Honoring the Commitment of a Soldier
January 8, 2014
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Riling isn't the type of Soldier to rest on his laurels and boast of his achievements as one of the Army's top non-commissioned officers.
He'd rather focus on the future, talk about the great Soldiers and civilians he has worked with, and honor the commitment the nation requires from its military.
But with a Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and a host of other medals in his war chest along with membership in the military honor societies of the Order of St. George (armor) and the Order of St. Barbara (field artillery and air defense), Riling's accomplishments speak for him. And with his retirement ceremony set for 1 p.m. Friday at Bob Jones Auditorium, he will spend his last official duty day in the company of family, friends and co-workers who very much admire all he has done in service to the nation.
That, in itself, is a pretty big honor for a Soldier's Soldier whose focus on service and duty defined every minute of his military career as he led Soldiers into combat, on missions and through all the training required to be a member of the Army's combat arms units.
"I can only hope that I was the leader people expected of me," Riling said as he looked back on his 31-year Army career.
"I always tried to be fair with people and I always tried to help people when they needed my help. I also believed that if you tell Soldiers the truth and be their voice to the command, you couldn't go wrong. I also feel if you coach and mentor people, and allow them to make decisions and learn from their mistakes, you will be able to produce leaders who will someday be able to replace you."
That "someday" is now as Riling prepares to leave his post as the command sergeant major for the Army Materiel Command, and take on the life of a civilian living with his wife Melinda in the Huntsville area. Family is the main reason Riling is retiring. But he is also retiring to open an opportunity for others to serve in non-commissioned officer leadership positions. And yet a third reason -- Huntsville has become home.
"Melinda and I love the Huntsville area, and we love the people in this great community," he said. "This community is very military friendly with great leaders and people who are just fun to be around. So, we decided to call Huntsville home.
"The people, atmosphere and sense of community here is the best I've ever known. You can't find a better community. Even though I will be a retired Soldier, I hope to continue to support Soldiers and the military in my civilian career in this community. I want to do something that lets me give back to the military."
A great Soldier
AMC's commander Gen. Dennis Via, who has relied on Riling for advice that only a command sergeant major can give, said the insight and knowledge that an experienced command sergeant major brings to the job is invaluable to a commander.
"Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald T. Riling is a great Soldier, a great patriot, a real hero," Via said.
"He's been in the Army for 31 years, 14 of those have been as a command sergeant major. If that tells you anything, it tells you he moved through the ranks pretty quick and that he spent almost half of his career as a command sergeant major. There are things that come to the command sergeant major that don't come to the commander because Soldiers trust the command sergeant major to resolve and work those issues. That is very true with Command Sgt. Maj. Riling."
Riling has worked for three four-star generals -- Via and his predecessor, Gen. Ann Dunwoody; and Gen. James Thurman, commander of the Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Ga., from 2010-11.
"As a Soldier, I've always believed that you should do the best in your current job and good things will come your way. As a command sergeant major, the most important thing to do is to take care of your Soldiers and their families. Don't worry about what others are doing. Just be proud of the job you are in and what you are doing, and things will work out," he said.
"As a command sergeant major, you are the eyes and ears for the commander and it is imperative that you tell the commander when things are not right."
It is Soldiers like Riling who have made a difference in today's Army by setting the example for leadership at all levels.
"I feel honored to have served in Ron's Army and know that his actions have made it better," Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler said. "He knew that a leader can't lead from the back, and he instilled that lesson into future generations of NCOs who served with him in assignments around the world. He truly is a Soldier for life, so I know he will make the same positive impact in any civilian organization."
Good leadership for any leader -- Army or civilian -- begins with how they treat the people who work for them, Riling said.
"Be compassionate, but be firm with the people you serve with," he advised. "Listen to the people who work for you. You may learn something. When you take the time to talk to your Soldiers -- or your employees -- you can learn so much about your units. Set the example for others to follow and mentor your folks. Show them how to get where you are."
A native of Michigan, Riling began his Army career in 1983 as a cavalry scout with training at Fort Knox, Ky. He has served with units at Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Jackson, S.C.; Fort Polk, La.; Korea; Fort Riley, Kan.; and Fort Hood, Texas.
His Army career included two deployments to Iraq and one deployment to Haiti. Yet, Riling recalled his disappointment when he wasn't called up to deploy during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. At the time, Riling was at Fort Jackson serving as a drill sergeant training the troops. As it turned out, he left the 82nd Airborne for his assignment at Fort Jackson just a few months before the 82nd deployed in the early days of Operation Desert Shield.
"My first sergeant told me I was where I was supposed to be, that there was a mission and someone needed to train Soldiers for that mission. He said 'What you are doing is just as important as what they are doing in war.' The hope was that we would train them right so that our Soldiers would come back alive," Riling said.
"As military, we do what our nation asks us to do. We all have a mission to do to make our Army successful. Each Soldier needs to learn to accept that mission, no matter what it is, and drive on."
Eventually, he did get that opportunity to deploy, and during one of those deployments, as a command sergeant major, his actions merited the award of a Silver Star, the third highest military award a Soldier can receive.
The award was made in connection with Riling's service with the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division during combat operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom near Rammadi, Iraq, on April 6, 2003. On that day, Riling and his brigade commander, Col. Buck Connor, were notified that Marines attached to their brigade were pinned down by enemy fire. Riling quickly organized his forces and began moving to the embattled Marines.
When his own elements entered the main town of Rammadi, they immediately came under direct fire from every direction. The Marine squad had been pinned down by snipers and was in desperate circumstances when Riling, Connor and their physical-security detachment arrived on the scene. The squad leader was dead, lying in the middle of the street, and three of the seven Marines were seriously wounded. The senior remaining Marine was a corporal.
Riling and his team fought through withering enemy fire and linked up with the Marines, and then absorbed the Marines into their team and fought their way out together. After Riling, Connor and their team evacuated the injured Marines and recovered the Marine squad leader's body, another Marine platoon in the area came under attack by insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades. Riling directed two Bradley Fighting Vehicles from the brigade's reserve into the fight to squelch the attacks.
In all, 12 Marines attached to the brigade lost their lives that day. None of the brigade's Soldiers died, but many were wounded during the intense fighting. Although Riling is proud of his Silver Star, he still regrets the loss of Marines on April 6, 2003.
Riling knows it is the training, discipline and will of a small percentage of Americans who keep the Army strong in its defense of the U.S. and its freedom. He worries that defense budget cuts will jeopardize that military strength.
"My personal concern is that we don't take away the strength of our Army," he said. "One percent of the nation is our military and the other 99 percent is the civilian people of this great country we serve. That 99 percent depends on the one percent to get it right when our nation needs us the most.
"If we reduce the military too much and make too many cutbacks, I worry that we may lose the strength of what we do best and that is to defend this great nation. We never know what tomorrow brings so we must have a strong and ready volunteer force that can do what is necessary when our country needs us to."
Through most of his career, Riling relied on Soldiers and civilians within the Army's vast support network to provide the troops he led with the equipment and training to succeed at the Soldier's mission. The tables turned when Riling joined AMC, becoming the senior enlisted Soldier in an organization that has built its reputation on providing equipment support.
"This was a unique assignment for me," he said. "I learned so much about retrograde, logistics, industrial base, budget, technology, transportation and many other things that you really don't know being in combat arms units. This was an excellent assignment and I really learned so much. I think this assignment has prepared me for the future as an Army retiree."
In turn, Riling hopes he fulfilled his responsibility of bringing the war fighter's needs to AMC through his own experience in combat arms and through his visits with Soldiers of all ranks throughout the world during his AMC assignment.
"Having a war fighter in this position with AMC allows you to stay connected to the war fighter unit," he said. "AMC has a reputation of being the best at equipping our Soldiers with what they need to be successful in the mission. Soldiers know about AMC and what we can do for them. War fighters know what they need and, as the face of AMC to war fighters, I was able to help this organization stay connected to their needs."
No matter what the assignment, though, Riling said his Army career has been most memorable for the people he has worked with day in and day out.
"Both the military and civilians I've worked with have been great people who work hard every day to make a difference for our war fighters. Their work has built the capabilities of the Army's commands, and has made a difference in how those commands support our Army and Soldiers.
"Of my career highlights, they all involve the people of the Army. I've enjoyed serving with great leaders, Soldiers and civilians across the commands. I have enjoyed leading others as a non-commissioned officer for 28 of my 31 years of service. And I have enjoyed serving in combat with some of the best Soldiers from the best Army divisions in the world."
But Riling didn't enlist thinking the Army would be his longtime career. It was only supposed to be a three-year discovery period for Riling.
"I enlisted to see what I wanted to do in life. I didn't have a plan, but I did want to find myself as a young man. I really didn't know what it meant to be a patriot," he said.
"I learned the Army is a brotherhood of men and women that serve this nation together. After serving with such great people and in the unit I was in, I decided to re-enlist. I enjoyed every assignment I served in and I was blessed to serve with such wonderful people in the Army. The Army is all about people and teamwork."
It was during his assignment with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg that Riling found his "fit" in the Army, and it was a fit that inspired him, encouraged him and led him up the enlistment ranks to his four-star assignments.
"I knew then that the Army was for me, and that I wanted to make it a career and serve at least 20 years," he said. "But when 20 years hit, I couldn't let go. I was still having fun and I still loved serving with Soldiers. So, I stayed in and tried to make a difference for the young men and women that we all serve with. I wanted to help make a difference in their careers. I wanted to help mold and mentor them into good Soldiers and NCOs. It was my time to take care of the Soldiers and families who serve this nation."
Army's eyes and ears
As a cavalry scout with the 82nd Airborne, Riling was charged with conducting reconnaissance and being the "eyes and ears" on the front line for the commander. It was a military occupational specialty that served him well as he moved up through the ranks to become a command sergeant major. No matter what the assignment, though, Riling always served alongside his Soldiers.
"It didn't matter if I was the first sergeant or the sergeant major, I always went on patrols and did everything I asked my Soldiers to do," he said. "I believe that you lead from the front and you set an example for others to follow."
Through the years, Riling has seen the Army improve in many areas. Equipment and technology has gotten better. Enlisted Soldiers are smarter, more educated and more ambitious than ever before, and the Army recognizes that by now allowing young aspiring Soldiers to make leadership decisions at the squad level. The Army has honed its combat skills and strategies based on years of deployments and war fighters serving in theater. And all those elements come together, Riling said, in creating an Army force that uses technology to be flexible, adaptable and quickly deployable.
Even with those changes, however, Riling said a good Soldier -- and a strong Army -- starts with the basics learned in Army training.
"I always thought that if you do the basics well, have discipline, enforce standards and communicate with others, you can never go wrong," he said.
"A Soldier who can follow orders, accomplish the mission, be flexible and adapt to change can really go a long way in today's Army. That Soldier also needs to be a team player and be able to work with others. You can't spell teamwork with 'I.'"
As he prepares for retirement, Riling is proud to call himself a veteran of the best Army in the world. That title will follow him no matter where his future takes him. So, too, will be the lessons and experiences of a lifetime of military service.
"I live by the same things I tell young Soldiers: Be the best Soldier you can be. Serve your country proudly and be proud of who you serve with. Set goals you can want to accomplish in your career and go after them. It's your career, so pursue your dreams. Stay out of trouble and do what's right when nobody is looking. Help others when they need help. And always remember, it takes a team to accomplish the mission. Nobody does it by themselves."