Noncommissioned officer defies odds to achieve, mentor subordinates
November 5, 2009
- "When you earn the right to wear the U.S. Army nameplate on your chest, there's nothing more distinguished than that," Holmes said.
A senior noncommissioned officer with the U.S. Army Ordnance Mechanical Maintenance School's 61st Ordnance Brigade said he owes his success to the tough love and values bestowed on him by his single mother.
Master Sgt. David J. Holmes is an NCO assigned to the 61st Ordnance Brigade S-3. He grew up on the streets of Compton in Los Angeles, Calif., during a time when it was considered one of the most dangerous and crime-ridden cities in America.
While it was difficult for him to resist the lure of the streets, Holmes said his mother would have none of it.
"I don't see myself as being overly successful, but when I look at where I came from - with all the drugs, stealing and danger - I have to say I owe what I have achieved to my mother," Holmes said. "She gave me a lot of tough love that didn't seem so good at the time, but if it were not for the "added attention" given by my mother, I doubt that I would be alive today."
Holmes was about 8 years old when his mother took on an additional job cleaning offices at night. He said she saved every spare dollar until she was able to move the Family to "better neighborhoods."
"But it seemed like crime and drugs were everywhere, and it soon became apparent to her that it was best to move out of L.A.," he said.
His mother moved the Family near relatives in Indiana. Holmes said the new environment changed him in more ways than one.
"The education system was far better," he said, "and because of it I started to realize not only that she had a dream for me but that I could actually achieve it."
Holmes' mother enrolled him in Howe Military Academy in Northwestern Indiana, a private, college-preparatory boarding school. He said the tuition was $10,000 annually.
"She worked all the time," he said. "It was extremely hard but she managed it."
To reward her sacrifices, Holmes worked hard as well. He maintained a 3.5 grade point average, lettered in track, football and wrestling and was a gunner on the school's distinguished Ranger team. He graduated as a second lieutenant in the school's 100th centennial graduating class.
Holmes said that while students in the school were generally groomed to become military officers, an Army NCO who conducted Ranger training at the school changed his focus.
"He was a sergeant first class and the epitome of a professional NCO," Holmes said. "He trained us well and as a result of great mentorship, I refocused my interest in future military career options."
Holmes graduated and joined the Army in 1985. He said his admiration for the NCO corps grew during his first assignment in Korea.
"As young Soldiers, it's easy to be swayed the wrong way, but we had great NCOs who took us under their wings," he said.
The NCOs in his chain of command went out of their way to keep their Soldiers focused on the Continuing Education System and other self improvement programs, he said.
It was during this time that Holmes first observed a Soldier in a maroon beret. When he inquired about the beret, his squad leader tasked him with writing a report about the 82nd Airborne Division, where the Soldier was from. As a result of his research, Holmes said he knew he would one day become a member of the elite division.
From Korea, he went to Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga.
"Believe it or not, I was afraid of heights, I wouldn't jump off a curb, much less jump from an airplane," Holmes said.
His determination abandoned him on his first jump, however, and he was about to become a jump refusal when he saw the unit mascot, a dog that went everywhere with the paratroopers, leap eagerly out of the aircraft. The dog was parachuted and obviously enjoyed jumping, he said.
"I looked in amazement and I thought, 'If a dog can do it, then I'm going to do it,'" Holmes said.
"There's always someone or something in your life that can influence you to overcome," he said in retrospect, "and that a lot of your fears are measured by your ability to overcome them."
Holmes spent nine years with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., and deployed with it to Operations Desert Shield/Storm.
He said the day he became an NCO in the 82nd Airborne Division was the highlight of his career.
Holmes came to Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1999 after graduating from Drill Sergeant School. He was assigned to Company B, 16th Ordnance Battalion.
"Despite the rigorous hours, I loved it," he said. "It was a point in my career where I had the most effect on Soldiers. An Army drill sergeant/platoon sergeant has to fill the capacity of Family, coach and mentor and become everything to their Soldiers that they may hot have had in their civilian life."
After two years, Holmes volunteered for duty in Afghanistan where he served as senior NCO on a Military Transition Team assigned to the 24th Infantry Division responsible for training Soldiers of the Afghan Army.
"Sometimes the mission was affected due to language barriers but it never stopped us," he said. "We bridged some very important gaps."
He said the Afghan soldiers who could communicate with them often remarked on the abilities of American NCOs, calling them the most accomplished group of military professionals they'd seen.
"I told them that when you earn the right to wear the U.S. Army nameplate on your chest, there's nothing more distinguished than that," Holmes said.
After he returned to APG, Holmes was assigned to the 61st Ordnance Brigade's Field Training Site, responsible for providing ordnance Warriors with realistic tactical training in preparation for combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Realizing that combat experience is the key to effectively training Soldiers, Holmes volunteered for a combat tour in Iraq, where again he served as a member on a Military Transition Team, assigned to the 1st Infantry Division. Holmes stayed 10 months in Iraq, and it was during this tour that he was wounded when his convoy came under attack while conducting mounted patrols on the outskirts of Baghdad.
"A lot of great individuals are the reason I'm back here today," he said, adamantly acknowledging the members of his team with whom he shared the experience. "In a matter of seconds, we were forced to apply our skills and experience. During a fifteen-minute firefight that seemed like it lasted for hours," Holmes said, "I saw bravery overcome fear, not only in the NCOs but in a young PFC [private first class] who was driving. His training gave him the knowledge he needed to survive, and it's the NCO who provides that training. You can't take it for granted. It has to come so rapidly - sometimes in a moment's notice - that it has to be second nature."
Holmes said that all of the members of his team survived the attack, some with minor injuries, although the vehicle that kept them alive was a catastrophic loss.
"Army engineers, civilians and contractors [built] that equipment," he said. "My thanks go out to those designers, personnel and manufacturers. They have saved many lives and deserve to be recognized."
After returning from Iraq, Holmes was assigned to FOB [Forward Operating Base] Wolverine at APG where he served as unit first sergeant, Company W, 61st Ordnance Brigade. FOB Wolverine is a replica of FOBs found in Iraq and Afghanistan used to train and prepare Soldiers for duty in the war zone. The site includes several training areas including High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle Egress Assistance Training, which trains Soldiers on how to extract themselves from a HMMWV in the event of a rollover, the MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain) site, a maze of trailers linked together for live fire exercises and a convoy patrol training lane as well.
Along with Advanced Individual Training Soldiers, NCOs in the OMMS Basic NCO Academy and officers in the Officer Basic Course undergo training at FOB Wolverine.
Sergeant Maj. of the Army, Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth O. Preston is one of many dignitaries who has visited the site and praised Holmes and then company Commander Capt. Gaetano Snow. Holmes said the NCOs and officers who spearheaded the project were the one's who deserved the praise.
"Training at FOB Wolverine is so valuable," he added. "If we do not train aggressively, we fail ourselves and our Warriors. It provides young Warriors the opportunity to know what to expect and what is expected of them.
"We're doing an outstanding job preparing our Warriors which is why our enemy is going from one extreme to the other. They know we are capable of defending ourselves and that in order to attack us they have to be willing to face certain death. Our Soldiers are willing and able to accomplish their missions, which is leading to our success in both theaters. When it does happen, our training will be the reason for our success," Holmes said.
With 24 years of service, Holmes is considering retirement. Although he had his sights on making sergeant major, he said he's ready to go.
"NCOs today are so much more advanced in leadership, training and professionalism than I was at that point in my career," he said. "If I consider myself at ninety percent, imagine how much more effective they can be as leaders."
Sergeant Maj. Gary Shine is Holmes supervisor. He said that along with assisting him administratively, Holmes is working with designers at the training site being built at Fort Lee, Va., the new home of the Ordnance Corps.
"We're lucky to have him," Shine said. "The folks down there are very receptive to him because they know he's lived it. He takes training Soldiers to the heart, and he's very serious about it. You can't buy that kind of experience."
Holmes said he remains thankful to his mentors who include OC&S Regimental Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Eubanks, Shine and most of all he is grateful to the firm hand he received from his mother while growing up.
He said success for him is in the legacy he leaves in the Soldiers he has the pleasure of training.
"I'm constantly running into Soldiers I trained, whether as a squad leader or a drill sergeant," Holmes said. "Many of these Soldiers are now squad leaders and some even platoon sergeants. I know they're all good leaders, and they always tell me the same thing: that they remember me and that they learned from my training, 'even though it didn't seem so warming at the time.'"
Holmes' awards include the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, the Airborne Combat Infantry Badge and the Drill Sergeant Identification Badge.