The Cavalry at Home: JBLM platoon sergeant keeps soldiers ready for war, life

Staff writerSeptember 28, 2013 

Senior sergeants prowl the linoleum halls of an old Army barracks at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, lifting rugs and pulling out appliances to check the living conditions of the troops in their charge.

They give orders they expect to be obeyed, immediately.

Clean the sink before the sergeant major lays his eyes on that vomit-like splat in the laundry room.

Call maintenance for the busted light in the bedroom.

And for the last time, don’t leave food scraps on the floor.

“Get far away from me,” Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Merritt fumes to a soldier who has trouble keeping his refrigerator clean.

It’s a scene seemingly as old as the Army itself: a monthly scheduled barracks inspection for noncommissioned officers to scour the quarters of young Stryker brigade soldiers living in government housing.

It’s also one of the routines that fell by the wayside during the high-stakes years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This traditional way of enforcing good order and discipline was a low priority as soldiers cycled in and out of combat tours.

“We haven’t done this in five or six years” says Merritt, a platoon sergeant in Lewis-McChord’s 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment.

What was old is new again for the Army, now that oft-deployed units such as the cavalry squadron and its parent Stryker brigade are settling into a different rhythm at the base south of Tacoma with no expectations to go to war again soon.

The changes are falling on the shoulders of ground-level platoon leaders like Merritt.

The 30-year-old veteran of four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan is now called upon to supervise the training of 20 soldiers while trying to keep them out of trouble after hours. And he’s doing it on a tight budget.

In some ways, Merritt is finding an Army that looks and feels less like the one he knew on his combat tours and much more like the one he joined a dozen years ago, before the wars triggered a boom in military spending.

The difference is that in addition to customary training and discipline, the Army has layered in new expectations for junior leaders to monitor the welfare of soldiers recovering from a decade of war. In Army speak, that’s known as “resiliency.”

“The Army changes a lot,” Merritt said. “When the Army comes out with something new, I have to find out ways to be smart quickly.”

His senior noncommissioned officers with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division sense the shift, too. They balance the Army’s changing demands on a larger scale.

“Merritt has so much more to worry about as a platoon sergeant than I did 12 or 13 years ago,” said Command Sergeant Maj. Sean Mayo, the senior enlisted soldier in the cavalry squadron. “He has so much more because of the expanded emphasis on resiliency and readiness.”

EARLY LESSONS

Merritt grew up in West Virginia as an outdoorsy Eagle Scout who knew he wanted to join the military one day. He finished high school while living with his grandparents and enlisted before he graduated.

He began his Army career in a mechanic’s yard for the 101st Airborne Division at Kentucky’s Fort Campbell, where his pay would be docked if a part went missing. His platoon sergeant rifled through his barracks regularly.

Those lessons paid off this spring when units across Lewis-McChord carried out a campaign to find equipment they could reuse instead of buying new gear, as they had done through the recent wars.

“Not everything I thought was trash is trash,” said Sgt. Dustin Tooker, 36, a squad leader in Merritt’s platoon who has spent most of his military career with “big budget” units going to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Merritt arrived at Lewis-McChord in 2005 when the Army sent him to the 1-14’s C Troop. It’s known as Crazyhorse, and he has stayed in the troop ever since.

His family has grown since he settled at Lewis-McChord. He and his wife, Heather, have two young sons at home in Yelm.

“I’m tired,” he said, of spending so much time away from them.

Crazyhorse headquarters is a one-story structure with a couple offices for the troop commander and first sergeant, a weapons room and a series of open cages where platoon leaders keep their computers and meet with soldiers.

The home base also has tributes to the 24 C Troop soldiers who earned Purple Hearts for being wounded in combat. Merritt went to war with them in 2006-07, 2009-2010 and 2011-2012.

He had his closest brush with death on his last tour to Iraq, four years ago. Insurgents detonated a bomb less than 10 feet from him on the opposite side of a wall where he was standing. He was told he flew through the air and landed with a thud.

“I remember dust,” he said.

DEADLY DEPLOYMENT

Crazyhorse and the rest of the 3rd Brigade anticipated a long break between deployments after they came home from Iraq in the summer of 2010. They planned to get “back to basics,” practicing fighting against another developed army instead of shadowy insurgents.

Merritt moved up the ranks to become a platoon sergeant about that time.

Things changed in the summer of 2011 when the Army picked the Stryker Brigade for a deployment to Afghanistan that would begin later that year. The

1-14’s cavalrymen hit the ground in Zabul province that December.

Merritt retained his responsibility to mind the personal lives and health of his soldiers. At one point, he counseled five of the 29 soldiers in his combat-expanded platoon about divorces.

He and others describe that Afghanistan tour as a rewarding one. They were a tight-knit group that moved constantly across an entire province fighting insurgents and coaching Afghan army units.

The tour ended tragically, however, with the deaths of four soldiers attached to Crazyhorse Troop. They were killed in September 2012 by turncoats in their allied Afghan police force.

The four men are rarely far from the thoughts of the soldiers who knew them. Their portraits hang in the Lewis-McChord troop headquarters.

Merritt said his thoughts often travel to the combat outpost in southern Afghanistan where they lost their lives.

“It’s kind of rough,” he said.

ORDERING LIVES

The months just after a homecoming can be especially busy for officers and noncommissioned leaders. They juggle reconnecting with their own families while keeping an eye on vulnerable soldiers reintegrating into life in the states.

“We’re responsible for them at work, and we’re even more responsible after work,” Merritt said.

Last winter and spring, emails from commanders would pour into his inbox overnight. He’d get to work by 5 a.m. to clear them out only to find a new batch waiting when he finished his platoon’s daily physical training.

He uses a whiteboard hanging outside his cage to list his soldiers’ schedules. In a given week, one soldier leaving the Army would have a job interview; another would head to Madigan Army Medical Center for a checkup; others went to special training events or mental health appointments.

Such tools let Merritt convey to his soldiers that it’s OK to seek help after coming home.

Likewise, he tells them when he visits his own “head doc” to cope with the effects of the traumatic brain injury he suffered from his near-miss with the Iraqi bomb.

“That just lets the platoon know there’s no stigma,” he said.

Merritt’s job today mostly centers on training and mentoring his platoon so it’s ready to “go to war and win.”

“I’m almost responsible for knowing everything about a soldier,” he said.

Some approaches have been available to platoon sergeants for decades: barracks inspections, unannounced visits to private homes off post, and regular counseling sessions at which he talks to soldiers about their performance.

He has a couple new methods, too. The Army gave him what he jokingly calls a “spreadsheet of death.” It contains dozens of fields of information about soldiers, from their deployment histories and marital status, to whether they own motorcycles and what kind of Army vehicles they’re trained to drive.

Merritt fills out that picture with more personal questions, including asking soldiers what they want to do with their lives in and out of the Army. They tell him they want to earn promotions and do better on physical tests. Down the road, some want to go to college, travel and buy homes.

“The fact (Merritt) makes you write down a plan, it’s easier to achieve goals,” said Spc. Ryker Taylor, 20, who wants to get a promotion to sergeant.

MOVING ON

With no combat tours on the horizon, the 3rd Brigade is taking “getting back to basics” seriously. It’s preparing for a large exercise this winter fighting an industrial army instead of insurgents.

Merritt doesn’t expect to participate in that mock war. He’s getting ready to move this winter to an undetermined assignment at Fort Benning in Georgia. He’d like to serve in the military until he’s eligible for retirement in another eight years.

Leaving Crazyhorse will feel “bittersweet,” but he and his family are excited to move closer to relatives in West Virginia and Ohio.

“I want to take care of myself and my family for a little bit,” he said.

Until he leaves, he’s passing along his old-school platoon sergeant lessons. On a recent rainy Friday morning, that meant conducting the barracks and dress uniform inspections.

Merritt’s guys lined up in ranks. He peered at each uniform, advising soldiers to polish medals or sew frayed threads.

Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Robert Halvorson made surprise checkups. Wearing gloves, he adjusted pins on Stetson hats and kept soldiers on their toes.

All 400 cavalrymen in the squadron came together for a talk from their commanders. It’s a regular event on Fridays, as senior soldiers give pre-weekend advice to their troops:

Don’t drive drunk. Walk away from fights. Don’t risk your Army career by doing drugs.

A restless atmosphere prevailed as soldiers counted down the moments till they were free.

“I’m not drinking this weekend,” Merritt told his platoon. “Call me.”

“I’m going to drunk dial you and tell you my sad stories,” a junior soldier teased him.

Merritt rolled his eyes and walked back to headquarters. A weekend with his sons was just a short drive away.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646
adam.ashton@thenewstribune.com

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