Senior CBRNE Soldier begins to 'fade away'
October 8, 2009
The only senior enlisted advisor the 20th Support Command (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosives) has ever known will retire from active duty Oct. 2.
Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Womack Sr. said he intends to "just fade away."
The CBRNE command's senior enlisted advisor since March 2005, Womack will pass his title to Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald E. Orosz during a change of responsibility ceremony 10 a.m., Oct. 2 on McBride Field on the Edgewood Area of APG.
His retirement ceremony will run concurrent with the change of responsibility.
The 20th SUPCOM (CBRNE) was organized in October 2004.
"I've been here since the beginning," Womack said as he reflected on his 34-plus years in uniform and 12 years as a command sergeant major. "I've been through three generals - Brigadier General Walt Davis, Brigadier General Kevin Wendel, and now Brigadier General Jeffrey Snow - three generals."
Womack routinely expresses himself in tightly clipped sentences. It's a military syntax of short sound bites that cut directly to his point; a communication style that works for him.
'Gruff and rough'
"He's a CSM from the old school - gruff and rough around the edges - but his heart was always in the right place about doing what was right for the unit and the people in it," said Col. Barrett F. Lowe, a former deputy commander of the 20th SUPCOM (CBRNE) currently assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C.
"He let leaders do leader business, and made sure they were doing the right thing by the Soldiers and civilians working for them," Lowe added.
Womack is well schooled in the responsibilities of a noncommissioned officer.
"I came in when I was seventeen years old. When I retire I'll be fifty-two," he said. "I've been an NCO for a long time. I got promoted to sergeant in two years - in 1977 - and that's a long time," emphasizing the word "long."
He quickly summarizes his three tours in Germany, two tours in Korea and one in Alaska.
"Germany - I was there when the wall came down," he said. "Been there. Got it done. Got the T-shirt. I remember when the Deutsche Mark was worth something.
"The first car I ever bought was a Mercedes," he continued. "I brought it back with me and in two weeks it was stolen [in South Philadelphia]."
A typical young Soldier might have chastised himself for losing a car, but not Womack.
"It was telling me I didn't need it," he said.
The sergeant major didn't mention his Bronze Star medal or his six meritorious service awards. Nor did he talk about his many Army commendations or awards for maintaining the best quarters or for his direct involvement in community activities.
"That's me," he said pointing to a four-inch thick binder that contains every one of his awards and achievements. Womack called it his "I love me book."
He said if he had gotten to do what he really wanted, he wouldn't be where he is today. On two occasions he tried to pass the entrance qualifications for the Army's Delta Force, an elite group of Special Forces Soldiers.
"I couldn't pass the swimming portion. I can swim, but I couldn't past the Delta test," he explained.
Womack said he is proud of his two tours on the trail as a drill sergeant, "bringing smoke" on young recruits. He said the Army isn't training entry-level Soldiers the way it used to.
"Basic training should be the hardest thing you ever do in your life," he explained. "It's a building block for what will come, however long you stay in. You will never forget those basic skills that you need to have as a Soldier. They need to be instilled in every Soldier. You may not need them, but if you do, they're there. And the main one is discipline.
"That's why we have so many problems now," he continued. "A Soldier needs to be mentally fit. I'm here to tell you -- and I hope they never ask - but we're not instilling discipline anymore. We're not pushing entry level Soldiers to the point they need to be pushed.
"We definitely do not make 'em like we used to," he said.
A Soldier's life
Womack turns away, looking tired. His hair, if he had any, would surely have flecks of grey. But he routinely shaves his dome.
"That's probably one of the things I'm gonna do...grow some hair," he said, switching to talk of his retirement plans.
"I'm gonna have an issue adjusting," he continued. "After I walk off that field, for the first ninety days I'm gonna have to learn how to get up in the morning. I don't know how to sleep late. I don't use an alarm clock. At 4:30 or 5 a.m., I'm awake.
"I got to get my mind right," he said as if bracing for the day he starts to 'just fade away' as Gen. Douglas MacArthur said all old Soldiers do.
"And I gotta learn how to dress. I gotta learn how to communicate. Talking all that military terminology -- that's all I know. I'm going to have to adjust to society, you know, dress to blend in... just blend in to society, in general.
"I just want to cope with life and deal with life," he said. "Whatever happens, happens. I just want to get one job and fit in. I have to go to work, not for financial reasons, but because I have to keep my body and my mind going. This is my goal for the next six months."
He intends to focus on his hobbies, time permitting.
"I'm a certified mechanic," he said, recalling his Army roots as an ordnance Soldier. "My degree is in electronic engineering, and I love working on cars. My jeep is my hobby. And I love to fish.
"I consider myself a young individual. I have my health. I still have my mind," he said. "Three things have kept me going - being physically fit, mentally fit and spiritually fit. Those three things have kept me going. That, and the fact that I love Soldiers," he added.
Womack talked about the lessons he has learned.
"My dad was in the military, stationed in Georgia. So I did a lot of my time in Georgia. My home of record is Georgia.
"Back in the day, you got a Social Security number when you started working. I got mine when I enlisted. I went to high school and graduated in Georgia and my first ten or fifteen years I claimed Georgia as my home state," he said.
But he will retire to Pennsylvania.
"I want to be close to my Family, my mom [in Philadelphia], because my dad passed away. I didn't want to be too close, but close enough so that if my Family calls I can show up," he explained.
Womack talked about his marriages.
"The deal is -- I shared six kids. I've been married a few times," he said.
"It's too bad when you're young and in love," he added, sounding a bit wistful about the travails of romance.
"The first one, we tried to make it work and it lasted three years. The second one was for all the wrong reasons. She was another Soldier, and we got married to get stationed together. But she decided she didn't want to PCS to the place we signed up for and, well, she went one way and I went the other.
"After that I didn't even think about marriage for ten years," he said. "When I finally realized I was really ready to get married, I married a lady who had kids of her own.
"The kids helped, hers and mine," Womack said of his union with Rhonda, his wife of 16 years.
Their children, Rhonda, Marvin Jr., Ebony, Nate and Courtney have all moved out of the house.
"My youngest daughter, Courtney, is 22. She's in the Army, stationed in a chemical company in Korea. She went to college, but didn't know what she wanted to do, then joined the military," he said, proud of his Army daughter.
"She could have saved me a lot of money if she had joined after high school," he added, smiling wryly.
Then he sighed - deeply - before talking about his oldest daughter.
"She was killed in a car accident when she was 21 years old - she and my son in law. They had a kid, my grandson, who was one and half at the time. He wasn't in the car with them. He's okay. He's fourteen now," Womack said.
"The biggest issue we had was my son-in-law was an only child. We decided they [his son-in-law's parents] should have him [the grandson] because that was their only son and we had kids," he explained.
"They have custody and we alternate summers. Last summer he was here. Christmas and New Years and Thanksgiving -- we switch it up. He's kind of my heart...because... my daughter was my heart...
She'd be thirty four now," Womack said, his eyes moistening.
"But," he continued, changing the subject, "we have five kids and eight grandkids, the oldest is nineteen. My oldest granddaughter is going to junior college in North Carolina, and my oldest grandson is eighteen and going to a technical college in Charlotte."
A compassionate man
Womack's legacy has yet to be defined. However, those who have worked with him speak to the depth of his character.
"I bet he visited every wounded warrior who returned to CONUS during his time as command sergeant major," said retired Army Col. Ray Van Pelt, former deputy commander of 20th SUPCOM (CBRNE).
"He displayed great compassion when we visited wounded EOD Warriors and their Family members. He relayed his personal challenges of recovery from health issues and injuries as motivation and an example for the young troopers.
"He deeply cares for Soldiers and has a sixth sense for Soldier issues," the colonel said.
Van Pelt said Womack "felt in his gut" that suicides and suicide gestures were becoming a problem.
"Because of his relentless prodding, we developed and implemented a unit-level suicide prevention training strategy nearly six months before the Department of the Army implemented mandatory suicide prevention training.
"And, for an old man, the sergeant major can call some wicked old-time Army cadence and has one helluva basketball game," Van Pelt added.
"Sergeant Major Womack was patient, compassionate and mentored many senior NCOs in the art and science of working the Army system and taking real care of Soldiers," said another former deputy commander, retired Col. Paul Plemmons.
"He was the leading advocate and driving force behind special incentive pay for EOD operators. He was always there, visiting our wounded warriors or attending funerals for the fallen. He lives his beliefs. I am proud to have finished my career working with this great professional," Plemmons added.
Perhaps the warmest accolades come from peers, such as Sgt. Maj. Ricardo Soto-Acevedo, a former operations NCO with the CBRNE command, who recently wrote Womack a note of gratitude.
"My sincere thanks for helping me in my hour of need. I know you spoke to the [commander] about my issue with cancer and that I needed help. You made it easier for me to go through the treatments, which were rough enough, and allowed me the time to recover to again be an active contributor to the Twentieth. I shall never forget the kindness you gave me as a professional Soldier," Soto-Acevdo said.
Womack is a compassionate man. Those who know him have seen his concern for Soldiers, for Families and for the Army.
This compassion will undoubtedly surface during Womack's farewell remarks. He is acutely aware that his most difficult task as a Soldier will be saying goodbye.
"In my thirty-four years, giving that speech is probably the hardest thing I'll ever had to do. It's gonna be rough," he said.
"But let me leave you with this. In thirty-four-plus years, it ain't never, ever been about me."