9:23 | A big priority for Ken Preston, the 13th Sgt Major of the Army, was helping the families of service members who were being pressed into longer and longer deployments. The armed forces were being stretched thin. In 2009, he was asked to come to the White House to brief the President from the enlisted perspective and he was able to voice his concerns at the highest level.
Keywords : Ken Preston Sergeant Major of the Army (SMA) Alaska tiger team Iraq George Casey Barack Obama Afghanistan
He was back at Fort Knox, where ordinary tank gunners became master gunners. Ken Preston enjoyed passing knowledge on to young NCO's who could go back to their units as a more valuable asset. He had served in Germany and the Middle East and was coming up on a big decision. Make twenty and retire or keep going?
Ken Preston had a very rewarding position as 1st Sgt at BNCOC, the basic NCO course at Fort Knox. Scouts, tank and Bradley crewmen and mechanics all received their instruction there. He was elevated to deputy commandant, which meant that he was now the busiest person in the Army. He was right up on twenty years and he filled out the form for a retirement date, but his boss had something to say about that.
Just as he was retiring from a twenty year career, Ken Preston was persuaded to stay because he had a good chance of becoming a Command Sgt Major. It happened for him and he began the most interesting course of instruction he had been through.
After graduating from the Command Sergeant Major Academy, Ken Preston had to wait a little while for his assignment. When it came, things started happening fast. The next thing you know, he was in the desert in Kuwait.
Ken Preston began his career as a Command Sgt Major in the deserts of Kuwait. His unit had mobilized in response to some sabre rattling by Saddam Hussein. After four months, he returned to Fort Hood with the 3-8 Cav, what he considered to be a model battalion.
Ken Preston figured that he'd risen as far as he could go in the Army and was looking for property in Texas for his retirement. But, once again, he stayed to move up. He became a Brigade Command Sgt Major and was not in that position for very long when he was asked to interview for the CSM job at 1st Armored Division.
The 1st Armored Division was in Germany and prepping for Kosovo when Ken Preston arrived to take over the Command Sgt Major position. He had only been there a little more than a year when he got a call from US Army Europe headquarters. It was a familiar story, by now. They needed a big list of applicants for an important position.
On September 11, 2001, there were 130 senior leaders huddled in a town pavilion during a war exercise in Heidelberg. An aide handed a slip of paper to V Corps commander Gen Scott Wallace. He showed it to Command Sgt Major Ken Preston. A plane had hit the World Trade center. Then there was a second slip of paper and the General stood up and addressed the crowd. Everything had changed at that moment.
The all volunteer Army faced serious challenges in the transition from a conscript force. Retired Sgt Major of the Army Ken Preston was there for the whole ride and has some observations about how it became a success.
Retired Sgt Major of the Army Ken Preston talks about a new challenge faced by today's Army, finding enough recruits that can pass the fitness requirements.
It was a long and interesting career. Ken Preston rose from a tank gunner to become Sgt Major of the Army. But he didn't stop there. After retiring, he became involved with several worthwhile charitable and service organizations, including Homes For Our Troops and the USO.
Ken Preston was from the mountains of western Maryland, where the old family farm was a great place to grow up. Without the grades for a scholarship, and not wanting to saddle his parents with the cost of a college education, he decided to join the Army for just long enough to get the GI Bill.
His dream was to be an architect, but now he was in the Army for a few years. The recruiter tried to help Ken Preston by putting him on an engineering and surveying path, but he found out about a $2500 bonus for committing to an armored unit. That was a lot of money in 1975.
Ken Preston's first duty was at Fort Hood, where he got a plum assignment in the headquarters company as a tank crewman. There were only three tanks in the section, including the battalion commander's tank. The unit spent a lot of time testing and evaluating new tanks to determine which technology the Army should adopt.
It was still his plan to get out, take the GI Bill and go to college, but his unit was moving to Germany so he had to make a decision. Should I reenlist and take the family to see the sights of Europe? Affirmative. He reported there and found lodging and a car and the family followed. Right away, his wife was on her own while he went to the basic noncom course.
It turned out that he had a knack for gunnery, so Ken Preston became a tank master gunner and was promoted to staff sergeant. That was while he was in Cold War Germany. His next stop was the armor school at Fort Knox, instructing in weapons systems. He was doing very well there and that got him a VIP assignment as an exchange instructor in England, where his family could enjoy another scenic location.
Ken Preston was on his second German tour when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. It was a special time for him and his family. As soon as it was allowed, they drove into East Germany and sat in a beer garden opposite Russian soldiers.
It was never part of the plan to go into urban areas. Ken Preston describes how American forces wound up occupying and patrolling Iraqi cities once Saddam was ousted. He was in V Corps HQ and found an excellent base of operations to use; one of Saddam's palace compounds near the Baghdad airport.
After the war in Iraq shifted from a conventional war to an insurgency, intelligence became very important. That and up-armoring vehicles to protect them from the enemy's favorite weapon; the Improvised Explosive Device or IED. Compounding the problem was a lack of disposal teams. For V Corps Command Sgt Major Ken Preston, it was a difficult fight with a steep learning curve.
The aim was to treat Iraqis with dignity and respect so they would respond in kind. V Corps Command Sgt Major Ken Preston helped to make that goal happen while he was the highest ranking enlisted service member in Iraq. While there, he was asked to interview for the position of Sgt Major of the Army, SMA, the highest enlisted position in the Army.
He was a little busy, trying to manage the war in Iraq from V Corps headquarters, but Ken Preston was told he needed to submit an application packet for the position of Sgt Major of the Army. He ignored the request. Then he got a phone call from the current SMA.
The Sgt Major of the Army position was created in 1966 by Gen Harold Johnson, the Chief of Staff of the Army, who wanted a senior enlisted advisor on hand. The 13th SMA was Ken Preston, who immediately sought out and befriended all the previous holders of the position that he could. One of the messages he carried to leadership from the ranks was that there was an unacceptable level of stress on service members and their families because of long deployments.
Sgt Major of the Army Ken Preston discusses the differing deployment demands put on different units. Specialist units typically have shorter deployments, but have more of them. The regular Army gets saddled with the longest.
He'd come a long way from those early months of the Iraq war. Ken Preston recalls welding steels plates in the doors of Humvees to make "hillbilly armor." When he became Sgt Major of the Army, he was able to help improve the quality of the equipment in the field. Not only that, more child development centers were built for Army families to improve their quality of life.
Looking back on Iraq, Ken Preston recalls how limited the communications were, with very few satellite units to go around. There was internet for the troops, which was not the case in the previous war. Daily communication with home has it down side, though.
A lot of technology has changed, but to an old tank master gunner like Ken Preston, it still comes down to that last hundred yards on the ground, force to force. Getting to that point has been aided greatly by GPS technology, something that helped tremendously in Iraq.
As the length of deployments increased, lessons were learned about how service members went through the process of reuniting with their families. Sgt Major of the Army Ken Preston explains how it was a mistake to go immediately on a vacation.
According to Ken Preston, retired Sgt Major of the Army, the key to a successful unit is the relationship between the officers and the noncoms. Each must understand and fulfill their role in the organization.
The Iron Curtain had fallen, but US units were still positioned on the German border. Tank commander Ken Preston served in the command group in a mobile Tactical Command Post, or TAC. He loved that job and made 1st Sgt while he was there. It was at this time that Saddam Hussein began to become a problem and troops began deploying from Germany.
His sister units had deployed from Germany into Kuwait. Ken Preston's group was held in Germany to set up a program to train tank and Bradley gunners heading to the conflict. Of course it was the middle of winter. After the quick resolution to the war, the training program ended and it was his turn to deploy to provide security for the pullout.
Ken Preston's armored cavalry unit deployed to the Kuwait/Iraq border to provide security for the pullout following the swift resolution of Operation Desert Storm. He has vivid memories of the oil well fires and the wreckage covering the battlefield.
Ken Preston describes how a well functioning armored cavalry unit operates in the field. There are a lot of moving pieces and it requires a platoon leader and a platoon sergeant with skills. After his part in Desert Storm was over, a drawdown began in the Army which stymied his promotion. No big deal. He now had experience.
After the war on terror brought US forces into Afghanistan, the focus changed from the 9/11 attacks to weapons of mass destruction believed to be in the hands of Saddam Hussein. At V Corps, Command Sgt Major Ken Preston started preparing for a possible invasion in the summer of 2002. The following March, US soldiers rolled into Iraq covered in chemical warfare suits.
Former Marine Kyle Wise was looking to get back into the military, but it seemed no one would let him keep his one stripe from the Corps. The Army National Guard was the one option that let him retain the rank so he joined and became a counterintelligence specialist. The attacks on 9/11 accelerated the training for everyone.
Interpreter Ali Alzubaidi was amazed at how warmly he was welcomed into his first American unit. Some of his family had just passed away but now he had a family of 150. He began to feel unsafe when he wasn't with them, however, especially after he got a threatening phone message.
Kyle Wise has one piece of advice for all veterans. Seek out other veterans and talk to them. Use the organizations that are out there, like the VFW, Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion and the like, to connect with your peers and contemporaries.
At first, the wounds were simple. A lot of frag wounds and Corpsman Joseph Poquiz was thankful. One day when he was on radio watch inside an abandoned house, an insurgent threw a hand grenade into the room. There were two Marines in there with him. He was the lucky one. He only had a concussion.
The Iraqi insurgents would often set a new device in an existing crater on the road and pave it over to look like a road repair. Dale Beatty was in a Humvee escorting a fuel convoy and he was aware of this tactic. When he spotted one of these patches in the road, he instructed the driver to go around, but this turned out to be the wrong move.
When the vehicle hit an IED, Emmanuel Melendez-Diaz was in the doorway and took most of the blast. All he could think of as he looked down at his shattered body was how long it would take before he could get back to his buddies, but he was beginning a long road to recovery. (Caution: strong language.) Part 1 of 2.
As soon as American forces entered Iraq, Ali Alzubaidi wanted to work with them. He had long dreamed of a free Iraq and he had studied English, so he set out to become an interpreter. The troops loved him because they had no connection to and little understanding of Iraqi culture. It was difficult for many Iraqis to accept them because of American policy toward Israel.
As part of a Military Intelligence unit, Kyle Wise wore civilian clothes, was always armed and was part of the only outfit allowed off base in Kuwait. Sometimes his missions took him into Iraq. Sometimes he was acting on bogus information provided by a civilian, who was after either money or prestige.
Ali Alzubaidi grew up near Sadr City in Iraq. He heard stories about the war with Iran initiated by Saddam Hussein, who was insulated from the populace with multiple layers of security. During that war, people were still doing fine economically, so there was not yet resistance to the brutality of Saddam.
It was called Logistical Support Area Anaconda and it was huge. Kyle Wise couldn't believe it. On his previous tour in Iraq, he had been stationed in small facilities. This place had neighborhoods. One thing was the same, the heat. But this time around, there was at least a little more air conditioning.
Ali Alzubaidi knew that the Iraqi Army had terrible morale and would collapse quickly when the Americans invaded. He was disgusted when he saw his fellow countrymen looting everything in sight. He pleaded with a US Marine to stop them, but the Marine could not.
While he was training up for his second big deployment, Kyle Wise began having some trouble on the gun range with blurred vision. This was just the beginning of some strange health problems that would cause his unit to leave without him.
It was on a modest black and white television that Ali Alzubaidi saw footage of the 9/11 attacks. What did it mean? Who was behind it? As American forces began to deploy around the world, including the Persian Gulf, he began to be optimistic that Saddam Hussein's time would come to an end.
His first night at FOB Warhorse, counterintelligence agent Kyle Wise was looking for where he was supposed to bunk. He had his laptop bag and his M-16 slung over his shoulder and was walking along, minding his own business, when he heard the challenge word. What? Why here in the middle of the base? Then he heard a .50 cal charged.
Ali Alzubaidi was a pre-teen when Operation Desert Storm began and the sky was filled with American weaponry. People were terrified until they realized the accuracy of the weapons systems was sparing them. Afterward, the economy got very bad and, as he began college, it was hard times.
When he finally joined his intelligence unit in Iraq, the teams had been reworked and sent to the units they were supporting. Kyle Wise was then sent to a brand new team where, although he was only the assistant NCOIC, he was clearly the most experienced agent.
Of the three religious groups in Iraq, only the Sunnis were favored by Saddam Hussein. The Shia and the Kurds were second class or worse. Ali Alzubaidi explains that there were many who were not afraid to resist, but the threat of harm to their family members made them hesitant.
It was during a firefight in Afghanistan that his head had a chance meeting with the grill of his truck. Kyle Wise was knocked out for a minute but he gathered himself and returned to the business at hand. When he was being retired, he found out that the injury was Purple Heart eligible.
The training was accelerated. The counterintelligence school was getting National Guard elements ready for whatever would come after the 9/11 attacks. Kyle Wise was getting good at the trade craft, thanks to instruction from a legendary figure in the intelligence community.
After his second tour was done, so was he. Kyle Wise was pretty torn up. He had a traumatic brain injury, bad migraines and significant problems with his legs that required surgery. He has gotten some relief with acupuncture that has reduced his need for some of the many medications he has to take each day.
It was miserable in the desert in Kuwait. Chris Tucker gave an earful to a visiting general when he innocently asked, "How's it going?" His superiors got nervous, but he actually had a good conversation with the officer, who answered his probing questions.
Kyle Wise had already been to Iraq and Afghanistan with his National Guard Military Intelligence unit. When another deployment was imminent, he went to Fort Dix for more training where he noticed something odd. Hardly any of the instructors had any patches that indicated combat experience.
After final training in some questionable facilities, Kyle Wise deployed to Kuwait with a Military Intelligence component of the Georgia National Guard. His unit was responsible for all security screening of individuals and for any investigations that became necessary.