Greetings from the Association of the United States Army (AUSA), our Army’s and our soldier’s professional organization.
With the AUSA Annual Meeting and Exposition in the rear-view mirror, the remainder of 2015 was filled with travelling to visit posts, camps and stations across the country.
Throughout the year, we celebrate a number of holidays that are very special. One of those special days is Veterans Day that is celebrated across the nation and by other nations around the world.
This year’s Veterans Day, I had the honor to visit with the Last Frontier Chapter of the Association of the United States Army in Anchorage, Alaska.
There were some folks who questioned my sanity for committing to Alaska in November.
But I will tell you the spirit, motivation and commitment of our leaders and soldiers there on the ground is nothing short of amazing, and their patriotism warmed my spirit.
Command Sgt. Maj. Gardner, the United States Army Alaska command sergeant major, sponsored my visit in coordination with the Last Frontier Chapter.
Together, the command team and the AUSA chapter make a great team in finding ways to support soldiers and their families in those areas of our nation referred to as the "Last Frontier."
The chapter president, Sgt. Maj. (Ret) Geri Wacker, has been busy along with her executive team in building the bridges of communication and support with the command and all other organizations.
My message to the audience attending the AUSA luncheon – as I recognized these committed volunteers – was one of praise and gratitude.
While Geri is a retired sergeant major with 25 years of active service, she balances her volunteer efforts while executing a civilian career and sharing life’s experiences with her husband, who is currently serving as the sergeant major of the 328th Combat Support Hospital.
Geri is the epitome of a senior noncommissioned officer who is compelled to continue her service to our nation, America’s Army and the soldiers and family members of our great team.
For her, it is the compelling spirit to continue to serve that drives her to take on the leadership challenges of being chapter president.
But Geri and her husband Forrest are not alone in this spirit of service.
I also had the opportunity to meet the husband and wife team of 1st Sgt. and Sgt. 1st Class Oraicio and Mistie Pena – another great example of volunteerism that goes beyond selfless service where this Army couple is concerned. They balance two demanding careers in uniform and raise a family at home.
But, they find the time to serve soldiers and their families through the Last Frontier Chapter’s activities.
As I spoke to the luncheon audience, I recognized these two couples who represent the epitome of an Army family and what it means to be part of something greater than one’s self.
I also had the opportunity to do some professional development forums with several groups of senior leaders during my visit.
Questions and concerns from both mid-grade and senior noncommissioned officers included proposed changes to noncommissioned officer education, in particular the start of the Master Leader Course.
In one group we had a great discussion about benefits for soldiers leaving the Army after their obligation of service but prior to qualifying for retirement benefits.
Specifically, we discussed the Post 9/11 Montgomery G.I. Bill and the benefits provided by the Veterans Administration (VA).
As I addressed the group I asked them what they knew about the VA and what it provided for veterans with an honorable discharge.
As I expected, their knowledge was minimal. I also had little background knowledge of the VA while I was in uniform.
We discussed the three categories of service provided by the VA through health care, burial and other benefits.
As I told those in attendance, it is important for all of us as senior leaders to know of these programs and keep our soldiers educated and informed.
This type of knowledge is especially beneficial when talking to potential recruits about the benefits of serving in the Army, or in any branch of our armed forces, especially when talking to soldiers who are eligible for reenlistment.
I shared with the group my conversation with a congressman and his staff about benefits for soldiers leaving the Army and returning back to the civilian sector.
As the congressman’s staff read their interpretation of the findings and recommendations of the Military Compensation and Retirement Reform Commission, the need for change was based on young service members leaving the military after four, six, 10 years of service with nothing.
The nothing they were referring to was the government’s matching contributions of the soldiers’ savings in the Thrift Savings Program (TSP).
To be fair, you must lay all the cards on the table and recognize all the benefits of an honorable discharge.
I asked the rhetorical question to the group of senior noncommissioned officers in the audience: "How many of your soldiers save money each month through TSP, and how many saved a reenlistment bonus or their tax-free deployment pay from their last trip overseas?"
My point was we all need to do a better job keeping our soldiers educated and informed about the programs that impact them and their families.
I also had the opportunity to join our AUSA president, Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, on a trip to Florida to spend time with the Association of the United States Army’s Sunshine Chapter in Orlando and the First Militia Chapter in St. Augustine.
Both of these Florida chapters are doing extremely well in their contributions and service to soldiers and their families.
One of the key aspects that impressed the boss and me very much was the inclusion of young leaders in the executive committees of the chapter.
Young officers and noncommissioned officers who have voluntarily taken on key executive roles like membership and corporate sponsorship.
I was very impressed with the innovativeness and freshness of their ideas for growing their chapters and seeking out opportunities for chapter members to serve in another capacity.
I was equally impressed with the "older" generation’s acceptance and encouragement of this new group of community leaders.
In all cases, it was refreshing to see the next generation picking up the torch of a volunteer and continuing the legacy for their future generations of soldiers and leaders who will follow in their footsteps.
Tight budgets, a demanding calendar and the uncertainty of a complex world need the generous and giving hearts of our volunteers.
This year April 10-16 is National Volunteer Week!!!
Have you volunteered lately?
Find a local AUSA chapter and pitch in or at a minimum, start the New Year by thanking our volunteers – telling them we appreciate all they do for our soldiers and their families.
Volunteers deserve a handshake and a hug; share the fellowship.
Now more than ever America’s Army needs AUSA and AUSA needs your membership support.
Membership is the volume knob to ensure your voice is amplified many times over and heard throughout the halls of Congress, from sea to shining sea across this country, and throughout every small town and community in-between.
Keep America’s Army Strong!
Take A Stand!
Still Serving, Still Saluting!
Sergeant Major of the Army
Kenneth O. Preston, USA, Ret.,
Director, Noncommissioned Officer
and Soldier Programs