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.
Eddie Wright had just taken a hit from an RPG. His mind went through several states of semi-consciousness and, when the lights came back on, he began to feel pain. He looked at one arm and then the other and then at his leg. He didn't see anything good. He knew he needed to put tourniquets on but he had one major problem with that. Part 2 of 4. (Caution: strong language)
As part of the Marine Corps Security Forces, Josh Lipe's unit was assigned tasks such as guarding embassies and safeguarding nuclear fuel transfers. When the bombing range in Puerto Rico was reopened following the 9/11 attacks, they had to mix it up with some local protestors.
His father was an Air Force medical officer and would take him out on morning runs. That's where Eddie Wright saw his first Marines. They were running in formation and he thought they were just the best. He would be a Marine. (Caution: strong language)
When Josh Lipe came to the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, the unit was understaffed. They were going to go to Iraq shorthanded but there was no lack of spirit. While he waited in Kuwait to cross the border, he found out what night vision can do to star gazing. It was spectacular.
Before he rotated back to the States, Eddie Wright and some of his buddies met Gen Jim Mattis, who made a lasting impression. The young Marine saved his phone number and set out to pass the screening to become a Recon Marine. It had been his goal for a long time but it was going to be tough. (Caution: strong language)
About a month into his second deployment to Iraq, the Blackwater contractors were killed in Fallujah. The mission immediately changed for Joel Reinesch. His unit headed there and readied to sweep into the town but, once they had started, the word came all the way from Washington. Pause in place. (Caution: strong language)
When the 9/11 attacks occurred, Josh Lipe was at Security Forces school in Chesapeake, VA. The base instantly went on war footing and students were put on guard with live ammo. Rumors were flying as the young Marines waited in suspense to find out if more attacks were coming.
The Marines were living in converted shipping containers and stuck with bad chew and bad Iraqi cigarettes. The desert cammies were filthy so Josh Lipe had his squad change into greens so they could wash them. This led to some incoming from a stiff First Sergeant. (Caution:strong language)
A huge sandstorm kept the Marines buttoned up in their vehicles for hours. After it cleared, they rolled into the town of Al Kut, where the enemy had an ambush set up. SAW gunner Jason Wilebski and Company made them wish they had not done that. Part 1 of 2. (Caution: strong language)
It finally caught up with him. Josh Lipe had gritted his teeth and kept going back in the School Of Infantry when he injured his ankle and foot. Now he had a bone spur that required surgery just as his unit prepared to deploy to Iraq. He was going to miss the deployment.
Joel Reinesch was called to the duty hut where he thought he was going to be cleaning something. Where's your notepad? That was what he heard, instead of being handed a mop. He had been promoted to squad leader. (Caution: strong language)
He was on patrol and running missions for a month in Fallujah and Josh Lipe was finally getting the benefit of all the training he had gone through. His squad was comprised of Marines that were straight out of central casting, some real characters.
Eddie Wright gives a shout out to his platoon commander, who was killed during the ambush which nearly killed him. Wary of getting triaged as nearly dead, when the helicopter opened up, he sat up and spoke and startled the Corpsman coming aboard. Once inside, he tried to lighten the mood, despite his grievous wounds. Part 4 of 4. (Caution: strong language)
Josh Lipe had a feeling they were headed into an ambush and he was right. He should have been OK. He was in the second truck and they usually tried to take out the first or the last, but in this IED attack, his truck was hit. The blast knocked him out and when he came to, he began to check on the rest of his guys. Their reactions when they saw him let him know how badly wounded he was. (Caution: strong language)
The wait in Kuwait was long, hot and dusty. Marine mortarman Joel Reinesch was excited to get the invasion underway but, at first, it was just a boring drive. Until it wasn't. The unit would soon suffer their first KIA in combat.
Despite losing both hands in Iraq, Eddie Wright kept up an active life. After leaving the Marine Corps, he worked in the private sector and advocated for veteran's issues. He networked with fellow wounded warriors and, together, they kept spirits up. (Caution: strong language)
It was great to have a Spectre gunship overhead. Jason Wilebski really appreciated the cover from the air as he fought on the ground in the Iraqi town of Karmah. His unit was taking sniper fire from a mosque but there was a solution for that. (Caution: strong language)
The fighting was over and Iraq had not yet descended into total anarchy. Joel Reinesch left Baghdad and his unit waited out the time until they were sent home at Diwaniyah, a town they had passed through and fought in during the invasion. It was an awful place and time because the entire battalion got sick.
IED's were a growing problem in Iraq and Josh Lipe was alarmed at the piles of stones that he thought had something to do with the bombs. That turned out not to be the case, which was a big relief. He remembers a huge Iraqi truck stop on the trip north and he can still smell the bad diesel.
The sky was full of munitions as Eddie Wright crossed into Iraq. He was moving fast and his outfit was out in front of any other Marine unit. Suddenly, there were three trucks full of Iraqis with questionable intent. Those were easily handled but then a full blown battle was under way and he got his baptism of fire. (Caution: strong language)
After being pulled out of Fallujah, Joel Reinesch saw his fiercest action in the town of Karmah. As a forward observer, he lost count of the fire missions he directed that day. Eventually, he exhausted the battery's supply of rounds. (Caution: strong language)
They got hit every day in Fallujah. When they were lucky and back at the base, they still got rocket and mortar fire. Eddie Wright was part of a small team of Marines who was there as the Awakening began. Iraqis had learned that ISIS was a much worse enemy than the Americans. How did we get to this point? Someone derailed a good plan. (Caution: strong language)
Joel Reinesch was sleeping on the couch when his roommate woke him up. You want to see this. When the second plane hit the tower, he knew it was something worse than some accident. He had entered the Marines delayed entry program but he called his recruiter. Get me in now.