By Rob McIlvaineFebruary 22, 2011
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Feb. 22, 2011) -- As Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston prepares to step down March 1 as the Army chief of staff's personal adviser on all enlisted-related matters, he attended a final bloggers roundtable Feb. 17, to reflect on the Army's changes during his tenure.
"As the SMA, I've spent the last seven years working for both Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker (35th Army chief of staff) and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., and I've spent the majority of my time on the road traveling to talk to Soldiers or families or Army civilians about those challenges they're facing out there in their units and organizations all around the world," Preston said.
He said Americans should be very proud of what the Army has done as an institution to take care of Soldiers and families.
"If you go back to 2004, the focus was on transformation. The Army on 10 September 2001 was not the Army we needed on 11 September and the months and years that would follow," he said.
But he said it was the signing of the Army Family Covenant in October 2007 that significantly impacted families.
"That initial covenant we signed at Fort Knox, Kentucky, really focused the Army leadership to provide the resources that we needed to provide a quality of life commensurate with the quality of service that Soldiers and families were providing for our nation.
"This involved quality housing for families, barracks for our single Soldiers. There was a big boost to providing the child care and youth services needed to take care of our families while our warriors were deployed.
"It was all those pieces tied under the umbrella of the Army Family Covenant that has really led to the success we've had today, not only on the retention side of the house, but especially on the recruiting side of the house to recruit Soldiers and families together," Preston said.
CHANGES IN UNIFORMS, EQUIPMENT
"As I look back to 2003 and coming into 2004, the uniforms, the equipment for the individual Soldier were not what they needed to accomplish their missions. We had the battle dress uniform the green camouflage; the desert camouflage uniform was what we were wearing in many cases, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those were uniforms that were not designed to be worn under body armor," Preston said.
The Army began fielding the new outer tactical vests with the SAPI (Small Arms Protective Insert) plates to replace the old Vietnam-era flack vests.
"It was a young Pfc. (Private 1st Class) out there who said, 'hey, can we do something with these buttons on the uniforms, you know this button on my jacket up here at the top is rubbing a hole through my breastbone''"
So the Army involved Soldiers at the lowest level who were out there executing missions to help with designing a new uniform. The uniform was initially tested with the Stryker Brigade out of Fort Lewis. That Stryker Brigade subsequently deployed to Mosul, Iraq, in November 2003 and the feedback from those Soldiers led to developing the new Army Combat Uniform.
Other on-going efforts was the transition from the old M998 Humvee with canvas doors to the M1151 Up-Armored Humvee, which was followed by the Mine-Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicles, and its second generation, the MRAP All-Terrain vehicles.
IDEAL SIZE OF ARMY
In 2007, the Army was given permission to permanently add 74,200 Soldiers to its inventory, Preston said. Out of that 74,200 -- 65,000 went to the active component, 8,200 to the National Guard and 1,000 to the Army Reserve.
"That was initially a five-year plan that was laid out to grow the Army, so the training base, the number of drill sergeants, organizations out there that train the new recruits coming in, that could be sustained. What's allowed us to meet our end-strength objectives two years ahead of schedule -- we actually reached our objectives in 2009, allowed us to grow the Army and get there way ahead of schedule -- was retention," Preston said.
The Army has also added an additional 22,000, Preston said, which is a temporary end-strength to ensure Army units and organizations now deploying have the people needed to accomplish the missions.
The Army also met the presidential mandate to be at 50,000 servicemembers in Iraq, followed by the agreement between Iraq and the United States to be totally out by December, this year, he said.
"So, I think for the size of the Army and what we've been asked to do, we're exactly where we need to be. The 22,000 temporary end-strength that we have above our authorized end-strength, we're going to give that back and we'll gradually draw down that 22,000 over the next couple of years," Preston said.
FAMILY READINESS GROUPS
"My first experience with a big deployment was Desert Shield/Desert Storm. I was a first sergeant with the 11th Cavalry. We were gone from October of 1990 to September or October of 1991, and what I learned was the value of the Family Readiness Groups and the value of having spouses participating in those activities. My troop commander was single, so my wife, Karen, was the senior spouse and it was she and the spouses of the platoon leaders who formed a very tight-knit band of sisters. They reached out and pulled all the spouses of the cavalry troop together," Preston said.
Out of the 136 Soldiers assigned to Alpha Troop, about 50 percent were married, he said. They shared responsibilities, volunteering to babysit children while a spouse had a medical or a doctor's appointment.
"One of the initiatives put into Army Family Covenant was the Family Readiness Support Assistant. We learned from 2001 to 2007, if you were to talk to a senior spouse who served as a Family Readiness Group leader, they would tell you that being a FRG leader for a unit for an entire year is a long time, but on the second and third deployment is even harder.
Recognizing help was needed, Casey and Secretary of the Army Pete Geren established the Family Readiness Support Assistant. Today, he said, more than a thousand FRSAs help families stay in contact with each other.
"It's the Army's responsibility to reach out and ensure families stay connected with the FRG and the information that a commander sends from a unit that's forward deployed back to that group. I think that's the biggest contribution that we can make," Preston said.
RESERVE COMPONENT STAYING IN TOUCH
"The Guard has been the lead in establishing the Yellow Ribbon Program. This program was designed to bring families together three times prior to the unit's deployment. They come together initially when the unit is alerted for mobilization, so that's a year out.
"Then they try to bring the families together to make sure they have ID cards, they're enrolled into DEERS (Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System), they know how to get medical help, and then to establish that online connection. This is the key for many of the Guard and Reserve families because in many cases they're disbursed over a much broader footprint and they're not living together in the same community or on an installation like their active-duty counterparts," Preston said.
While the Soldiers are deployed, he said, the Yellow Ribbon Program is designed to check up on the family. Within the first 90 days of the unit being mobilized, the Families are asked to come in and meet and to ensure they have everything they need. To help maintain connections and send out newsletters, battalion-sized units also have a Family Readiness Support Assistant.
Within 90 days of the unit coming back from their deployment, the families meet once again.
"We do this for a couple of reasons: We want to re-establish contact with the families and we want to start the reintegration of the Soldier with their family by helping them understand the challenges their Soldiers will go through," Preston said.
"We're doing the same thing downrange with the Soldier so they begin to understand what emotions they'll feel as they reintegrate back with their family," he said.
"And then following the demobilization, it's the 30-, 60-, 90-day engagements for Soldiers and families to come together, just to check on them. The Yellow Ribbon Program has been the greatest contribution to the Guard and Reserve, as I look back over the last seven years. It's a good starting point and I think it will continue to grow to ensure Soldiers and families are getting everything they need, particularly on the citizen-Soldier side of serving in the Army," Preston said.
THREE SKILLS FOR SUCCESS
"A young Soldier asked me how he could become sergeant major of the Army. I told him to focus on being the best Soldier he can be. Your appearance, be on time for duty, be where you're supposed to be, listen to your noncommissioned officers and learn everything you can from your leaders.
"Strive to be a subject-matter expert in your profession. If you're the young infantry Soldier, the way you demonstrate being an expert in your profession is the Expert Infantry Badge. If you're the medic, enter the Expert Field Medical Badge competition. Earning the EFMB is a very important part of demonstrating excellence in your profession. If you're the young cavalry scout, earning your cavalry spurs through the spur competition is another way to demonstrate being an expert.
"All those things you learned will make you a great NCO. And then you teach everything you learned back to your Soldiers to make them great Soldiers. This will make you a great teacher. Taking care of your Soldiers will get you promoted and you'll have more responsibility," Preston said.
Preston said he is most proud of being part of the Army leadership, the command structure at the Pentagon, and what the Army has done to transform.
"When we started Army transformation in 2004, it really was the largest transformation of the force since World War II, and to completely dissect the Army, take it apart, restructure it and then put those units and organizations back on line for upcoming deployments was nothing short of extraordinary.
"Today, we are over 92 percent complete in the modular transformation of our Army and this is across all three components: the active, the Guard and the Reserve. They are all structured the same, they have the same number of Soldiers in a team or a squad, they have the same kinds of equipment, and they have the same kind of predictability and stability in preparing for an upcoming mission to the amount of dwell time they have between deployments," Preston said.
On the afternoon of March 1, Command Sgt. Maj. Raymond F. Chandler III will be sworn in as the 14th sergeant major of the Army