From the Army to the driver’s seat: Inspiration can take a driver quite far from home — but still closer than he has ever realized

From the Army to the driver’s seat: Inspiration can take a driver quite far from home — but still closer than he has ever realized
Eric Britton was a driver until 2015, when First Fleet promoted him to train new drivers. Britton said his experience provided tremendous insight into a candidate’s suitability to be a driver, sometimes on first introduction. (Courtesy: Pilot Flying J)

Clarksville, Tennessee, was a world away from the nation’s capital in the 1970s, when Eric Britton’s neighbor helped build his interest in truck driving. Back then, Clarksville was a shadow of what it has become. Today the city’s 150,000 residents dwarf its 1970 population of about 32,000. Clarksville is the fifth-largest city in Tennessee, and Britton is one of many who help boost its population and economy.

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When five-year-old Britton played with toy trucks on his porch in Washington, D.C., he could never have realized the connection he had already made with a community he’d never heard of in Tennessee. But that is the current status, not the beginning, of his story.

Britton was in 10th grade when he decided to serve his country.

“I enrolled in the U.S. Army’s delayed-entry program,” he said, referring to a program that allowed him to complete basic training before high school graduation. “When I finished school in 1988, I went straight to advanced training.”

Britton didn’t take the easy way out, choosing to become a member of the infantry — a specialty leading to the airborne infantry, where he was a paratrooper. In the early 1990s, he was deployed twice to the Middle East in support of Operation Desert Storm. But by 1994, Britton was ready to shift gears.

“I’d always wanted to be a truck driver, so I changed my specialization to transportation,” he said.

In the military, “transportation” covers several careers, and truck driving is one of them. Britton spent the rest of his service supporting units by driving trucks and trailers loaded with equipment ranging from Jeeps to tanks.

“I’d drive trucks across base or across the country to support a unit about to be deployed,” he said.

Not only was Britton’s time as a truck driver in the Army satisfying, but he said it also offered him confidence that his chosen civilian occupation was right for him. As luck would have it, Britton’s years as an Army driver landed him at Fort Campbell, a base — in of all places — Clarksville, Tennessee. Clarksville is also home to First Freight, the only carrier Britton has worked for since 1999.

“I immediately enrolled in truck-driving school,” he said. “Two months later I earned my CDL and signed on with First Fleet.”

Britton noted that First Fleet is a leader in the dedicated freight sector of the trucking industry.

“Some of our top customers include International Paper, West Rock and Peytons,” Britton said.

He drove until 2015, when First Fleet promoted him to train new drivers. Britton said his experience provided tremendous insight into a candidate’s suitability to be a driver, sometimes on first introduction.

“The thing I stress to new drivers is the importance of safety,” Britton said. “This is a big deal, and dedication to operating a truck safely is a major trait we require in all drivers.”

Having a positive attitude is another important factor. Britton related two personal experiences that remind him of how far a positive attitude can take a driver.

“Soon after I started driving, I was headed back to the terminal,” Britton said. “I received a message to go directly to a supervisor’s office. I started wondering, ‘What did I do?’” Britton said, adding that he assumed he was in quite a bit of trouble.

When Britton reached the office, the supervisor looked at him sternly and said, “We got a call about you.”

The call was not a complaint, however — it was from a customer, complimenting Britton on his professional demeanor and appearance.

“That has stuck with me all these years,” Britton said. “Some drivers make no effort to maintain a professional appearance.”

When customers encounter an unkempt driver or one who makes a negative impression, they are less likely to be satisfied, he noted.

“If a driver maintains a professional appearance and demeanor, even unhappy customers take notice,” he said. If that customer has a complaint, they don’t take issue with the driver. Instead, they call a terminal manager, Britton said.

As far as red flags Britton sees in some recruits, timeliness tops the list.

“I had a driver set to report for training on his first day,” Britton said. “He was late.”

The tone of Britton’s voice made his point clear. Aside from safety, timeliness is the next major requirement of drivers.

In a tribute to Eric Britton’s career, Pilot Flying J Travel Centers recently named him “Road Warrior” of the year.

“The annual Road Warrior Contest is an important way that we recognize the men and women who keep America moving, especially in challenging times like the current pandemic,” said Jim Haslam, founder and chairman of Pilot Co.

Britton was one of more than 3,000 nominees for this year’s award, and was selected as the grand-prize winner, in Haslam’s words, for his “dedication to the profession, commitment to safety and his community, and his 15 years of service to our country as a U.S. Army paratrooper and driver for the military.”

For Britton, the award could culminate a lifetime of contributing 100% to whatever role he plays. But he isn’t considering the Road Warrior award as a “lifetime achievement” honor. Britton has other goals in the trucking industry, including hopes of becoming First Fleet manager.

“From my first terminal manager, Ray Willis, to my support team today, First Fleet has been good to me,” he said. “It’s an honor and a blessing to work for them.”

When the time for retirement does come, Britton says he’ll spend a lot of time with his wife, Shemeka.

“She has supported me 100% every step of the way,” he said, adding that he’s also looking forward to seeing more of his two daughters, two sons and three grandchildren.

“As far as what I’ll actually do when I retire, I always thought I’d like to drive a health care van, one that takes people to appointments and such,” he said. Britton wants to see the appreciation on the faces of his customers.

Regarding his 25 years as a resident of Clarksville, Tennessee, Britton said he never realized the city is the hometown of Clarence Saunders, founder of Piggly Wiggly, a grocery store chain that in 1916 introduced the concept of “self-service” grocery shopping in Memphis.

“It’s funny you mentioned that,” Britton said. “The neighbor who gave me those toy trucks I played with as a kid parked a Piggly Wiggly truck in front of his house every afternoon.”

Since retiring from a career as an outdoor recreation professional from the State of Arkansas, Kris Rutherford has worked as a freelance writer and, with his wife, owns and publishes a small Northeast Texas newspaper, The Roxton Progress. Kris has worked as a ghostwriter and editor and has authored seven books of his own. He became interested in the trucking industry as a child in the 1970s when his family traveled the interstates twice a year between their home in Maine and their native Texas. He has been a classic country music enthusiast since the age of nine when he developed a special interest in trucking songs.
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