Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. – Almost 30 years before he became senior enlisted leader at the prestigious U.S. Army Infantry School here, years before he became a drill sergeant or led troops in combat, Command Sgt. Maj. Robert K. "Rob" Fortenberry, then in his teens, went to see a Marine recruiter.
At 18 and still a senior at Lassiter High School in Marietta, Georgia, he was wiry and athletic, on his school's track team, an avid rock climber, and was enrolled in Navy JROTC.
And as he neared graduation he was eager to leave behind the strains of a broken home and to set out on his own.
So on a cool, clear December afternoon in 1990, after the Marines talked to him about maybe joining, and about their elite Force Recon, he started back to his car. The walk took him past a row of recruiting offices of other services.
"And the Army guys were out there smoking cigarettes and just kinda jaw-jacking," said Fortenberry, who's now 49 and slated to retire this summer.
"And I walk by," he said, "and you know, they just kind of stopped me. 'Hey, whattaya doin', young man?'
"And I'm like, 'Ah, well, I'm thinkin' about the Marines,'" he said. "Do you guys have anything like Force Recon?'"
One of the recruiters motioned toward the Army recruiting office behind him and a poster in the window showing a Soldier in camouflage and combat gear, emerging, dramatically, from a swamp.
"And," said Fortenberry, "I was like, 'Well, what's that?' And he said, 'That's the Infantry.' And I'm like, 'What's that? Is that anything like Force Recon?' He goes 'Well, yeah. You're fighting the enemy,' blah, blah, blah. So he gave me a quick spiel.
"And of course it piqued my interest," said Fortenberry. "And he said 'Not only can we guarantee you the Infantry, but we'll guarantee ya' where ya wanna go.' And he said, 'How does Hawaii sound?'
"And I was just like, You just won the lottery. Like, are you kidding me? I get to be in this Infantry thing you're talking about, and you're gonna let me go and live in Hawaii? "
Fortenberry repeated what he'd just heard to make sure he'd heard the recruiter right.
"So," said Fortenberry, "I was an easy sell for the Army."
He signed up for the Infantry, and at age 19, entered One-Station Unit Training at Fort Benning.
After graduation he was indeed sent to Hawaii and became a rifleman with the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks.
It was the start of a many-faceted Infantry career. And on Feb. 22, Fortenberry is scheduled to relinquish his Infantry School responsibilities in a ceremony here.
A core principle that's guided him over those decades he sums up as: "'Deeds Not Words.' Lead by example." The phrase "Deeds Not Words" he takes from the motto of one of the units he's served with, the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, part of the 10th Mountain Division.
It's a creed he's sought to live out in every leadership position of his career.
In the course of that career he's been, besides a rifleman, a grenadier, an M249 SAW gunner, member of a 4.2-inch mortar crew, Infantry team leader, Infantry squad leader, sniper instructor, drill sergeant, platoon sergeant, first sergeant, operations sergeant, battalion operations sergeant major, battalion command sergeant major, and brigade command sergeant major, culminating in his being chosen as the Infantry School's command sergeant major, a position he's occupied since 2019.
He's deployed to war zones five times.
He had become a drill sergeant in September 2001, and in 2003 was among 50 drill sergeants the Pentagon ordered to Iraq to train the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.
The Army sent him again to Iraq, this time as platoon sergeant of a mechanized infantry platoon operating from Bradley Fighting Vehicles, in the 2005-2006 period. Then came two more Iraq deployments, one as a first sergeant, 2008-2009, then as a battalion command sergeant major, 2015-2016. His fifth deployment was to Afghanistan, 2018-2019, serving in Kandahar as the command sergeant major for Train, Advise, Assist Command-South, or TAAC-South.
He also pursued training that gave him important military qualifications that include – among others – instructor, sniper, sniper instructor, combat life saver, air assault, paratrooper, and Ranger. He also earned the Expert Infantryman Badge. And because of combat service he was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge.
His first assignment in Hawaii gave him a solid grounding in the Infantryman's trade, but after three years he left active duty, instead continuing his service through the Army National Guard and Reserve.
But he missed active duty.
"I missed the camaraderie, I missed everything that was the Army," he said.
He reenlisted in 1998.
Throughout his career, he said, he's keyed on one overarching goal: to be the kind of leader who is approachable, who sets the proper example, does it in a way that will inspire others to aspire to the best, and who – above all – holds that "Regardless of your rank, regardless of your position, it is critical to always share in the physical and mental hardship of the Soldiers you lead."
And he's found continual opportunities to do that, including, for example, with Soldiers hoping to earn their Expert Infantryman Badge, or EIB. The final event needed to earn the badge is to complete a 12-mile foot march.
Fortenberry earned his EIB as a young sergeant. And over the years since, when Soldiers in his units were hoping to earn theirs, he'd often look to encourage them by going the full 12 miles with them.
"You may have walked a zillion 12-mile EIB foot marches," said Fortenberry. "But there's always someone new in that formation that needs inspiration, that needs direction, that needs motivation."
Of all the jobs he's held, the most satisfying was being a drill sergeant, he said.
"Hands down – with all of the jobs I've ever done in the Army – that was the most personally rewarding," he said.
"The opportunity to shape and mold trainees and watch them succeed and help them to develop into a Soldier, you don't get that opportunity in any other position in the Army, that level of contact, that level of influence, that level of inspiration," said Fortenberry.
The advice he'd give drill sergeants is similar to that he'd offer other leaders.
"It's: Be the leader you want to be led by," he said. "Be inspirational. Hold them to the standard, but show them the way, show them how to achieve."
It was partly that same outlook that led him to attend the U.S. Army Ranger School in 2016, in his mid-forties.
Over the years he's routinely encouraged his Soldiers to go to Ranger School, and decided to follow through on a longstanding interest in seeking the coveted Ranger tab himself.
Ranger School, headquartered at Fort Benning, is known for its extreme physical and mental stresses, toughed out in rugged terrain, severe weather, and on minimal sleep.
He graduated in July 2016 at age 45, believed to be the oldest Soldier to graduate the school.
In late 2018 he learned he was one of a slate of command sergeants major the Infantry School wanted to interview for its senior enlisted leader position.
The Infantry School is the institutional home of the Army's Infantry branch. It develops the training and fighting methods for large-scale Infantry combat operations, and also oversees an array of related schools and training courses.
Hodne interviewed Fortenberry and soon thereafter chose him for the position.
Work at the Infantry School on a new marksmanship manual for the entire Army had been underway for several years, an intensive, collaborative effort that drew on the labors of a team of experts from across the MCoE, long before Fortenberry arrived, he said.
Known officially as "TC 3-20.40, Training and Qualification-Individual Weapons," the manual is known informally as the "Dot-40."
The Dot-40 sets out tougher standards and adds combat-like rigor to training and testing marksmanship, leaving Soldiers better able to meet the tactical conditions they'd likely face in combat.
"It was an overhaul that needed to be done for many, many years," Fortenberry said.
"They had the hard churn of developing it," he said of the team that produced the Dot-40. "The product was done, the product was sealed. I had the easy job of socializing it with the force and getting buy-in and moving it forward as the new qualification for the Army."
The Army published it in 2019.
But what may be one of the most far-reaching projects in which Fortenberry played an especially central role was in developing the "The First 100 Yards," which the Infantry School adopted last year.
It's a set of team-oriented activities to instill the attitudes and core warrior values of the Infantry on new recruits' first day of training. It replaced the traditional "shark attack," in which snarling drill sergeants would swarm trainees, bellowing demeaning comments, all meant to intimidate them into ready obedience.
Fortenberry and Hodne had believed it was high time to replace the shark attack, which they saw as outmoded. So Fortenberry – acting on Hodne's clear direction – worked with five other senior command sergeants major to develop The First 100 Yards.
It was deemed so successful that variants of it have been adopted at other Army training centers.
He remains "incredibly proud" of what members of the Infantry School and its training brigades did in developing The First 100 Yards, he said.
"We were able," he said, "to create something that is physically and mentally challenging, that introduces a trainee arriving to become an Infantryman, to our profession. Our culture, our Army, our Infantry. In a professional, physically demanding event that embodies the 'Spirit of the Bayonet.'"
But of all the many facets of his career, the one closest to his heart, the experience that defines him most, he said, has been the Infantry itself.
"It is truly a fraternity of brothers – and now sisters," said Fortenberry. "With the hardships and the rigors of combat, the deployments, in all of the formations that I've served, it's just the unity and the family amongst the Infantry that is tighter than any formation or any body of people that you could ever be a part of.
"The reward of being called an Infantry Soldier, wearing a blue cord and being part of this fraternity that is our Infantry, far exceeds any of the physical or mental hardships that you endure over the life of your career," he said.
"I mean I was a scrawny little kid with a broken home," he said, "and I love the way my life has turned out.
"If I had to do it again, I wouldn't change a damn thing," he said. "I would be an Infantry Soldier all over again. If at the end of my days I'm defined as an Infantry Soldier, and a good husband and father, I am content.
So," said Fortenberry, "I say thank you to that recruiter that saw me walking past, that turned me on to the Army and what the Infantry is. I tell you, there is no way I would have done anything else with my life."