Looking back...a Chemical Corps sergeant major reflects on his life as a Soldier
May 25, 2009
- 30-year veteran looks back at career
When 30-year Army veteran Command Sgt. Maj. Roger Parker Jr., retires from active duty this month, he will say he has no regrets.
"No regrets at all," Parker said during a recent interview.
Parker's final Army assignment was as senior enlisted advisor, 22nd Chemical Battalion (Technical Escort), Aberdeen Proving Ground. He said he took the assignment to be near his parents, Roger Sr., and Delores Parker of Annapolis, Md.
Parker passed the 22nd Chemical Battalion sword of responsibility for the last time to Command Sgt. Maj. Raymund Dimatulac April 17. Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Matthew Mingus officiated the change of responsibility ceremony.
Parker said the Army has been a guiding light, a force that took hold of him at an Annapolis recruiting station in May 1979.
"I wanted to go into the Air Force, and was waiting for the Air Force recruiter after I took my test. My scores were pretty good, too," Parker, 49, recalled with more than a hint of pride. "The Air Force guy said he'd be right back, and then the Army guy walked by...
"'What are you doing here'' he asked. His name was Wilson. He walked away, then came back and asked, 'Is Roger Parker your father''
"I said, 'Yes sir,' and he started telling me what the Army had to offer. Then he said, 'You the boy [who] played all that basketball' Is that you''"
Parker was a star player on his Annapolis high school basketball team.
"I said, 'Yes sir.'"
"He said, 'Well, why don't you come on back'' I didn't know where the Air Force guy was, so I went with him and we started talking. Come to find out I went to school with his daughter. Then he brought out his books and a video of Soldiers jumping out of airplanes.
"What you gotta do to do that'" Parker asked, looking at photos of airborne Soldiers.
"'Well, you gotta come in and go to airborne school. And we need signal guys,' Wilson said. 'I looked at your scores and you qualify.'
"So I came in as a signal guy and went to airborne school along the way," Parker said.
He converted to the Army Chemical Corps and became a Green Dragon (as members of the Corps are called) at the end of his first hitch.
"I was ready to get out -- one week from getting my clearing papers - when my wife told me she was pregnant with our second child. So I couldn't get out. I went to reenlist and they said they had the BEAR (Bonus, Extension and Retraining) program for the Chemical Corps.
"So as I'm coming into the Chemical Corps, the Corps is being revamped," Parker continued. "I graduate [as honor grad] from Chemical School and I'm all fat, dumb and happy. I go to Korea to the 4th Chemical Company - the first ever chemical E-5 (sergeant) in that company in July 1983. It was just me and all these privates."
While in Korea, Parker found the unit basketball team didn't have a place to practice.
"The company was just starting to get built up at Camp Casey and we had to share the gym - it was crazy!" Parker said. "My team couldn't get in to practice, so I went to my captain, a smart guy, a West Pointer, and he was tight with the engineer guy. And we took this flat piece of land we had next to the club -- and we had a plan.
"Back then we worked five and a half days. We put the word out that everybody needed to be there at zero six hundred hours Saturday with picks and shovels, and we built our own basketball court. The engineer guy made everything right, brought in the bulldozer and set the poles and poured the concrete," Parker explained, pride in the accomplishment.
"Now, when I talk to people coming from Korea they say, 'Yeah, sergeant major, it's still there. People still play on it.'
"We practiced on that court, and we won the post championship. We even beat the post team, and it was because we had a court to practice on," he said.
Parker also takes credit for his unit's nickname.
"I came up with that - Silent Death - while reading a Heavy Metal magazine. The 4th Chemical Company still uses it to this day," he said.
Parker said he holds all leaders, particularly sergeants major, in high esteem. His first brush with one during basic training formed his desire to become one.
"The drill sergeant was the highest I knew at basic training. He put us in parade rest in the chow line, going to the PX, wherever we went - one of the things we never should've gotten away from. Anyway, we knew the first sergeant was God because the drill sergeant would 'snap and pop' when the first sergeant came by. We always saw the drill sergeants and senior drill, and we knew the senior drill was a bad dude, but when the first sergeant came by they'd both pop to parade rest.
"When the command sergeant major came by they like to broke their necks snapping to parade rest," Parker said, smiling his biggest smile.
"Well, we [recruits] didn't know. We'd only been in the Army three weeks. And the drill sergeant came back and said, 'You know who that is''
"'No drill sergeant!' we yelled because we all sounded off back then.
"'That is the man who sits next to God -- that is a command sergeant major!'
"Right then and there I said, 'That's what I'm gonna do. Yep, that's what I'm gonna be,'" Parker continued, chuckling.
"My friends just fell out. They thought that was so funny. 'What'' they all said. 'You're not even an E-2 yet!'
"But I made it. And now when I get a letter or e-mail from those same friends, they tell me, 'You said you were gonna do it, and you did."
Parker reflected on the commitment required to reach the highest enlisted rung.
"When you get to twenty [years in service], you know you're kind of done. But I always wanted to be a sergeant major. I wanted to be one. And I kept going," Parker said.
Keeping his memories alive by talking about them, Parker has many stories and just as many friends. However, as he prepared to put military life behind him, Parker reminisced carefully.
"You ask other sergeants major when they retire and they always say they're gonna miss 'The Power.' Don't get me wrong. If I go to the commander and say this guy needs to be gone, he's gone. And that's power. But I'm not gonna miss that," he said."I'm gonna miss the ability to pick up the phone and take care of the Soldier. That's what I'm gonna miss because that's what I love most about my job," Parker said.
"We had a sharp, sharp, SHARP Soldier who came down on levy for recruiting duty, and she didn't want to be a recruiter. I called up Assignments and they said, 'Sergeant major, we're short. Either she goes or she gets out.'
"Why would they do that'" Parker asked, questioning the impersonal nature of the Army Personnel System. "She was a distinguished honor graduate, had been in the Army four years and was a staff sergeant. Why would we put her out'
"They said, 'We can't do anything for her.'
Parker became philosophical as he continued.
"My theory has always been if you put a Soldier in a job that they don't like, they're just gonna do a job. But if you put a Soldier in a job that they like, they're gonna do a BIG JOB. They're gonna go above and beyond, not because you told them, but because they like the job and they look forward to coming to work every day.
"So I remembered my friend Dave, the recruiting sergeant major, and I gave him a call. Dave's an old country boy from Tennessee" Parker said.
"He answered the phone and said 'Hey! Roger! What's going on down there''
"So I told him what was going on and Dave said, 'Well, I don't know if I want somebody in there who don't want to be there. Let me call you back.'
"An hour later the Soldier got an AKO message telling her she was off orders," Parker said. "She was then drafted by the Regimental Sergeant Major to go to Redstone Arsenal and teach at the Chemical School.
"She was good at it. She was passionate about her job. And we would have lost all that experience - she had been deployed twice - if she had gone off to recruiting.
"We took care of that Soldier. She wrote me a couple weeks ago and thanked me again, telling me things are going great. And that's always been my reward - not the stuff you wear on your chest - but taking care of Soldiers and their Families."
Parker said today's Army is losing a lot of good people.
"We [lose] good Soldiers just because of burnout," he said. "We had a Soldier who made sergeant first class in eight years and his wife was a warrant officer. He went to Iraq and his wife had a baby. He came back and she had finished with her recovery and then she deployed to Iraq.
"So while she's gone, the unit he was in went away, and he moved to another unit. So she gets back in May and he moves out in June, back to Iraq.
"He came back after the second tour and his wife had just made W-2 [warrant officer 2] and was getting ready to go back to Iraq. Anyway, it was just too much for them and they both got out.
"Look at the experience we lost with this guy -- airborne, air assault, Ranger school, a good chemical Soldier who had already been a drill sergeant. This guy was a sergeant major just waiting to happen! This kid was rolling...and we lose him," Parker said with a shrug. "So I see it as a major issue with Soldiers I work with," he said.
Parker said he's always tried to keep the lines of communication open.
"When I talk to first termers, I always ask what they expect from their unit and what they expect from me. When I was a young Soldier, we didn't have a two-way conversation with the command sergeant major," he said.
"I ask what they expect from me because I'm gonna tell them what I expect from them. So they tell me -- they expect me to be on time; to be approachable; to set the example for the unit. They don't expect the sergeant major to be getting a DUI or running around on his wife."
"You know," Parker said, "Soldiers will tell you! When you open that door, that flood comes right out.
"And I say to them, 'Okay, that's the same thing I expect of you.' So now we have a common ground, and once you have that, they'll start talking to you," he said.
"The same thing you expect of me I expect of you -- loyalty to your unit, to be physically fit. If you're hurt, I expect you to go to sick call, and if the doctor tells you not to run for two or three months, I expect you to not run. That's what I expect Soldiers to do."
"When I was young, the doc told me not to run, but I had to figure it out the hard way. I had fractured my ankle and I ran on it too early and split it and had to have surgery. All I had to do was stay off it for two months like the doctor told me and it would've healed itself.
Parker's wife, Traci, is from Coverdale, Del. She retired in 2007 as a first sergeant in the medical corps after 22 years. They will retire to the Charlotte, N.C., region.
Parker's youngest daughter, 22, just finished her degree and will soon enter the Air Force to become a nurse. Though she'll be a commissioned officer, Parker says he won't salute her.
"I won't salute anybody whose school I paid for, who I taught how to tie their shoes, or anybody whose butt I used to wipe - and she fits all three!
"I've been doing this for a long time. I think I've given everything I can give to the Army," Parker said with only a hint of pensiveness. "It's time to do something else. I believe I could do three more years, but I don't have it in me. My body just won't stand it, and you can't do it drinking coffee watching them run down the road. Not when you want to be leading from the front."
So, no regrets'
"Well, only sometimes, when my leg hurts," Parker said.