Command Sgt. Maj. Hershel Turner can't count the young people to whom he has preached over the years the value of education and of seizing opportunity. He can't tell you how many times he took to his pulpit -- be it in a classroom, in an arena or in the field -- to reach out to impressionable youth.
But he can tell you he made connections. Lots of connections.

Just consider the scores of e-mails and phone calls he routinely gets from ROTC Cadets -- and even former students -- seeking advice or just an encouraging word.

"He's been a role model in what leadership is and in giving back to help other students," said 2nd Lt. Tunde Adepegba, who met Turner just after completing his sophomore year of high school and today considers him a friend and mentor. "That's been a source of inspiration."

As Turner, the longest-serving senior enlisted leader in U.S. Army Cadet Command's 26-year history, retires from the only profession he has ever known, he's unsure what the future holds. But he knows this: He wants to continue to develop young people.

Somewhere. Somehow. Someway.

After all, helping mold America's future leaders is what Turner has done best the last six and a half years. He's traveled the world -- from Germany to Puerto Rico, from Hawaii to Guam -- trying to push students to be standouts for all the right reasons.

"You have to love what you do and have passion for what you do," Turner said. "Through the love and passion for this job and being able to take care of our future leaders, it kept me motivated each and every day."

A change of responsibility ceremony is scheduled for Friday afternoon in front of Cadet Command's Fort Knox, Ky., headquarters. Turner's successor is Command Sgt. Maj. Roger Howard, who most recently was the command sergeant major for the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Turner ends his military career where it began, with ROTC. He was a 15-year-old sophomore when he joined the Junior ROTC program at Lawton High School in Lawton, Okla.

Turner was nothing like the outgoing, personable individual he is today. Back then, he hid in the shadows, sat in the back of the class, frowned at getting up in front of people and spoke little.
He also didn't do the right things, he admits.

When graduation loomed, Turner pondered life after high school. One day, his mother offered him some advice to help choose a career path: He had to be responsible. He had to be accountable for his actions. He couldn't stay in her house.

Turner went to a recruiter's office the next day and enlisted.

"My mother told me that in life, you can never do anything by yourself," he said. "I always remembered to pray, and I always keep God in my heart. Those two things are what kept me going during the whole time I was in the military. You can never do anything by yourself, so from Day One, I knew I had to be a team player."

Turner followed that approach throughout his tenure with Cadet Command, particularly when it came to young people who often are bombarded with negative influences that can easily lead them the wrong way in life.

Adepegba was so energized by Turner's affinity for students when he saw him at the Junior ROTC leadership symposium that he asked his Cadet battalion commander if he could invite Turner to speak at their military ball, which Turner did. Their e-mail exchanges blossomed into a relationship in which the two have spoken regularly over the years, sometimes just to catch up.

When Adepegba was torn between attending West Point and joining Senior ROTC after high school, he turned to Turner. The sergeant major didn't steer him one way or the other, but rather went through the pros and cons of each and had Adepegba make his own decision.

Adepegba ended up commissioning from the ROTC program at Niagara University. He recently completed an internship at the Pentagon and is now on an educational delay while he attends law school at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

"When I first met him, I was scared," he said. "As soon as you talk to him, he opens up. If the rank was covered up, you'd never know he was a sergeant major. He just wants to have a discussion and help people. Not everyone has the passion and willingness to help young people. Sgt. Maj. Turner aspires to do that."

That love for young people is what has made Turner a mainstay at numerous JROTC events. He regularly attended rifle and drill meets across the country, spending hours taking in the action and patting students on the back.

Samantha Ste.Claire and Justin Gates, who own the company that runs the all-services national drill team championships and the Army national meet, said Turner was so involved in part because he sees the sport as a tool to keep students engaged. Calling him "a kid in a candy shop" when he's around Cadets, they describe Turner's passion as infectious.

"Kids are way smarter than we give them credit for," Gates said. "They know he genuinely wants to be there and cares about them and their lives. It's always great when he's around. You see people gravitate toward him."

Turner expected to be with Cadet Command only a few years when he joined the organization in 2006. A field artilleryman, he figured he would serve three years then hopefully become the command sergeant major for Fort Sill, the Home of Field Artillery.

Good fortune -- and commanding generals with whom he forged solid relationships -- kept him in place. Maj. Gen. Jefforey Smith is the fourth commander Turner has served alongside.

"I think I understood the commanders' vision and philosophy very well," Turner said. "When new commanders came in, they asked me to stay till they finished their tour."

Turner sees his tenure as something of a blessing, something that "was meant to be." He considers the highlight of his stint being able to salute his daughter, Brittany, after she commissioned this spring from Texas Christian University.

"People always say things happen for a reason," he said.

Turner doesn't officially retire until March. Until then, he'll be preparing for life after the military, going through out-processing, retirement planning and medical screenings. He hopes to become a motivational speaker, continuing to ensure young people know there are those who care about their direction in life.

"I love to motivate, I love being a role model, I love taking care of young people," Turner said. "It was very easy for me to go from city to city and from state to state because it was in my heart. I was inspired to do it. I believe it was a calling for me to do this job."