A military career in focus -- Fort Jackson CSM retires
February 6, 2014
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- "I am an American Soldier."
Those are the words that lead off the Soldier's Creed, which outline the Army's standards for conduct and character. Only 13 lines long, the Soldier's Creed bluntly and economically makes its point: America has high expectations of its Soldiers.
Fort Jackson Command Sgt. Major Kevin Benson says those words don't truly come into focus for many Soldiers until later in their careers, though.
"I don't think it hits most Soldiers until their first re-enlistment," he said. "It hits the young officers when they make captain and realize, 'I am part of a profession, something bigger than myself.' The ones who re-enlist really buy in. The rest are doing what they came in to do and are great Americans. But, I don't think until they've made that decision of professionalism and reenlist for the first time, that they want to be a long-term Soldier."
Benson has had ample opportunities to reflect on his own career in recent weeks. Friday is his last day as the post's command sergeant major, as well as his last day in the Army. He's being asked to speak about his career from a number of audiences this week, ranging from a formal military retirement ceremony, to a private party with friends and family.
Looking back, he said, his career in the infantry was almost inevitable.
"I kind of grew up in the direction of becoming an infantryman," he said. "I was into team sports and was an outdoors guy ... anything that was risky, difficult or challenging, I always wanted to do those things growing up. So, the transition to infantry was pretty easy."
Benson enlisted in November 1985, attending One Station Unit Training at Fort Benning, Ga., followed by Basic Airborne Training. At the time, he said his career goals were less than grand.
"I just wanted to pay off some college debt and loans," he said. "I had a couple of years of college under my belt, then I had the opportunity to go to Officer Candidate School right out of basic training."
Outstanding commitments to the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., made OCS impossible at the time, he said. Ultimately, it didn't matter.
"By the time I did my first three years, I was hooked on being an enlisted Soldier," Benson said. "I was sergeant promotable coming out of my first enlistment to be a staff sergeant. I was hooked and kept going from there."
In 1985, the Army was straddling several different worlds. Revised drug policies had helped to restore discipline to the ranks, though Benson said the Army was still a few years away from coming to grips with alcohol abuse problems. Still, the noncommissioned officers corps was a stronghold of experience and skill. Most of his sergeants in those days were Vietnam veterans with combat experience, and they helped to nurture his love of the infantry.
"The nucleus of senior NCOs, staff sergeants and sergeants were all Ranger regiment, noncommissioned officers from different battalions," he said. "10th Mountain was a great organization from the get-go. They're one of the top divisions, if not right at the top. But I'm a little bit biased."
THRE ROAD BEHIND
"I've got three tours in Iraq, one tour in Afghanistan, and then I did some training in Oman when I was with the 10th Mountain," Benson said. "So I've got some time over there in the sand."
His first combat tour began in 2003. Maturity, he said, made all the difference.
"I had not gone to combat until 2003, so I had many years of training and preparing, and was more mature and had more coping skills than a younger Soldier," he said. "The transition into combat operations was very natural for me; it was what I was being trained for and paid to do for all those years. When the time came up, it was just a job."
That job continued to evolve throughout his career. As he gained authority, he said, he began to lose direct influence over individual Soldiers and units. His role at Fort Jackson has been more about maintaining standards of training, and helping commanders to achieve their mission for the post.
"I am the senior trainer, just by my title as a senior noncommissioned officer," Benson said. "But, I'm more than that here. I've been more than the Army Training Center command sergeant major; I'm the installation command sergeant major. I'm a set of eyes and ears for everyone."
His job, he said, was to review the needs of the post's trainers at all levels. Communication skills were essential.
"I'm also a sounding board for trainers at the most junior level, as for what's going well, what's not going well, and what I can take back to the commanding general to make the training environment better," he said. "I'm another set of eyes and ears for the commander, and assist in helping accomplish his vision and mission for the installation."
His influence became "more indirect," he said, while at the same time his smaller actions were having a more profound impact on the post at-large.
"People perceive how I handle situations and how I treat people," he said. "I've gone through the maturation process just like everybody does. When I was a young infantryman, my temperament was not always right. As you get older, sometimes you make more headway by listening, and paying attention to how you conduct yourself. A lot of people are looking at you."
Again, his duties at Fort Jackson were extensions of his prior training and experiences.
"Coming here, I've been able to give some of what I've learned (by) teaching and mentoring subordinates at all levels for the future of the Army," he said. "I've been able to do that. I did it as a drill sergeant. I did it as a Ranger instructor. I've been fortunate to touch a lot of Soldiers, directly and indirectly."
Being the command sergeant major of an installation isn't the kind of job you get by submitting a resume and three references. It's not advertised in the local newspaper, and you don't become a candidate for the position by campaigning for it. Benson admits he had never visited Fort Jackson until he'd been invited to visit a few years ago by a prior commanding general, Maj. Gen. James Milano.
"It's a hidden gem," Benson said of Fort Jackson. "This post does more for the Department of Defense -- not just the Department of the Army -- than most people know. It's really been enjoyable getting to know the Midlands communities -- what a great military-friendly community. It doesn't get any better."
Overall, Benson said he's satisfied with his time at Fort Jackson.
"We hit some bumps in the road and didn't get everything done," he said. "I don't think you ever get everything done that you envision, and there's still work to do. As our newest Soldiers and their family members enter the military through these gates of Fort Jackson every week ... this is the first thing they see. And their expectation as taxpayers is that it will be a well-run, well-groomed installation. And that's the challenge with finances in maintaining an installation that is professional, and represents what we've worked so hard to do -- take America's sons and daughters and take care of them as they serve us as a nation."
On Friday, Benson's last official act will be taking part in his change of responsibility ceremony at 10 a.m. at Post Headquarters.
"We'll hit the road Saturday for Nashville," he said. "I'll be on transitional leave for about three months. My wife was born and raised in that area, and both of our sons are there. Tennessee is a great retirement state, just like South Carolina is."