By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneFebruary 11, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- A Vietnam-era draft card "invited" Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Mellinger to be a Soldier.
And it will probably be another military document - a mandatory retirement form - that will end this Soldier's 40-year career at the end of 2011.
Thought by all accounts to be the last draftee on active continuous duty, Mellinger still wears the Soldiers' uniform with pride. No matter how close retirement looms, as the 13th command sergeant major for the Army Materiel Command, Mellinger's skills and abilities are very much involved in the day-to-day operations of a worldwide command of 70,000 military and civilian employees focused on materiel readiness for Soldiers.
"The reason I took this job is that, as a career infantryman, I was on the receiving end of Army materiel the whole time," said Mellinger, who has served in his current role since November 2007. "I took this job in hopes that I could translate my experience as an operator into a better product for the Soldier delivered sooner and faster.
"I really like the ability to bring those two ends of the spectrum (equipment development, acquisition and supply and the operational Soldier user) closer together. I look at every piece of equipment, every function, we have probably in a significantly different way than others in the command. I look at that equipment as a Soldier who used it, and because of that I have a unique window on the command and its ability to impact the Soldier."
Mellinger spends his days being another set of eyes, another pair of hands, another point of view, for his commander, Gen. Ann Dunwoody. He sits in on command briefings, pays attention to reports that are important to the commanding general, works with various functions within the command, and visits with Soldiers, civilians and contractors associated with the AMC mission.
"If it's important to the CG (commanding general), then I better know it and I better know how employees are interacting to make the things happen that she wants done," he said. "AMC is a team mostly of civilians and contractors who know their craft and who care about Soldiers. It is unique because it is only about five percent military. Whether civilian or Soldier, my job is still teaching, coaching, mentoring, providing feedback and advising."
As AMC's senior noncommissioned officer, Mellinger has a lot of history to lean on and a lot of experience to draw from in his work with enlisted Soldiers and officers as well as civilians and contractors.
"Sergeants major don't have defined responsibilities. They operate without much guidance at all," he said. "My job is the health and welfare of the organization. I provide advice to leaders at all levels. I share my observations so my commander can make fair decisions.
"When the CG and I go somewhere together, we don't walk in the same dirt. I see different things. While she is talking to leaders and other commanders, I'm looking in the deep, dark holes of the command. I'm looking in places where she often can't get to because of other command responsibilities. And then we compare notes."
Mellinger knows how to provide support to commanding generals, and much of that he learned under the stress of war. He served as the command sergeant major with two commanding generals of the Multi-National Force-Iraq -- Gen. George W. Casey Jr., and with Gen. David Petraeus -- during a three-year assignment in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, considered the most violent and dangerous stretch during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Mellinger's Army career began on April 18, 1972, when he was the last of nearly 2 million men ordered to serve in the Vietnam-era military before conscription ended in 1973. At first, Mellinger, just shy of his 19th birthday in Eugene, Ore., thought the draft notice was a joke. A year or so before, he tried to enlist in the Marines and was rejected due to some of his teenage shenanigans. He had resigned himself to a job as a drywall hanger when the draft notice came in the mail.
"They didn't care who I was when I got drafted," he said.
He thought his draft card was a ticket to Vietnam. But instead he was made a unit clerk in Germany.
"The U.S. was involved in withdrawal at the time," Mellinger said. "I put in requests to go to Vietnam. But they were all denied at the company level. They told me the Army was typically taking into Vietnam only certain specialties and Soldiers who had already served there because of the withdrawal.
"My assignment as a clerk was another interesting twist in life. I saw it as the Army adding insult to injury. Not only did they not want to send me to Vietnam, but they made me a clerk instead of an infantryman or a tanker."
But Mellinger stuck with it, determined to do the job.
"I wanted to be the best Soldier I could be. I wanted to be a good Soldier," he said.
Mellinger was a quick study. He learned the Army regulations, and soon found himself helping other Soldiers understand Army requirements.
"They would come to me to get me to help them meet their requirements for promotion or for reassignment," he recalled. "It was another one of those experiences in life that you don't realize up front is going to be valuable to you later."
Though he showed indications of future leadership potential for the Army, Mellinger was looking forward to hanging up his uniform at the end of two years of service. His company commander talked him into re-enlisting by offering him a chance to join a new Ranger unit.
"In the beginning, I didn't like the Army," he said. "There were very distinct racial divisions, a huge drug problem. There were alcohol problems and leadership problems. Units weren't even doing their PT (physical training). The military is a reflection of the society it draws from. If you look at the society of that time, those issues were also part of our country. Why should those coming into the Army be any different'"
But Mellinger was on the cusp of change in the military. As he began to prepare for his move into the 2nd Ranger Battalion in 1974 at Fort Lewis, Wash., military leadership was making moves to take the Army back, and return it to the high moral and ethical standards it should stand for. He saw the changes in his own unit.
"Our company commander cleaned up the company and got things back on track," he said. "He did what you expect a leader to do. I could see the difference the commander and the first sergeant made. That showed to me that the Army was getting better. Throughout the Army, it took probably the next 10 years to get things back on track."
Mellinger, then a sergeant, found his place in the Army as a Ranger.
"We were doing things I thought Soldiers should be doing. We were training. We had standards. There was no second best. If you didn't do it right, you had to do it again," he said. "I decided I would be in the Army so long as I could stay with the Rangers."
In 1977, he changed his military occupational specialty to infantry.
"I wanted to be in an MOS that had boots on the ground. There's only one group of troops that do that and it's the infantry," Mellinger said. "Until you have boots on the ground, you can't complete the mission."
His Ranger career included serving as a machine gun squad leader, rifle squad leader, rifle platoon sergeant, weapons platoon leader, drill sergeant and Special Forces military freefall instructor (he has more than 33 hours of accumulated freefall in more than 3,700 jumps).
He has served as commandant of the Alaska Noncommissioned Officer's Academy at Fort Richardson, Alaska, as an ROTC instruction at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and as command sergeant major at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., with the 9th Theater Support Command at Camp Zama, Japan; First U.S. Army at Fort Gillem, Ga., and Multi-National Force-Iraq.
His many medals include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, Bronze Star Medal with "V" device, Meritorious Service Medal with seven oak leaf clusters, Army Commendation Medal with six oak leaf clusters, Army Achievement Medal with three oak leaf clusters, Overseas Service Ribbon with numeral eight and Iraqi Campaign Medal with two campaign stars.
"I've not had a bad assignment since I've been in the Army. Some I didn't think I'd have fun at," he said. "But with any assignment it comes down to the people you work with who make the difference. It's not about where you are at, but about a good attitude and finding a way to make lemonade out of lemons."
During his nearly 40 years of service, Mellinger has not looked for a reason to leave the Army.
"I've turned down a lot of fairly high paying jobs over the years. I just love being a Soldier. It's not about the money. It's about the Soldiers, pure and simple," he said.
Mellinger has especially enjoyed the opportunities the Army has given him to have a positive impact on Soldiers, and their personal and professional development.
"The opportunity to guide them, to mold them, to sharpen them into better Soldiers and (as an ROTC instructor) better officers -- that's what I've enjoyed," he said. "The day-to-day interaction with Soldiers and cadets, the leadership structure and the ability to plan and lead, that's what I like. Showing them the possibilities, the things they can do that they never thought they would, and the Army skills like knot tying and building rope bridges and marksmanship, that's the fun stuff."
Even in the darkest hours while serving in Iraq, Mellinger fulfilled his mission by supporting the Soldiers, talking to them about the difference they were making and helping them keep their morale up during the "absolute height of violence" in the war.
"Morale is both a leadership and an individual responsibility," he said. "If Soldiers' morale overall is down you can trace it to four indicators: leadership, proficiency, esprit de corps and discipline. Good leaders can take bad events, and use them to bring their troops together. There is not a unit deployed that hasn't had something bad happen to them. But they don't all come back demoralized."
Knowing he can make a difference at AMC for the Soldier in the field is what drives Mellinger in the twilight of his Army career. He guides his actions with a lesson he learned from the commanding general he served under in Japan.
"After the first week, I went to him to ask him 'What are your expectations'' He said 'If I've got to tell you, I have hired the wrong guy.' He told me to take a month and check out the command, and then come back to him. When I got back, I knew what he expected," Mellinger recalled.
"He expected me to be able to observe and provide feedback to the colonels and to himself. I was not his sergeant major, I was the command's sergeant major. He expected me to understand the commander's agenda and then to get on with it."
And that's what Mellinger is still doing, bringing his brand of "get on with it" to AMC.
"We all grow and if you don't, you fall by the wayside," he said. "I've become better at what I do over the years. If I'd known everything then that I know now, I would have been an awesome squad leader and the best first sergeant on the planet. But that's life. If you started at the top, you wouldn't need all the steps in between."
And he hopes he has been as good a mentor to other Soldiers as his mentors have been to him.
"I certainly had help along the way," he said. "I've had people pushing me, looking the other way when I screwed up, encouraging me, given me pushups to do and giving me things to think about. Teaching and mentoring is what it's all about."
Mellinger is looking forward to helping the civilians and Soldiers of AMC settle into their new home at Redstone, Ala. The command's new headquarters on Martin Road are set to open in June.
"This is an awesome command, and an awesome family. And it's only going to get better as we move into a new facility," he said. "This is going to be a really great community for AMC. BRAC (the Base Realignment Commission) is giving us a new opportunity with a new headquarters and the ability to reconfigure our operations to meet the needs of the future Soldier."