Command Sgt. Maj. Stephen Helton, who recently assumed responsibility of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, joined the Army in 1990 from Los Angeles, California. Like many young people his age, he enlisted because he liked the military and wanted to do something productive that wasn't college.
"I didn't have the focus it would have taken to be successful academically in the university environment. So it would have been time wasted," said Helton.
Instead, he became a scout helicopter crew chief in the Army's famed 82nd Airborne Division, whose heritage dates back to WWI.
"Aviation was something I didn't have any experience with, so it seemed exciting,” Helton explained. "I also knew I wanted to do something a little bit different, a little bit harder. So I wanted to go airborne."
He recalled being so dedicated to his job and unit that he turned down admission to West Point's Military Academy Prep School, which he applied for after he enlisted.
"You get opportunities like that in the Army," said Helton. "But I could not have cared less. I was hung up on being a paratrooper."
"My dad was frustrated because he understood what that opportunity was."
Helton wanted to serve his way. From the beginning, he wanted to be an airborne Soldier in a special operations unit.
After checking airborne qualification off his list, he later joined the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, where he served for over a decade.
Helton quickly climbed the ranks, taking on rising levels of leadership positions. Reflecting on his experience, he said, "By the time I was 24 years old, I could say, I have a technical skill. I have some practical leadership experience. I have much better interpersonal skills, understanding of the team dynamic and how to be a good teammate."
Along the way, the prospect of getting a formal education continued to come up.
"Every good non-commissioned officer leader I had would ask me constantly, why are you not taking college classes?.”
He said the Army's promotion system even incentivized getting civilian education. "As a young NCO, you get promotion points if you do some civilian education."
Nonetheless, Helton's talent and dedication still allowed him to make it to the Army's highest grade (E-9) with no formal degree.
Things changed when he showed you to his first job as a senior enlisted advisor. Helton said his commander gave directed him to complete his Associate’s degree.
"We had good history together, and he knew it was going to have an impact on me moving forward," said Helton.
"And of course, I follow orders. I'm a good Soldier. I immediately enrolled in a program."
Helton completed his Associate’s degree and is now near completion of a Bachelor's degree.
"I'm glad he push me to that because if I hadn't done it, I think it would have been a factor in potential opportunities at higher levels. Getting a degree proves you have the discipline to sit down and learn and self-study."
Helton is now the senior enlisted advisor at a high-level Army headquarters with more than 30,000 Soldiers and Civilians under it.
As he reflected back, he said the military gave him a way to focus his energy. “It was a structured way to get a lot of really good training but also have a lot of fun and meet incredible people from all over the world," said Helton.
Even though it has been thirty years since Helton enlisted, he believes there are a still many young people today who have a perspective similar to his when he joined.
"I think so many young people who are smart and capable don't want just to do whatever society says is the thing, like go to college right away, and get a job in business. Something about that doesn't resonate with some of them," said Helton.
"When I talked to my son about setting himself up for the long term, I always use service as an example."
"Joining allowed me to just get out and get on with my life without having to rely on anybody else but me and my team and the Army."
Helton wanted to share his personal story as the U.S. Army wraps up its National Hiring Days campaign this week as the Army's 246th birthday approaches, June 14. During the campaign, the Army offers a special $2,000 incentive for individuals who enlist in one of 11 priority occupations and ship to training by the end of September. If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Army, visit goarmy.com/hiring days to see the qualifications, learn about part-time and full-time careers and associated hiring incentives, and connect with a local recruiter.