Top military enlisted man

SUN JOURNAL

Roots: Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston, who grew up in Western Maryland, decided in 1975 that he would rather be a soldier than an architect.

February 15, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Kenneth Preston left his small Western Maryland hometown in the spring of 1975, ditching his hopes of becoming an architect to join the Army and train to fight the Soviets.

Nearly three decades later, Preston has risen to become the top enlisted man in the service - sergeant major of the Army. And he has become an architect of sorts, helping senior leaders design a fighting force to battle a more shadowy and adaptable enemy.

"What we've learned is that the battlefield changed," says Preston, who takes his position at the Pentagon after serving for the past year in Iraq with the Army's V Corps. "It's not like the Cold War."

He saw firsthand how the teeming cities of Iraq can hide enemy gunmen while a dead animal or trash on a desolate road can shield a bomb, the ever-present IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) that are killing his comrades every week. The Army, he says, now faces a "360-degree battlefield," meaning the enemy is everywhere, and America's fighting men and women must quickly adapt.

The sergeant major of the Army is the top enlisted adviser to the Army's senior officer, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the chief of staff, advising him on everything from training, food and uniforms to health care and housing.

Preston, who turns 47 this month, hopes to instill a "warrior ethos" in all soldiers. Senior officers fear that over the years some support troops - those less likely to be on the front lines - have lost their fighting edge.

That view was reinforced last spring when members of the Army's 507 Maintenance Company - including the subsequently famous Jessica Lynch - were ambushed by fedayeen fighters and captured. Most of the company's soldiers were unable to shoot back after their weapons jammed because they had not been properly maintained.

"We're all soldiers first," insists Preston, who says all troops will soon be required to qualify twice annually with their weapons - rather than once - and take part each year in a live-fire convoy exercise to prepare them for one of the perils soldiers face in Iraq.

Preston rode into Iraq with Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, the commanding general of V Corps, behind the lead brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, one of the units that spearheaded the attack. He recalls later instructing soldiers in Iraq to be aware of their surroundings, watch for suspicious patches or piles in the road that could hide bombs. "Don't be a truck driver," Preston told them, "be a NASCAR driver and maneuver."

Military background

His military pedigree covers all the services: He was born at the Naval Academy hospital, the son of an Army soldier and an Air Force mother. Now one of his three children wears the same uniform. Michael, 22, an Army reservist, is in Baghdad with the Cumberland-based 372nd Military Police Company.

Preston's calm and stoic demeanor reflects his hardscrabble rural roots in Allegany County, where his father, a tinsmith and draftsman by trade, also ran a farm. He points to a small scar under his chin, the lasting mark of a 5-year-old who fell against a heavy bucket as he headed off to feed the pigs.

Stocky, with close-cropped brown hair and dressed in Army fatigues, the laid-back Preston seems out of place in his spare office on the Pentagon's high-powered "E" Ring, a corridor that bustles with civilian leaders and the top brass, their attentive aides in tow.

The oldest of four children, Preston played high school soccer in Mount Savage and ended up marrying his classmate, Karen, whom he had known since first grade. He could have farmed part-time and gone to college, Preston says, but he settled on the Army and its promise of education money.

"I was looking at getting out on my own and being independent," says Preston, who has gone on to earn an automotive mechanics degree and some college credits through the service.

While he never planned on making the Army a career, he rose quickly in the ranks and became the top tank gunner in his division. And while he was approached at one time by an Army colonel about applying to officer candidate school, he politely declined. "I really enjoyed what I was doing," he says, "and I was getting good at it."

There were 16 nominees for the top enlisted job, which carries an annual base pay of $73,080. Schoomaker had his staff whittle them down to five and then spent seven hours interviewing the finalists.

"That was the toughest competition," Schoomaker said in a brief interview in a Pentagon hallway. The top general, himself a taciturn and unflappable soldier, said he was looking for someone who would "complement me in personality" and also be an effective leader.

Preston fit the bill, Schoomaker said, and the sergeant major's experience over the past year was key. "Iraq was important," he said.

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