CAMP ZAMA, Japan – Throughout his career, Command Sgt. Maj. David A. Rio had mostly served in operational units that specialized in defusing dangerous threats.
Now he’s tackling a new challenge – garrison leadership.
Rio, a master explosive ordnance disposal technician who deployed three times to Afghanistan clearing enemy bombs and tons of munitions left by Soviet troops in the 1980s, recently became the senior enlisted leader of U.S. Army Garrison Japan.
“I’m definitely looking forward to the challenge that this position holds,” Rio said in an interview last week. “I think the ability to learn and understand how a garrison works is really important going forward in my career.”
While different, his current role, which he has held since early December, and his past assignments in the EOD and weapons of mass destruction career fields still share a common theme.
Ensuring others are safe and taken care of, one of the garrison’s top priorities, remains essential for Rio, who also strives to improve the organization to which he belongs.
“What really motivates me is the ability to make a difference, whether that be for an individual Soldier or, in my current role, the garrison community,” he said. “That is what I find rewarding, is that ability to help someone.”
Rio, 44, grew up in Oolitic, a small town of about 1,000 residents nestled in southern Indiana’s Lawrence County.
The county is known as the “limestone capital of the world,” and giant rocks from its quarries helped build the Empire State and Pentagon buildings, among other famous structures. Rio briefly recalled the popular pastime of swimming in the water-filled quarries to cool off in the summer heat.
After high school, Rio moved up the road to Bloomington to attend Indiana University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
While deciding on his future, Rio spoke to a few of his father’s friends and listened to their experiences of serving as Navy EOD technicians. The military appeared to be a good option for Rio, so he went down to the recruiter’s office.
Once he got there, an Army EOD team, which he didn’t know was also a job for Soldiers, just happened to be doing a demonstration. It was fate.
“I linked them together,” he said, “and I thought, ‘This sounds awesome. That’s what I want to do in the Army.’”
Rio enlisted in May 2001, months before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and soon found himself in combat zones helping protect fellow troops.
In Afghanistan, he helped remove and detonate abandoned Soviet-era artillery, rockets, mortars and other munitions in order to prevent enemy forces from using them. He also drove around in convoys to rid any explosives found along the way.
He described much of the job as “mundane” with lots of waiting and not as intense as seen in the film, “The Hurt Locker,” which portrays the life of a deployed Army bomb disposal unit.
“Our job as EOD technicians is to make a place safer,” he said. “And that is something that I will look back on and really cherish, you know, when all is said and done, I can say that, ‘Hey, I helped out just a little bit.’”
Rio, who often smiles and has a humble demeanor, then became a senior noncommissioned officer, focusing more of his attention on building up younger Soldiers. He held various leadership roles serving as a mentor and guiding multiple large events, including Best Warrior competitions.
His last position was as the senior enlisted leader of the 303rd EOD Battalion at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
A highlight from his time there was being able to support an Indian-born Soldier who needed to attend his wedding in his home country. During that time, COVID-19 restrictions prevented the Soldier from traveling, which resulted in a flurry of activity as Rio had to work with the higher command to complete the necessary paperwork.
“At the end of the day, he got to go back to India and get married, so that was a great victory,” Rio said.
The sergeant major credits much of his leadership style to his first company commander. Rio said he could bring any issue or question to the officer and he would not hesitate to help out.
“Whether he did some research or reached out [to someone], he always came back to you with an answer or solution,” Rio said. “So that stuck with me as the kind of leader that I wanted to be.”
Orders to Japan
Before arriving to Japan, Rio had the chance to visit his brother, who had been living in the country at the time, and found that he really enjoyed it here.
“I just love the country, love the culture and I thought it would be great for my family to experience it,” he said.
Rio and his family were surprised to get the opportunity to live in Japan. He placed the country as a preference for his next assignment, but he didn’t think it would happen.
“When we first found out that we were coming to Japan, I think the first real overwhelming feeling was shock,” he said, “because it wasn’t something that we had thought was in the realm of the possible.”
Rio, his wife, Joanna, and their two children, Owen, 13, and Evelyn, 4, arrived to Japan about two months ago and have been able to explore Hakone, Tokyo and the surrounding area outside Camp Zama.
“The family right now is very excited and I think we will continue to be excited,” he said, adding they all plan to discover more of the country and its culture soon. “It’s something that we’ll be able to look back on years from now.”
During Rio’s assumption-of-responsibility ceremony, Col. Christopher L. Tomlinson, commander of USAG Japan, described him as a “dynamic, hard-charging and personable leader.” He also assured attendees that Rio would be an outstanding leader and partner for the garrison and its community.
Since becoming the senior enlisted leader, Rio has been busy with meetings, events and community engagements with Japan Ground Self-Defense Force members and organizations outside the gates.
“So far, the biggest takeaway I’ve had is just how big of a connection that the garrison has with the rest of the installation and the partners outside the installation,” he said.
Rio said he also has been impressed with the garrison’s large civilian workforce, mainly comprised of local-national employees, whereas his former assignments mostly oversaw service members.
Through the garrison’s efforts, Rio hopes everyone here will feel as if they are part of a community.
Rio plans to be active in the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program to help them form connections and enjoy things in a larger group. He also encouraged others, especially those away from America for the first time, to be involved, as living overseas can sometimes be isolating.
The sergeant major added that he was proud to be on the team here and looked forward to working with everyone to accomplish the garrison’s goals.
“As a garrison, our mission is to provide services and support to the Soldiers, family members and civilians of our installations,” he said. “It’s our job to ensure the resilience, quality of life and safety of our community, so that in and of itself is a very fulfilling endeavor.”