competitiveness that he probably would have developed regardless of his early struggles are what have propelled him since youth to achieve. Mullikin has achieved what most men would be unable to do in three lifetimes and his SCSG has been a direct beneficiary.
“What Mullikin has been able to accomplish in terms of transforming the S.C. State Guard into a cohesive all-volunteer state defense force organization capable of supporting the S.C. National Guard and the broader S.C. Military Dept. has been exceptional,” said retired U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for combat valor.
According to Livingston, the transformation under Mullikin has been nothing short of remarkable. “The State Guard’s efforts during the October 2015 flooding disaster in S.C. demonstrated not only the excellent training its officers and NCOs have conducted since he assumed command, but the necessity of a well-prepared organization of volunteers who were able to serve as they all have done,” Livingston said.
South Carolina Senator Thomas C. Alexander agrees. “The State Guard has evolved into one of the finest military organizations in the nation dedicated to natural disaster response,” Alexander said. “Their professionals’ support during the Joaquin floods cannot be overstated. Simply put – an elite, dedicated organization of selfless professionals,” he said.
Mullikin is a former U.S. Army officer, who served in the Judge Advocate General Corps, and later, as a civilian attorney, also served as a special assistant to the Chief Prosecutor, Military Commissions, which oversaw the 9/11 terrorist trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four co-defendants. In 2010, he was again commissioned; this time into the S.C. Military Dept. (SCMD), first as a JAG officer and a leader of the Counterterrorism Advisory Team in the SCMD’s Joint Services Detachment.
Two years later, Mullikin was recruited by Maj. Gen. Richard Eckstrom, the state’s long-time comptroller general, who then commanded the SCSG and recognized Mullikin’s unusual talents and skills as a leader. Under Eckstrom’s command, Mullikin was quickly appointed chief of staff and ultimately deputy commander of the SCSG. When Eckstrom retired in 2014, Mullikin was the obvious choice for overall command.
Mullikin poured his personal resources into the struggling SCSG, personally training, leading, directing his subordinate commanders and other leaders, and bringing the near-350-year-old state militia from the margins. They’ve become one of the nation’s most highly regarded all-volunteer search-and-rescue teams as well as a volunteer corps of professional attorneys, law enforcement officers, engineers, medical professionals (physicians and others), chaplains, and communications experts.
“The State Guard was good,” said Mullikin. “Then we became great, and now I would argue, we’ve become an elite all-volunteer military organization.” He added, “There have always been critics and naysayers, but we’ve proven our worth time-and-again over the past few years.”
When not in uniform, Mullikin is either practicing law at his Camden-based Mullikin Law Firm, teaching at Coastal Carolina University, or traveling. He has ventured to the Galapagos and any far corner of the globe through Global Eco Adventures, which he founded, usually to the most remote environs where he researches first-hand the environment and the issues impacting it.
A member of the famed Explorers Club, the London-based Royal Geographical Society, and a named National Geographic expert who has led an expedition to Alaska for National Geographic; Mullikin is on track to becoming the first human to have climbed Earth’s seven great mountain summits and scuba dived in all five oceans.
“The British Special Air Service has a motto, ‘Who dares wins!’” said Mullikin. “I think that’s largely been my approach to life, the various objectives we find in front of us, even service.”
Mullikin has already logged the dives including ice dives in the Arctic and the Antarctic Oceans (he’s a certified polar diver), and he’s successfully climbed four of the seven great summits, including Mount Elbrus (the highest mountain in Europe), Mt. Kilimanjaro (highest in Africa), Mt. Kosciuszko (highest on the Australian mainland) and Argentina’s famed Mt. Aconcagua (highest in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres).
His remaining mountains are McKinley (the highest in North America), Vinson (highest in Antarctica), and finally, the 29,000-plus-ft. man-killer, Everest. Daunting to be sure, but “absolutely doable” said Mullikin, who is often accompanied by his son, Thomas Mullikin, Jr., who the elder Mullikin repeatedly says is, “pound for pound, one of the physically strongest, mentally toughest young men I’ve ever climbed with.”
Mullikin and Mullikin Jr. are also involved in an ongoing project with the S.C. Dept. of Natural Resources, writing a regular column and participating in outdoor training videos for both S.C. Wild and S.C. Wildlife magazines.
In addition, the elder Mullikin has earned parachute wings from several foreign airborne forces. He has been named an honorary Green Beret. He’s led U.S. Army Special Forces operators on some of his expeditions. He has been recognized by the Boy Scouts of America. He holds a black belt in traditional American karate, and he was the subject of a 2017 feature in Black Belt magazine, which credited his life successes with his martial arts discipline.
After Mullikin retires in December, he plans to continue pursuing his hopeful world record, continue teaching, “train even harder and continue to further the various energy and environmental initiatives for my clients,” he shared.
Mullikin will also work toward an advanced degree at Columbia International University. He’s already begun that scholarly pursuit. And, he will spend more time with wife, Virginia Ann, also an accomplished attorney; their four children and two grandchildren.
– Mullikin will retire from command of the SCSG, Dec. 1, 2018. The ceremony will be held in the Senate Chambers of the South Carolina State House in Columbia.