JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq - More than 100 Soldiers sat in chairs, nervously fidgeting with their uniforms, when the cry of "at ease" rang out from the back of the room Dec. 18.
The Soldiers snapped to the position of parade rest, hands clasped tightly behind their backs, as Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston entered the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation center east during a visit to Joint Base Balad, Iraq, Dec. 18 and Dec. 19, as part of a United Services Organization tour of Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"For the last eight years, the office of the sergeant major of the Army has been sponsoring a USO show coming over here to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan for the Christmas holidays," said Preston, who has been the Army's senior noncommissioned officer for five years. "I'm very honored, very humbled to have the opportunity to sponsor this USO trip."
The visit was twofold, providing troops with entertainment and appreciation in the spirit of the holiday season and giving the Army's senior NCO an opportunity to evaluate the conditions of Soldiers on the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"With this one here in particular, bringing the entertainers over ... it's an opportunity for them to say thanks to all of our service members over here that are serving, to say thanks for their service, their sacrifices that they and their families are making back home," said Preston, a native of Mount Savage, Md. "For me, as an individual, as the Sergeant Major of the Army, it's an opportunity for me to come over and really to talk to Soldiers, talk to leaders and really see how we, as an Army, are doing, not only with the mission, but how we've done at manning, equipping, training and preparing our organizations for the missions that they're accomplishing over here every day."

Preston held two open-forum meetings during his visit to Joint Base Balad. The first was a round-table dinner with senior NCOs from units throughout JBB, during which he talked in depth about the enlisted force structure, senior NCO career management and growing the military in the future. He boiled his leadership philosophy down to one point.

"We have to teach our Soldiers to fix things at the NCO level," he said. "Put somebody in charge of it and hold them accountable."
Preston's other forum focused on junior Soldiers at JBB, during which he talked about recruiting and retention, suicide prevention, post traumatic stress disorder and deployments. Preston offered advice to the future leaders of the military sitting before him.
"The most important thing you're going to gain from your time in the military is not the technical skills," said Preston, who enlisted in 1975 as a cavalry scout and has served in every enlisted leadership position in the Army. "Leadership is the one trait most sought after by employers, so each of you should strive to be a sergeant."

During his visit, Preston also met with Command Chief Master Sgt. Paul Burgess, the senior NCO with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, and Command Sgt. Maj. Mark D. Joseph, the senior NCO with the 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary).
Preston said he was proud of the service members at Balad, in particular the Soldiers of Fort Hood's 13th ESC.

"As we now begin to transition this operation to the next stage, the 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) is the right organization," he said. "They've got the right experience, the right Soldiers, the right leaders in place to make that mission a success."