FORT MEADE, Md. -- For Sgts. 1st Class Aimee Fields and Joseph Compton, being an Army career counselor is not only about hitting mission goals, it's about finding the right future for Soldiers.

Whether that means continuing to serve or opting to leave the military, it is career counselors who lay out all the options so Soldiers can make the best decisions for themselves.

For her work as a career counselor, Fields was named this year's Army active-duty career counselor of the year. Compton, a National Guard member stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, was given the top honor for the reserve component.

Both Soldiers were honored last week during a ceremony at the Pentagon. The two also received the annual award's newly-minted medal, which honors the late Sgt. Maj. Jerome L. Pionk.

Speaking at the award ceremony, the Army's G-1 said that career counselors last year were able to retain a higher percentage of Soldiers than ever before.

"The role of a career counselor has never been more important than it is now as we transition from an Army that is downsizing to an Army that is growing again," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands. "Your efforts made a significant and lasting contribution to the success of the Army in meeting an increased end strength."

CONTINUAL COUNSELING IN GERMANY

Fields, who has been a career counselor for the past decade, serves now within the 30th Medical Brigade in Germany.

She explained that she counsels Soldiers once they arrive to her unit, to ensure they remain competitive for promotion. She also reengages with those Soldiers throughout their time at the unit to discuss their future plans.

"We want to make sure we get them from the beginning and get them on that path of where they want to end up," she said.

As the only career counselor in her brigade at the time, Fields had 29 reenlistment contracts that resulted in almost $132,000 in bonuses for Soldiers in the first two months of this fiscal year. She also helped her unit exceed its retention goal by 180 percent for contracts in fiscal year 2017 for Soldiers about to get out of the Army.

While excited to be named the active-duty career counselor of the year, Fields said she's motivated less by recognition for her work and more by helping Soldiers in her unit make the right choice.

"When you see the reaction that a Soldier has or how thankful they are because you helped them achieve a goal or get to where they want to be in their career, it's better than getting an award," Fields said.

RETAINING THE BEST

When he meets with Soldiers, Compton said their guard will often come down once he starts to discuss their options.

"The counseling is the best part for me," he said. "When they sit down, their disposition will change when they realize that I'm here to simply help them make well-informed decisions."

A former recruiter turned career counselor, Compton had the most contracts --- 147 of them --- for any Army National Guard recruiting and retention NCO in fiscal 2017. He currently serves at the Fort Hood Reserve Component Retention office.

Compton said he works closely with his active-duty counterparts, especially if a Soldier is on the fence about joining the reserve component.

"We'll send them back to their active component career counselor and let them talk to them one more time if they don't have a solid plan," he said. "We just want to keep that Soldier in boots, whether it be active or reserve."

And if his office is able to land a Soldier leaving active duty, that could be even better for the Guard or Reserve compared to signing a new recruit.

"From a monetary perspective, these Soldiers are already trained," he said. "The government has already invested time, energy, effort and money training these Soldiers. What better asset to have in the reserve component than an already trained Soldier amongst the ranks."

CAREER COUNSELOR OF THE CENTURY

This year, for the first time, the Army handed to the best of its retention experts medals named after one of its former celebrated career counselors: Sgt. Maj. Jerome L. Pionk.

Now-retired Lt. Col. Jerry Pionk, the son of Sgt. Maj. Pionk, at one time served as a public affairs officer within the Army's G-1 office. He said he believes many Soldiers can attribute their positions or callings in the Army to the guidance of a career counselor.

"Career counselors have a special place in many of our Army formations to give that career progression insight and other guidance they might not be able to get from their normal command structure for various reasons," Jerry said.

He said his family was "extremely humbled" that the Army chose to name a medal after his father, Sgt. Maj. Pionk.

"My father would be equally humbled by this," Jerry said, "and he would also consider it a little ironic that his name would be on the medal because I think he would, in a way, feel that he wouldn't be worthy of such an honor."

After 32 years in the Army, where he worked as a recruiter and career counselor, Sgt. Maj. Pionk retired from active duty. After, he served an additional 10 years as a civilian in the Army's G-1 office. His peers there named him "career counselor of the century" when he retired in 2000.

"He was very influential in setting up ... some of the policy that made current recruiters and career counselors a more professional branch," Jerry said.

The senior Pionk also founded the Association of Military Recruiters and Counselors, a non-profit group that has handed out more than $25,000 in scholarships since the early 1990s, Jerry said.

"Sgt. Maj. Pionk worked tirelessly for Soldiers and their families, and was a huge advocate for the career counselor profession," Seamands said. "It is truly fitting that this award for excellence bears his name, as he certainly set the bar very high for his colleagues."