My dad was part of that World War II generation that never really talked about their experiences. But one day when I was 12, I found a set of memorabilia in a box inside of a drawer in the house. In that box was a Silver Star medal that was awarded to my dad, who was a combat medic in the Third Infantry Division, for saving the life of some men under machine gun fire.

I never knew that about my dad. When I read that, it prompted a conversation between us that was part of the momentum to carry me forward to West Point.

I arrived at West Point in 1972, when the Vietnam War wasn’t over just yet. I enjoyed the discipline, the environment and the opportunity to learn about leadership.

Having studied civil engineering, I went into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an officer and ended up staying for 32 years in the Army, commanding at the platoon, company, battalion and brigade level.

That theme of serving the country and having an interest in business circled around many times in the Army. I ended up commanding a division in Dallas, which was really like a $1.5 billion construction company.

David F. Melcher is the new chief executive and president of Exelis Inc. (COURTESY OF ITT EXELIS)

One of my proudest experiences was as an engineer platoon leader tasked with the construction of a road leading to a camp for children with disabilities.

The road was in horrible shape, and people couldn’t get to and from the camp. It was a unique project paid for by private sources. We basically donated the use of the time and equipment.

We honed our skills as engineers, but also provided a needed service to a community. Everyone was beaming the day the ribbon was cut.

One of the things I learned early on about leadership is that you give respect in order to get respect.

Respect is appreciating the talent and skills of human beings while understanding that everyone has a dream, desire and need to achieve. It’s the job of a leader to inspire hope and aspirations.

When I retired from the Army as a lieutenant general and looked at all the opportunities out there, joining ITT Defense was very attractive because it was a company whose capabilities I saw as a customer in the military. The night vision devices, the radios — this was a company I was impressed with.

I initially came to the company to do strategy work and business development but I was given a very rare opportunity within four months to become president of its defense group.

I think this was because I supplied a fresh set of eyes to the company and was able to see the storm clouds on the horizon in terms of the defense budget. I knew we needed to reshape the company in a way that would reduce costs and create opportunities not only in the Defense Department, but in non-defense sectors.

Now, in this position, we will have to manage our portfolio well, adapt to changing circumstances, seek out opportunities to grow new business and offer affordable solutions to customers.

I’ve learned you need to be the best leader you can be in a governmental context, because the nation needs that, and in a business context because the nation needs that too.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

David F. Melcher

Position: Chief executive officer and president of Exelis Inc., an aerospace, defense and information solutions company headquartered in McLean.

Career highlights: President, ITT Defense & Information Solutions; vice president of strategy and business development, ITT Defense and Information Solutions; lieutenant general, Army’s military deputy for budget, Pentagon; brigadier general; commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, Southwestern Division; White House fellow, Office of Management and Budget.

Age: 58

Education: BS in civil engineering, U.S. Military Academy at West Point; MS in business administration, Harvard University; MS in public administration, Shippensburg University.

Personal: Lives in Northern Virginia with his wife. They have two grown daughters.