By US Army Pfc. Anthony X. Sanchez
FORT HOOD, TEXAS — US Army Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Pennington, a counterintelligence agent with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 504th Expeditionary Military Intelligence Brigade, finishes a 20-year career by giving back to the man who made him the soldier he is today: his former drill sergeant, Mr. Gary Wilder.
“My career is coming full circle and it all started with him at Fort Sill.” Pennington said. “I joined the Army right after high school. I graduated in June, but I started my basic training days on August 31, 2001. I went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma and my basic was a little bit different.”
Pennington’s basic training began like most usually do, but it didn’t stay that way for long. A few weeks into his cycle, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 occurred .
“I remember it clear as day.” Said Pennington. “We were getting off the bus to head back to the barracks and the radio was on. It said we were attacked. We didn’t know what was going on.”
Later that day a formation was held and the news was confirmed to them that New York City had been attacked.
“We began to realize that it was real. We were attacked.” said Pennington.
“I was just a kid from a small town in Ohio, and now I’m doing a patrol of the barracks with my weapon. I was 19 and this was my first time away from home.”
Pennington and his class were able to make it through to the end of basic thanks to the leadership of their drill sergeants, however, one drill sergeant in particular made a lasting impact on the Ohio Native.
“I think what made it more real to me was that my drill sergeant, Gary Wilder, had family in the area of the World Trade Center. He could’ve easily taken emergency leave to go check on his family, but he didn’t. He stuck it out to be there with us, to see us through our progression of being soldiers.” said Pennington. “Seeing that from him. That pure sacrifice for us. That made a bigger impact on me then the terrorist attacks.”
At the end of basic, Wilder let them know that he was proud to be their drill sergeant.
“That was kinda cool because it’s almost like your own dad. That made a pretty big impact on me, I was like ‘well shoot if I can make him proud’ y’know?”
Pennington would go on to serve in many locations and hold multiple military occupational specialties, ending his career as a counterintelligence agent with the 504th.
“The career that I’ve had, the places I’ve been, and the people I’ve met, it wouldn't even have been possible if it wasn’t for him.” Pennington Said.
“If I had drill sergeant Gary Wilder here right now I’d say thank you. Wouldn't even be close to being enough though. He gave so much, so I think it's just a way to give a little bit back. He might appreciate that. I hope he does.”
After a career apart, it was time for them to meet again. Pennington arranged to surprise Wilder with a visit and a gift at Lions Park in Temple, Texas.
“Oh man!” Wilder said. “I didn’t recognize you in uniform.”
“It’s been a very long time.” Pennington said.
“Yea about 20 years right?” said Wilder
Pennington presented a gift to Wilder, a picture of Pennington’s basic training class.
“It’s just a little something to say thank you, and that we appreciate you.” Pennington said.
“I appreciate you.” Wilder said. “We did what we had to do me and my buddy drill sergeant Jones and you run into Soldiers all the time. It’s like how do you remember me? It’s been 20 years. It’s so humbling though.”
After 20 years of wondering, Pennington finally got to ask his old drill sergeant why he stayed with their class instead of going home.
“Y’know honestly man, I just thought it was so important. It was such a critical time in everyone's lives. We knew it was our job, we just had to drive on.” Wilder said. “It’s an honor to have served as a drill sergeant, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
After almost 20 years, Staff Sgt. Pennington remembered the leadership of one man and how it shaped him to become a good soldier, a leader, and a better man.