Since 1919—one year after World War I ended—America has celebrated Veterans Day (previously Armistice Day) every year on Nov. 11 to honor all who served honorably in America’s armed forces.
Veterans Day 2020 is a bit different. The coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellation of many traditional events and continues to shape day-to-day Army operations.
Several members of the Army Inspector General Agency and the inspector general community—active duty, retirees and veterans—took a moment to share their stories of service and what it means to them.
“I was born in Vietnam and the Army pulled me, my mother, and sister out of Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War,” said Col. Danielle Ngo, who enlisted as a private in 1989 and completed basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
“I have, for as long as I can remember, wanted to give back to the Army and the Nation for what they gave to my family—a new life, opportunities, and the American dream,” Ngo said.
Darryl Stephens, a retired lieutenant colonel and the Network Enterprise Technology Command chief of inspections at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, was looking for a springboard to something bigger in life.
“I enlisted into the United States Army on January 10, 1984, after graduating from high school…as a Field Artillery, Forward Observer (13F). I was working in a Chinese Restaurant as a dishwasher with no aspirations on attending college due to lack of funds. It was the right opportunity at the right time,” he said.
Lt. Col. Eric Maxwell, the inspector general at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina., said he was always geared toward service. “I played “war” in the woods near our house, carrying sticks and throwing rocks. Nobody in my neighborhood pretended to be a sailor or airman, it was always Army or Marines,” Maxwell said.
The Command Inspector General of the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command (AAMDC) in Kaiserslautern, Germany, Lt. Col. Ted Kaiser, had other plans as a teenager.
“It was always my intent to serve as a tanker in the military, even signing up for delayed entry into the Marine Corps in high school,” he said.
However, Kaiser had also applied to the U.S. Military Academy and was accepted, which nullified his Marine Corps contract. “I wanted to get a degree in chemistry, live in Germany, and be a tanker: the Army let me do all of those things within the first 4-1/2 years of service,” Kaiser said.
Charting a course for life
Others recalled their service fondly, crediting it for shaping who they are today and influencing their own achievements along the way.
Among them is Russell Wall, the inspector general for the Military District of Washington and a former paratrooper. “I learned a lot from the Soldiers who were Vietnam War vets because at this time they were starting to disappear. (My NCO) Sgt. Munn taught me a lot on how the Army runs, taught me to fly planes, and ensured that I took Officer Basic Course via correspondence course,” Wall said.
Maxwell recalled the opportunities to travel and experience something he never would have back home. “There are people that I grew up with that never left Kansas; others, have never seen another part of the world or spoken another language,” he said.
“I saw every walk of life in the military. Yet we were all attempting to become a team,” said Stephens. “The best leader I ever served with was Sgt. 1st Class Elder, 82nd Airborne Division. I took a lot from him and kept it in my bags to this day.”
Eyes, ears, voice and conscience of the Army
Becoming an inspector general isn’t on the radar for most Soldiers. But the Army always needs inspectors general, and assignment as an IG is a highly selective, broadening experience.
“I never really considered becoming an IG, as I didn’t fully realize that I could remain an armor officer by doing so. However, I was enforcing regulations as a professional hobby while on duty as a professor at West Point, so when the opportunity came up, I had to take it. An Army talent management win,” said Kaiser.
Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ryno, an inspector general NCO with the 8th Army in Korea, said, “I always knew of the IG and had a basic understanding of what they did but I never thought I would become one.”
“I am an 11B (infantry) and it typically isn’t something that is pushed to do in the infantry world…I have learned so much about how other MOS’s do their jobs along with a different way of looking at inspections.” Ryno said.
Service as an IG doesn’t just mean conducting inspections. A large portion of an IG’s work involves assisting Soldiers and their Families in solving day-to-day problems, such as those involving pay or personnel matters.
“The most important aspect that I have learned as an IG is to be patient. IG work is people business, just provide the facts and allow the civilian/military leaders to be the heroes of their organizations with their decisions,” said Stephens.
Maxwell added, “In one year of service as an IG, cases I have handled personally have proven the worth of this office. I love that we work together to make the Army systems work fairly and well.”
Advice to those considering service
Ryno, a former recruiter, wants young people to keep their options open. “I would tell someone, especially someone that is in high school to not rule the military out. Do it for three years and go and experience new things and new places. On top of that, you can do school while you serve,” he said.
Stephens recalled, “It was a very rewarding experience, you get to travel, see things others read about, but there will be bad days, just learn to appreciate the suck, as that’s when the real growth begins anyway.”
“I served to give back, but along the way, I found other reasons to continue serving; love of the challenge; love of teaching and training our Soldiers; love of the comradery and friendships; and love of the mission—to protect and defend,” said Ngo.