6:49 | 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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
The newly formed Joint Special Operations Command was beefing up the capabilities of all branches. One of the keys was the formation of SEAL Team 6. Over at the Air Force, Roland Guidry explains how they struggled to come up with the assets to succeed at their part of the plan. In the middle of all this, Grenada suddenly became a hot spot.
Delta Force and the Rangers had arrived at Desert One but the helicopters were delayed by a dust storm. Only five of them were deemed flyable when they got there and the mission requirements were for six. The mission was scrubbed until the next day and mission planner Keith Nightingale describes the tragic circumstances of the departure from the Iranian desert.
Operation Eagle Claw was the name of the attempt by US Special Forces to rescue the hostages from the embassy in Iran. The mission was aborted because of mechanical failures in helicopters and then turned tragic when eight men died in a fiery crash. Pilot George Ferkes was part of that team and he describes the events from his perspective.
After months of intense planning and training, Operation Eagle Claw commenced. Pilot Roland Guidry was on the first plane to arrive at Desert One, a remote rendezvous point in the Iranian desert. There, the mission would unravel, done in by mechanical malfunctions and worse.
Bill Pearson had been to Vietnam twice and returned unscathed, but the Army wasn't done putting him in danger. He was assigned as an aviation consultant to Iran, advising the Shah's air force on it's supply of American aircraft. The day he arrived, martial law was declared and it wasn't long before there were mobs outside trying to burn down the building. The embassy was no help. Escape seemed impossible.
In the aftermath of the debacle at Desert One, an effort to plan and execute another mission to rescue the hostages in Iran got under way. Air Force special ops pilot George Ferkes recalls that new tactics and equipment were developed that served as the blueprint for the revitalization of special operations units throughout the military.
From the beginning, Tom Fleming wanted to be a fighter pilot. He settled for a tour as a forward air controller in Vietnam and, after that, his quest for fighters continued as he embarked on a lengthy Air Force career. That career took him to Turkey, Germany, many stateside bases and the Pentagon, but it was Hawaii that was most satisfactory.
As Operation Desert Shield gave way to Operation Desert Storm, the Pentagon needed someone like a fighter pilot to brief the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense on biological and chemical warfare in language they could understand. So, Tom Fleming became the "bugs and gas guy."
Keith Nightingale was heading up post-invasion operations in Grenada when he got a packet of good intelligence on the leaders of the coup there. This aided him in locating and capturing Hudson Austin, who had been behind the Communist takeover. Part 4 of 4.
On his first operation, Green Beret Changiz Lahidji went to Afghanistan to help the Mujahideen fight the Russian occupiers. The Iranian embassy takeover led to the second, a daring solo mission into Iran, where he surveilled the embassy. He had to make it out on his own after the aborted rescue attempt. (Caution: strong language.)
After a long stint with Joint Task Force Eagle Claw, Keith Nightingale left to command a battalion in the 82nd Airborne. This unit was called to be part of Operation Urgent Fury, the liberation of Grenada from a Communist takeover. Part 1 of 3.
When he returned from Vietnam, George Ferkes is fairly sure he saw his old hooch burning on the television when Quang Tri fell. After a couple of years he leapt at the chance to join a special ops outfit, even though, at the time, there was little interest in those units.
Operation Eagle Claw was a pivotal moment in Special Operations history. Unconventional warfare had been ignored after the Vietnam War and three veterans of that conflict, who were also deeply involved with the attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran, reveal the inside story of the planning and tragic outcome. George Ferkes, Roland Guidry and Keith Nightingale each offer a unique perspective on the events.
No one could get Charles Beckwith to admit that Delta Force didn't have enough personnel to secure all the locations that would be needed for the rescue of the hostages in Iran. Keith Nightingale had to present three times the briefing that proved this. Finally, the Rangers were brought in to enhance the operation and training began in earnest. Part 3 of 4.
When Roland Guidry was given the command of the 8th Special Operations Squadron, he had to prove himself because he was not from a special ops background, per se. He did just fine. The missions he'd flown in Vietnam were perfect preparation. He says it takes a certain type of low key individual to excel at that type work.
In the aftermath of the Grenada invasion, peacekeeping forces from all around the Caribbean were assembled to help keep order. Keith Nightingale's battalion was spread all around the island involved in various missions and the locals in all these enclaves helped their liberators celebrate Thanksgiving. Part 3 of 4.
It's tough to be a Green Beret. Changiz has broken both legs and dislocated his shoulder, among other injuries. Even the extreme training is dangerous, like the high altitude parachute jumps for which he set a record. He spent time in Haiti and Grenada and was in Somalia when the Blackhawk Down incident occurred.
The plan was complicated, with a lot of moving parts, but there was high confidence that the team would be able to rescue the hostages in Iran. Pilot Roland Guidry describes how a combination of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters would deliver the Delta Force and the Rangers and then extract them along with the hostages. Part 3 of 4.
Keith Nightingale remembers that, during the buildup of the new Ranger Battalion, the team researched units from the past including British commandos and Vikings to extract any useful training techniques. Live fire exercises and road marches became very important. In December of 1974, the new Rangers were ready.
Early in the planning for the rescue attempt of the hostages in Iran, it was decided that carrier based helicopters would be the key aircraft. They would rendezvous with fixed wing aircraft carrying personnel and fuel in the remote Iranian desert. Pilot Roland Guidry explains why a preliminary clandestine mission was required before planning could continue. Part 2 of 4.
When the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized the American embassy, the joint chiefs began looking for the means to rescue the hostages. It was decided to build a team around Delta Force, the elite special ops unit led by Charles Beckwith. General James Vaught was selected as the overall commander of the operation and on his staff was Keith Nightingale, who was then immersed in the urgent planning process. Part 1 of 4.
The Pentagon set up a commission to investigate Operation Eagle Claw, the failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran. Roland Guidry was the first chief of air operations at the newly formed Joint Special Operations Command, the organization created to deal with unconventional warfare in the future.
The decimation of the Army was complete. The leadership had punted in Vietnam and there was no support among most of the public. Army Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams decided to rebuild the Army around a reborn Ranger Battalion, which would be built from the ground up as the finest light infantry in the world. Keith Nightingale found out about this and made sure he was in on it.
The seizure of the American embassy in Tehran caught the Pentagon flat footed with no existing special operations capability to do anything about it. An ad hoc task force was hastily assembled and Roland Guidry was part of that effort. He had just assumed command of an Air Force special ops squadron which immediately began training with the new Delta Force. Part 1 of 4.
The rebuild of the 75th Ranger Regiment was underway at Fort Benning. Keith Nightingale was the headquarters company commander among other odd jobs. They were developing a new training regimen that was to be the finest anywhere. One important task was the creation of a Ranger Creed.
The rescue attempt failed but it was the genesis of an all out effort to reorganize and improve the special operations capability of the military. Roland Guidry helped manage the air operations as the team began Project Honey Badger, which aimed to mount a second try at freeing the hostages in Iran.
It had been a long and tortuous process for Keith Nightingale and the rest of the joint task force but Operation Eagle Claw was ready. All the moving parts were primed and all that needed was for President Carter to give the word to go. Pt 4 of 4.