The sergeant major of the Army: Leader and communicator

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers
General Order No. 29 officially established the position of sergeant major of the Army, July 4, 1966. Since then, there have been 14 Soldiers who have served in the post. Including Sergeant Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, there are nine still living.

General Order No. 29 officially established the position of sergeant major of the Army, July 4, 1966. Since then, there have been 14 Soldiers who have served in the post. Including Sergeant Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, there are nine still living.

At the heart of today’s Army is a noncommissioned officer corps that values professionalism and excellence among more traditional values, such as loyalty and personal courage. As the service’s highest-ranking enlisted Soldier, the sergeant major of the Army leads the NCO Corps, carrying news and concerns of the enlisted force to the chief of staff of the Army and other leadership, influencing policy and serving as a role model and standard-bearer for enlisted personnel. The SMA’s guidance and influence have steered the Army into a well-equipped, well-trained and well-cared-for force over the course of the years, but for most of the Army’s history, it wasn’t that way.

The SMA position has only been around for 48 of the Army’s 239 years. In 1963, Sgt. Maj. George Loikow suggested the position to Gen. Earle Wheeler, the Army’s chief of staff at the time, Robert Mages wrote in his book, “The Sergeants Major of the Army.” Loikow traveled with Wheeler frequently, and became known unofficially as the “Army’s Sergeant Major.” Loikow believed his presence on Wheeler’s trips had a positive effect on morale and enabled him to better communicate with the NCO Corps. Thus, the position was unofficially born.

General Order No. 29 officially established the position July 4, 1966, and the very first SMA, William O. Wooldridge, was sworn in a week later. The first sergeants major of the Army spent the majority of their time establishing connections with leadership, opening lines of communication with enlisted personnel and developing the Command Sergeant Major Program. The Office of the Sergeant Major of the Army was well grounded in the organization by 1979, after the Army’s years of struggle with war and dissent, and the now all-volunteer force was working to improve itself. Since then, the NCO Corps has grown in skill and professionalism under the guidance of various sergeants major.

“It’s a huge privilege,” current Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, said of accepting the position. “(There have) only been 14 people including myself that have (had) that opportunity since Sgt. Maj. Wooldridge.

“I think each person who has served in that capacity has tried to do the best with the situations that have arisen at the time, and tried to do as best for the American Soldiers and their families, and I’m not different from any of the rest that have come before me,” he added.

Challenges through the years

The sergeant major of the Army faces many challenges during his tenure, from ensuring enlisted Soldiers are getting paid adequately and correctly to tangling with military and civilian leadership to achieve the Army’s overall goals.

Former Sgt. Maj. of the Army William A. Connelly took office in 1979 when the Army was undergoing a major post-Vietnam reorganization. He helped to redesign combat units and field new weapons and transportation, as well as aided changes to the recruiting system, which needed an overhaul due to the shift to an all-volunteer force.

“We didn’t have the number of the people that we needed, and we didn’t have the quality of Soldiers we needed, and that was my boss’ biggest problem, and of course, that became my problem,” Connelly said. “That’s where we placed a lot of emphasis. That’s when we changed the recruiting system.

“We had (a general) in the Army who at that time I knew well, and he reorganized the recruiting effort and made brigade-sized units in different parts of the United States. He got the best people, from a clerk to a sergeant major, to assist him in his recruiting, as well as officers that had command experience. They went after recruiting in a way that had never been done before and we solved the problem,” he said.

Connelly’s successor, Sgt. Maj. Glen E. Morrell, held the position of SMA from 1983-1987 and faced his biggest challenge with Soldier pay. The German mark soared above the dollar during his tenure, which was a detriment to Soldiers and their families living on the German economy. Many families were eating C-rations, meals ready to eat or in the mess halls. Morrell discovered the Soldiers’ pay was based on an outdated Department of Labor study. He immediately leapt to the aid of the Soldiers, soliciting help to bring people home if needed, and increase pay.

“When word got out to the Army staff, like the comptroller, he come just blowing snot bubbles… ‘You know that’s going to cost our Army money?’ And I said, look, this wasn’t even none of my business, I found this out, I said that was something ya’ll should be taking care of, not me,” Morrell said. Eventually, the Army did increase funding to Soldiers overseas, and brought some of them home.

Making sure Soldiers were paid appropriately was an issue for several sergeants major of the Army.  “The biggest challenge we faced was always trying to get proper pay improvements so the Soldiers were treated with dignity and respect, with enough pay to take care of their problems, you know, to live properly,” Sgt. Maj. Julius W. Gates, who took office in 1987, said.

Sgt. Maj. Jack L. Tilley, in office from 2000-2004, specifically targeted pay raises for the NCO Corps, which allowed for a roughly $1,500 increase in base pay when a Soldier was promoted. “And that was at every rank, E-8, E-9, so we tried real hard to make sure we had a dispersion between 7s and 8s, so when you got promoted there was a good chunk of change you got from going from 7 to 8, or 8 to 9, or 5 to 6 or whatever,” Tilley said.

Sergeants Maj. Richard A. Kidd (1991-1995) and Gene C. McKinney (1995-1997) had to balance Soldier pay and funding for NCO programs with the drawdown after Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

“How do you make a Soldier become unemployed, so to speak?” McKinney said. “The drawdown meant not just leaving Europe but leaving the Army completely. So, it was difficult to do, to maintain, how do you take care of them and at the same time make the Army and keep the Army ready? That was a big challenge.”

Kidd also focused on improved recruiting, NCO professional development and programs like Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers during his tenure.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, Sgt. Maj. Kenneth O. Preston was the SMA from 2004-2011, serving the longest tenure in the position’s history due to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He helped to change Soldiers’ dwell time and transition the force from a Cold War-era structure to what we know today.

“For the first five years, it was really transformation, it was growing the Army, and it was all about stress on the force,” Preston said. In 2009, he spoke at the White House with other senior enlisted advisors about the issues that concerned them most, which for Preston was stress on the force. He spoke about the 12-15-month deployment cycle, and how it was hard on Soldiers to be deployed so long and then only have 12 months of dwell time to reintegrate with their families, complete training and development, go through leadership changes and then build back up to be redeployed — that needed to change.

“I think that’s probably the biggest challenge with Iraq and Afghanistan going on simultaneously, and what just needed to occur within the Army to be able to meet the needs of the nation in both those conflicts,” he said.

As the current sergeant major of the Army, Chandler has faced some interesting challenges of his own. When he first took office in 2011, he made changes to the command sergeants major select list, allowing fully committed selectees to compete for board-approved service opportunities. Early on, Chandler took on the re-branding of the Army and development of a new uniform at the behest of Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chief of staff of the Army. He was also responsible for fostering the Soldier for Life Program and the Ready and Resilient Campaign, assisting with the Iraq and Afghanistan drawdowns, and establishing the career development plan “NCO 2020,” a project that takes a hard look at the Army’s education system, and will continue into the tenure of the next SMA.

The NCO profession

Chandler’s focus as the SMA has been the Army Profession and getting the force to recognize that as a professional, there are specific responsibilities Soldiers should keep in mind, particularly when it comes to suicide and sexual assault prevention. The NCO Creed describes what is expected of noncommissioned officers it terms of knowledge and leadership, and in many parts of the Creed, action is required, Chandler explained.

“So, we talk about things like suicide, you know, if you recognize that a Soldier is reaching out to you and says ‘I’ve got a family problem,’ whatever … the issue is, what do you do with that? Do you do nothing and just leave that person behind? You’ve got a mission to ensure your battle buddy is OK,” Chandler said.

“It’s the action tied to the words that I think really defines the NCO and their actual understanding of what the NCO Creed means, and I just think we’ve got to do a better job of recognizing our professional responsibilities codified for NCOs in the NCO Creed and what we actually do with it,” he added.

Chandler said he believes that NCOs also have a responsibility to themselves regarding post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, and emphasized the need to eliminate the stigma associated with those injuries so Soldiers can receive proper treatment.

“I think PTSD and suicide and traumatic brain injury have been things in my own personal experience I’ve tried to share with Soldiers,” Chandler said, “and it’s really ‘If I can do this, you can.’ The stigma is really within ourselves. There may be some folks out there that think that you may be less because of those injuries, but that’s really not (true.)”

Part of the NCO’s professionalism comes from education and career development. The former SMAs from Connelly to Chandler all advocate for pursuing educational opportunities within the Army and beyond.

Sgt. Maj. Robert E. Hall, who took the SMA position in 1997, spent his tenure advocating for Soldier training. He helped keep the NCO’s primary leadership development course as a 30-day course, noting that the longer course made better NCOs. Hall said he believes that fundamental training is key to a Soldier’s success.

“I think we need to get back to the fundamentals of Soldiering, task condition standards, tough, realistic training … and you do that while keeping your eye on the future all at the same time,” he said.

The leaders agreed that pursuing formal education outside of the military also contributes to professional development. “I think if I had advice for enlisted Soldiers, one is, I think, completing your education,” Tilley said. “Get your college degree before you ever get out of the service.”

McKinney advises NCOs to find a mentor to help guide them through their professional development. “Someone who is up to date in what’s going on in the military, and someone who can give you some advice that has no personal interest in the outcome,” he said. Chandler agreed, emphasizing that a mentor doesn’t have to be in the Soldier’s chain of command, but should be someone with whom you could discuss things openly.

“And I would also tell them to follow your dream — if you can see it, you can do it,” Chandler said.

The Army’s Communicator

The SMA position has been key in facilitating communication between the Soldier and the Army throughout its history – that’s why the position was originally created. But communication efforts haven’t always been easy, and the avenues for feedback have evolved dramatically in a short period of time.

“Communication is the biggest thing that has changed, said Connelly. “In 1979, I didn’t even have a cell phone; neither did the Chief of Staff. And the biggest high-tech thing that I had in my office was, after a few months I had been there, I got a word processor, if you know what that is.” Connelly said his greatest asset while traveling with the CSA was a good, old-fashioned telephone, and while it was an effective tool, things naturally took longer to process due to time zone differences and availability of personnel. Now, things can be resolved in a day with the technology available, he said.

Chandler stressed that as the Army moves forward it will need to capitalize on emerging technologies, particularly social media, to keep lines of communication open with the younger generation of Soldiers. Of course, nothing will replace the importance of face-to-face communication.

Being able to talk directly with Soldiers on the ground and explain leadership decisions is important, just as important as bringing direct feedback to the Pentagon and Army staff, Preston explained.

These communications aren’t just limited to the active component of the Army, either. Chandler, who served with the National Guard for three years, has done his best to support the sergeants major of the Guard and Reserve during his tenure. He thanks members of the Guard and Reserve for their service – at home and abroad – whenever he has the opportunity to speak to them.

“I think we have to recognize as we move forward that we all contribute in a manner to support the Army’s responsibilities throughout the world, whether at peace or at war,” he said.

Open communications between Soldiers and the Army is key to a functional force, but so is communication within the Army’s leadership and the nation’s government.

“(The SMA) has to be the continuity between the force, the Pentagon, the secretary of the Army, the secretary of defense, and of course, Congress,” Tilley said. “He’s the voice of the enlisted force. So if he has a good understanding of exactly what issues are in the field, then he can make those kinds of recommendations for improvements in the enlisted force to our senior leadership.”

“The job description (and) mission remains unchanged over all these years,” Kidd said, “Each SMA has performed all (duties) required by their job description, thus accomplishing the mission” of being the principal advisor and expert in all matters concerning the enlisted force. The current SMA and his predecessors agreed that the position requires you to adapt to change, whether it pertains to the bureaucratic landscape, operational tempo of the force, or, with the advent of the digital age, modern communication technologies. But the goal of taking care of Soldiers, especially NCOs, is paramount for each sergeant major.

“I’m sure that the next sergeant major of the Army, whoever that is, will do the same based on the situation that they are presented with. They will try to do the best things for the Soldiers, their family and the United States of America,” Chandler said.

The 15th sergeant major of the Army will be Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel A. Dailey, currently the command sergeant major of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. He will assume his post, Jan. 30, 2015. To read more about Dailey, visit http://www.army.mil/article/137469.

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