FORT LEE, Va. (April 7, 2020) -- On March 26, Command Sgt. Maj. Jerome Smalls sat at a desk in his duty uniform, looked into a camera and uncomfortably read a farewell speech.
In solemn tone, he thanked Army Logistics University Soldiers and civilians and all who supported the Logistics Noncommissioned Officer Academy mission. He extolled the achievements of his students and fellow cadre; and he thanked his family.
The senior NCO ended his speech with a customary but subdued, “Army Strong, Supports Starts Here, Discipline and Standards, NCOs lead the way … ‘Hooah.’”
Smalls’ recorded remarks, uploaded as a Facebook post, lasted all of five minutes. It was in lieu of a scratched relinquishment of responsibility/retirement ceremony that would have featured the people, applause, and pageantry normally associated with such an event.
His moment in the celebratory spotlight was darkened by the epidemiological phenomenon called COVID-19 and the necessity for social distancing to prevent the spread of the disease. The installation has canceled all events that would draw large gatherings (more than 10 people), and activities in general that pose an exposure risk.
Serving as the commandant of the Army’s largest NCO academy during his final tour of duty, Smalls surely deserved more than a capsulized and fanfare-lacking Facebook broadcast. A fitting send-off ceremony goes beyond “attaboys,” serving as an opportunity to recognize the career accomplishments of professional Soldiers and distinguished leaders.
Smalls wore the coveted Round Brown of the drill sergeant early in his career, and remarkably, all of his assignments with the exception of the last two were logged with divisions, meaning he spent an inordinate amount of time in tactical units.
Prior to his arrival here, Smalls’ record was such that he had hoped to earn a nominative assignment, one of a very few select positions for the most accomplished command sergeants major. The time-in-service requirements were changed midstream, however, and he fell one month short of being eligible. It was a gut punch Smalls painfully absorbed.
“I won’t say I was disgruntled,” the Walterboro, S.C., native recalled, “but I was like, ‘Wow! This is my last job, how much am I going to put into it? A lot of Soldiers, once they get close to the end, they kind of just take a knee. I saw that you couldn’t do that at the academy because you would be cheating these Soldiers who’re coming through the courses. Along with cheating them and the cadre, civilians, and contractors, I also would be cheating myself – if I took that knee.”
True to his character, Smalls decided to do what he has always done – stay afoot and charge hard.
“I ran to the finish line,” said the 48-year-old with a proud look of achievement. “Soldiers would see me at PT formations and ask, ‘Sergeant major, you’re still doing PT?’ I had to do PT because that’s how I was bred and brought up throughout my time in the Army.”
Making his way through the ranks as an 88M motor transport operator, Smalls said he was never willing to be defined by military occupational specialty alone. He identified with something greater: being a Soldier and fashioning his career to that end. Smalls said he is grateful for the decisive-approach-yielding skills that could be applied far outside the realm of the transportation arena.
“I am not being coy or anything like that, but I thank God for it,” he said. “When I came up against my contemporaries, there were a lot of things I knew they didn’t know. To me, that was what it was about ... I was never the guy who got caught up in my MOS. I was always a Soldier first. Being a transporter is something I did. And that’s not saying anything negative about any MOS.”
Those skills arguably brought him to the doorstep of the LNCOA, which graduates 6.000 hard-charging enlisted leaders a year in three different career fields. For the uninitiated, noncoms view the academy commandant position as a near equivalent to being a commander – with many of the same responsibilities but without Uniformed Code of Military Justice authority.
It is assumed the reigns of autonomy are strong for any CSM, and there’s always potential for imposing a signature Soldiering and leadership philosophy on the institution. The LNCOA, however, is a different animal. Much of how it operates is influenced by the Ordnance, Quartermaster and Transportation corps, which can direct how students should be trained. CASCOM, the higher headquarters for all three, also looms over the schoolhouse as an influencer.
Smalls said working with multiple levels of authority was like juggling balls set afire.
“It’s difficult in this way: if you are in a regular enlisted advisor position – be it a first sergeant, sergeant major or CSM – your word ends it; it’s final. At this academy, where you have all three schools together … you have three different flavors of commandants. ... You have to build relationships with each school, their staffs and training developers. That was my biggest takeaway, not being that single voice (in the decisional process) and having to work through the schools to get things done.”
Another distinct LNCOA difference from others in the Army inventory is its location. It does not operate from a standalone facility replete with conspicuous décor. It is a tenant of the larger ALU – CASCOM’s officer education institution.
“The university model is the right idea for all the right reasons ... but the relaxed academic environment has a way of ‘switching off’ students and cadre,” he said. “There are times I’ve had that conversation with my cadre to let them know this is an NCO academy, and this is what NCOs expect when they arrive.”
The emphasis on setting tough standards and expecting disciplined, professional behavior is a legacy that Smalls, like the many commandants before him, hopes he left behind. If so, it would be another tick mark on a list of accomplishments that also includes the graduation of roughly 12,000 advanced and senior leader course Soldiers; earning school accreditation; and an impressive array of promotions, instructor of the year awards, community service projects and an assortment of academic degrees.
“Great job! We’re very, very proud of you all,” Small told the faculty during his Facebook farewell.
Forever a team player, Smalls said none of school’s achievements were made in a vacuum, and he thanked his family, chain of command, CASCOM and all the organizations and people essential to operations. In the latter part of his speech, the CSM said he executed his duties under his personal motto – character, credibility, discipline and standards, and legacy. In pursuance of his own credo, he said, “… I really hope my audio matched my video.”
In an earlier interview, Smalls said his three decades of service has been prideworthy, meaningful and fruitful in many ways.
“I have nothing to hang my head about,” he said. “I’ve had a great career. I’ve been a sergeant major for over 10 years. Who can say that? I’m a little guy from Walterboro, S.C., and never thought I would’ve seen so many places and met so many people. I always tell my Soldiers, ‘I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me.’ I do it for them. That’s my legacy.”