FORT LEE, Va. (Sept. 23, 2020) -- Sgt. Maj. Edward A. Bell Sr. earned his E-9 stripes after 19 years of service. He became a brigade CSM a short while after that, and a little more than three years ago, rose to one of the most influential logistician positions in the Army.
The 52-year-old concluded his military career here Sept. 18 in a ceremony officiated by the three-star Army G-4 Deputy Chief of Staff. Bell was the senior enlisted advisor in the Pentagon office that helps shape sustainment policy and plays a key role in managing the large portfolio of programs and projects under the Army’s supply, maintenance, transportation and logistics information systems functions.
Although Bell can attribute his success to various factors, chief among them in his mind are people, or what he views as the single most important resource the Army has at its disposal. During remarks at his retirement ceremony, the SGM said those “who believe in you, who trust you and people who provide you opportunity” are most responsible for one’s successes.
“No journey can end with victory without people bearing the load of trust, commitment, courage and selfless service,” he added.
Bell’s journey began amidst the tobacco fields of Tarboro and Princeville, N.C., two communities situated on the Tar River in the eastern part of the state. He was reared in a strong religious community dating back to 1760. Its rural setting and old traditions forced many like him to seek something greater.
“I came in the Army to find a better life and to kind of explore,” said Bell, who initially enlisted as an engineer but transitioned to the 92A automated logistical specialist military occupational specialty five years later.
Bell joined a late 1980s Army that was in full maturity after its post-Vietnam War transformation. It featured better-educated Soldiers, more opportunities and expanding diversity. Amid the new horizons, there were many leaders young troops could look up to, he said.
“I tried to get advice and emulate people who I thought were pretty sharp Soldiers,” Bell recalled.
Among them was one of his old senior noncoms. Retired CSM Charles “Big Poppa” Penn was as firm as the 82nd Airborne Division could make them but benevolent all the same. Then-1st Sgt. Penn was known to take personal interests in Soldiers and did so with then-Staff Sgt. Bell. Their lives coincided when Penn inquired about Bell’s career advancement efforts. The meeting went something like this, according to a previous Traveller newspaper article:
“What steps are you taking to get promoted?” asked Penn.
Bell considered the question but was unable to reply. The superior filled in the silence, suggesting he enroll in college to get a degree.
Finding his voice again, the Soldier with a wife and young children replied, “First sergeant, I cannot afford that application fee.”
The first sergeant snapped back, “I never asked you about the fee,” implying he would cover the cost.
Penn, who kept his word about footing the bill, was present for Bell’s retirement. So were later-career mentors CSM Joseph Allen and CSM James K. Sims. Penn, for one, remembered Bell as someone with such a steep upside, he made it easy for superiors to support and encourage him.
“With some Soldiers, you see something special about them,” he said. “They want to get ahead, and they want to do great things. When you see folks like that, it’s easy to grab ahold of them and say, ‘I’ll show you the way.’ Bell was sharp from the day I met him. He loved the Army, loved taking care of Soldiers, could complete the mission and was a family man. That was enough for me.”
Penn’s investment in his charge was like spreading capital. Bell – who replaced Penn as the 23rd Quartermaster Brigade CSM in 2013 – still talks appreciatively about his good deed several decades ago. In the later years of his career, what he had learned was paid forward with Soldiers and up-and-coming officers. Lt. Col. Denis Fajardo, 244th QM Battalion commander, was assigned with Bell at the G-4. He said Bell’s demeanor, experience and expertise made him an indispensable resource.
“SGM Bell has a charismatic, friendly and humble approach to everything,” he wrote via email. “Though I was a major, he took me under his wing and mentored me more about being an officer than most could ever do. The most important part of that was the coaching and mentoring on the relationship between NCOs and officers. He showed me how to motivate NCOs, as well recognize their value at all echelons. Everything he did was meant to make me better in my job and life. He also modeled the virtues of balance with regards to lifestyle and family.
He taught me to be a better officer.”
Despite his advocacy for Soldiers, Bell’s talents and skills did not make him immune to some of the pitfalls of leadership. He would be the first to tell you there was a time when he lacked humility.
“I had earned rank very fast, and I was a battalion command sergeant in special operations with 20 years of service,” he recalled. “I had quite a bit of ego, and I didn’t understand my own blind spots until a few senior sergeants major put a little polish on me and said, ‘Hey, you need to take a step back, take a deep breath and kind of pace yourself.’”
The “polish” Bell speaks about brought him down a few notches to a grassroots level.
“It took some time for me to understand that an ego can really degrade leader development, readiness and lethality,” he said. “I took a step back, swallowed a humility pill and focused more on the team.”
Since then, Bell has led troops on deployments several times. He said he is crystal-clear on what effective leadership is and how people go about the work of leading troops. It is all about putting the team first, he said.
“As leaders, our job is to focus on the team and organization. It’s extending the vision and priorities of the commander,” he said. “We need to create an environment where people can grow and thrive.”
Over the course of his career, Bell has been a fast-tracker, earning stripes in less time than average. He has earned a chest-full of badges, medals and ribbons and completed seven deployments going back to Operation Desert Storm/Shield.
Despite all his accomplishments, Bell said he gets the most satisfaction out of seeing those he raised and mentored journey down familiar and unfamiliar paths.
“Without a doubt, I’m most proud of taking care of people and watching them grow,” he said, “helping them become successful leaders, parents and community members. The Army is a people business, and I am grateful I have had an impact on so many over the course of my career.”