FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- At a glance, this year’s drill sergeant of the year seems tailor-made for the part, down to the classic squared-jaw, stony-eyed glare capable of striking fear into young recruits.
But to Staff Sgt. Erik Rostamo, the award means more than terrifying trainees or roaring the loudest; it’s about turning America’s youth into a skilled combat-ready force.
Still, it’s not hard to picture Rostamo wildly shouting at hundreds of recruits as they scurry off a bus into their first formation, or methodically moving through their ranks with an icy guise, his fiery eyes shadowed by the brim of his brown round hat.
If Hollywood was looking to cast a drill sergeant -- he’s their guy. But being a drill sergeant goes beyond the hotheaded characters played on camera, he said. All the bluster and bravado in the movies could never mold civilians into highly-skilled warriors. “That’s just not how trainees learn.”
Every non-commissioned officer “under the hat” actually wears multiple ones, figuratively, he said. They coach, counsel, and mentor recruits during some of the most physically and mentally points of their military careers.
For him, there is nothing more rewarding than modeling Army professionals.
The Minnesota native started his enlisted career to serve his country. As a military police officer, he’s deployed twice. In 2009, he was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom at Camp Taji, Iraq, where he did internment and resettlement operations. Then in 2012, he did route clearance and convoy security in Afghanistan.
Shortly after, the seasoned police officer was tapped to take on a new role -- drill sergeant. At first, he was iffy about the job, he said. It was a huge change, but it quickly became his calling.
Since graduating from the Army Drill Sergeant Academy at Fort Jackson, South Carolina in October 2018, he’s been the gatekeeper for roughly 600 new troops on their way into the Army, something he said has been “the greatest job in the world.”
Make no mistake -- no matter how cool, calm, and collected as he is, there’s still time for discipline, he said, just like “there’s a time to turn it off and on.”
The Rostamo family has an unwritten policy. At the end of each 16-hour workday, once his truck pulls into the driveway, his hat, along with his drill sergeant persona, stays outside. It’s a small, yet symbolic way to balance work and family, he said -- even on nights when work tips the scale.
By the time he gets home, it’s typically in the late-evening hours. His wife of two years, Nicole -- who is expecting their second child in September -- and their daughter, Mikayla, are usually asleep. A few hours later, while the girls are still in bed, he wakes to start another day. His hat waiting for him in the truck.
“I’ve never heard him complain,” said his brother, Staff Sgt. Ryan Rostamo, an Army recruiter in Buffalo, Minnesota. “Being on drill orders can be harder than being deployed because even though you’re physically home, it’s only for a few hours. My brother has handled it well.”
The days are long, the drill sergeant said, and the hours are taxing for the entire family. Without Nicole, none of it would be possible. She gives him unconditional support, as well as takes on more than her share of family administrative duties, he said.
“I don’t know how she does it. She is the backbone of our family,” Rostamo said. “It’s hard. At [Basic Combat Training], our chain of command does their best to accommodate time off for drill sergeants, because the families suffer” due to the long hours.
But the drill sergeants understand their mission, too.
“[Drill sergeants are] responsible for our nation’s sons and daughters,” he said, adding it’s a duty that demands excellence and that he doesn’t take lightly. “It’s the greatest responsibility someone could give. I’m taking civilians and turning them into the next generation of warfighters.”
New Soldiers will remember their drill sergeants forever, he said. “Drill sergeants need to embrace the long hours, because, for those recruits, they are the very first representation of the non-commissioned officer corps.”
Within months, his recruits may be anywhere in the world, from riding in combat vehicles in the desert to protecting military assets on installations. Before all that, they’re trained at Fort Leonard Wood, a training installation in the Missouri Ozarks that Rostamo represented in this year’s drill sergeant of the year competition.
The post is home to more than 700 other drill sergeants, many were his peers cheering him on.
Last week, during a virtual event hosted by the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training, the staff sergeant was officially named the Army’s 2020 DSOY, besting 10 other highly-qualified peers.
Going into the finals, “it was anyone’s game,” Rostamo said. “They had studs from all across the drill sergeant enterprise, all slugging it out on a board. It was nerve-wracking, it really was.”
As Rostamo’s name was called, his poker face may not have cracked, but he was physically shaking from jittery nerves, he said. A sign that even the most stoic Soldier is also human. Just being in the running was honorable enough, he felt, but having his name called was another level of pride.
“I wanted to bring the [DSOY] title back to Fort Leonard Wood,” he said. “I didn’t win for me -- ‘Erik Rostamo’ -- I won this for all the drill sergeants there. I won’t be [at Fort Leonard Wood] forever, so it means the world to bring that honor back there.”
“The leadership and community are extremely proud of Rostamo,” said Command Sgt. Maj. James Breckinridge, the senior enlisted leader at Fort Leonard Wood. “There is no doubt in my mind -- and I'm not trying to predict the future -- but there is no doubt in my mind that he is going to succeed to the highest levels of the United States Army."
In roughly 60 days, Rostamo and his family will move from the Midwest so he can take on a new role -- serving as a senior drill sergeant at Fort Eustis, Virginia, where he will advise the Army’s highest-ranking leaders on all matters related to initial training.
“When you get to sit at the table with a four-star general, and many more, and advise them on all things drill sergeant for the entire United States Army, that should not be taken lightly,” Breckinridge said. “That is a pretty big deal.”
Since winning, a whirlwind of well wishes and support have rolled in from across the Army, he said. Text messages, phone calls, emails, and other types of correspondence has his phone working overtime. If you ask those who know him best, the honor is well deserved.
But if you ask him, it was never about the awards, he said. “The opportunity to take civilians and graduate them as military professionals is the most iconic feeling in the world. They look up to you, and I just didn’t want to let them down.”