By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (May 01, 2010) -- Every Soldier's got a story about why they joined the Army. It could be any number of things: money, education opportunities, patriotism, travel, family tradition or even boredom.
Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey J. Mellinger, the command sergeant major for Army Materiel Command at Fort Belvoir, Va., is now in his 38th year of continuous service to the Army. He joined for a reason few other Soldiers today can claim: he was drafted.
Mellinger in basic training in 1972, and Mellinger today. Photos courtesy of Jeffrey J. Mellinger.
In fact, Mellinger claims to be the last draftee on continuous active duty. "I've never left active duty since I got drafted," he said. Though others may have been drafted and have since had a break in service, Mellinger himself never left. "It is my contention that I am the only draftee still on continuous active duty."
He likely didn't think he'd be staying so long back when he started out.
In the early 1970s, Mellinger was a teenager in Eugene, Ore. At 19, he had a wife and a job hanging drywall. And after he paid the bills, he spent money on the same things other kids his age spent their money on: fast cars and music.
Mellinger wanted more though. He wanted, initially (and perhaps even a little bit to this day), to be a Marine. His dad had been a Marine. And long before his draft notice arrived, he'd actually attempted to enlist for some of the standard reasons: money, opportunity and family history.
As it turned out though, Mellinger wanted the Marines more than they wanted him -- which was not at all. They were a little too selective at the time, he conceded.
"I was a kid who got into some mischief, and when I tried to join they were very selective," he said. "I wasn't a perfect child, I won't lie about that."
Having no interest in joining the other services, he went back to work hanging drywall.
At a time when mills were shutting down, and unemployment was shooting up, Mellinger had what he thought was a good deal. He was getting paid and supporting his wife, and it was solid work.
But his stint as a drywall hanger was short-lived. The United States was still fighting a war in Vietnam, and despite the fact Mellinger had previously volunteered his services, the Pentagon wanted him on its own terms. In March 1972, Mellinger got notice the government would have him after all.
"A year later, I got a letter from the president, saying 'Greetings from the president of the United States. Your friends and neighbors have selected you to represent them in the armed forces of the United States,'" said Mellinger, ad-libbing the words from his draft letter.
Mellinger tried a logical appeal to the draft board, pointing out that the service hadn't wanted him when he volunteered. He also tried to explain how he had a really good job and didn't need the military any longer. His reasoning fell on unsympathetic ears.
"I told them guys I have a job now, I don't need you. They said, 'That's nice, now you have 27 days to report,'" he said.
By April, Mellinger was prepared to ship out for the military, though he hadn't yet learned in which branch he'd serve. It was at the Portland, Ore., processing station he'd learn what uniform he'd wear, and see one last chance to join the Marines slip away.
After an initial screening to make sure "nothing was falling off," came a seemingly random process where recruits were directed to one door or another, behind which were representatives from the different services. One recruit, in front of Mellinger, had been directed to process into the Marine Corps.
"He was hollering that he didn't want to be in the Marines, or go to Vietnam and die," Mellinger said. "He was making quite a show of it."
And Mellinger, directly behind him, was directed to process into the Army. His appeal to swap with the young man in front of him also fell on deaf ears -- the processing station, he said, was all about efficiency.
"The sergeant standing there...told me basically shut up, get in there, and that was the end of it," Mellinger said. "And here I am."
With that, he shipped out to Fort Ord, Calif., to be converted from civilian to Soldier, and begin a two -- year term of service in the Army.
"I didn't know anything about the Army -- other than (what) any other kid (did), you know? You heard stories when you're growing up and you knew what you thought you knew," he said. "But nobody that has not been in the service really understands what happens in the service."
Mellinger said he learned what all the other Soldiers learned: some discipline, how to make a bed, how to shine boots and how to clean the barracks, for instance.
He also learned that, contrary to what anybody else might have been lead to believe, he, as a draftee, didn't feel he was any less a Soldier than those who had volunteered for service.
"When I was in basic training, the notion was that all draftees wanted to do was get out as quick as they could, that they were the troublemakers and so forth," Mellinger said. "I remember the draftees that I went to basic training with did everything they could to not get in trouble and to not draw anybody's attention. All they wanted to do was serve and go home. There is nothing wrong with that."
Still, the Army made a distinction between volunteers and draftees, Mellinger said. Soldiers who were drafted were "US" Soldiers. Those who had enlisted were "RA" Soldiers, for "regular Army."
"When you hit the chin-up bars before you could go eat, you had to count off 'one US, drill sergeant!' I don't understand the method to that madness," he said. "It always seemed to me that the draftees, as soon as they announced that they were a draftee, ended up going to the end of the chow line."
Also at the chin-up bar was an opportunity, Mellinger said. Eventually, recruiters from the Army Rangers and Army Airborne showed up, looking for recruits -- of either the US or RA variety.
"They stood at the chin-up bars and eyeballed everybody, and pulled people off to the side, based on, I guess, how many chin - ups they did," he said.
The Airborne recruiters were speaking Mellinger's language when they offered an additional $55 a month on top of his $288 monthly Army salary. As a drywall hanger, he'd been making as much as $1,200 a month. Going into the Army meant a significant pay cut for him -- so much so his wife had gone back to live with her parents.
"How do you support yourself and a family on $288 a month in 1972?" he asked. "You can't live on that kind of money."
Being Army Airborne meant both opportunity and money for Mellinger, though he admits, even with the money, had it not been for a few of his fellow recruits who also showed an interest in Airborne training, he might not have gone himself.
"Me and eight other guys signed up to go Airborne," he said, "But come the day to ship out to Fort Benning, I asked, 'You guys are going with, right?' They said 'No. Naw, man. We changed our minds.' If I had known that earlier, I probably never would have gone either, 'cause I was ambushed and didn't have a chance (to back out)."
Following Airborne training at Fort Benning, Mellinger took his first Army assignment as a unit clerk in Germany. There, he first experienced an Army that stands in sharp contrast to today's professional service.
"Like much of the rest of the Army, we had huge drug problems and racial problems," he said. "That's a mild understatement -- we had leadership problems."
Mellinger said he knows other Soldiers, Soldiers older than him, who might disagree with his assessment of the situation then.
"But from where I sat, as a private through sergeant in my first two years, we had leadership problems, we had drug problems and we had racial problems," he said. Some blamed Vietnam. But Mellinger said that not all who had those problems had gone to that war.
Instead, Mellinger said, the Army was a reflection of society, which had the same problems prevalent in the Army and the other services.
"The Soldiers coming in, the Sailors, Airmen and Marines, reflected society," Mellinger said. "And society in the late '60s and early '70s had drug and racial problems."
It was leadership that would clean those problems up. Leadership, Mellinger said, that is responsible for things like morale, proficiency, esprit de corps and discipline.
"I got a new first sergeant, actually a sergeant first class," Mellinger said. "And a new company commander that had been a company commander before."
The new leadership had been "chartered by the commander of the forces in Europe to go in and get that unit cleaned up," Mellinger said.
"Over the course of my time in that unit, I saw that company commander do the hard right thing over and over again," Mellinger said.
In 1974, as Mellinger approached his separation date, that same commander, one he said he still communicates with to this day, was instrumental in encouraging him to continue his service. It was then, after the conflict in Vietnam had ended, that then Gen. Creighton Abrams created the 1st Ranger Battalion.
"The company commander, he told me about it," Mellinger said. "He said, 'You need to re-enlist.' He and the first sergeant convinced me that the Army wasn't all bad -- that there (were) good places out there and good leaders and, 'If you go to this Ranger unit, you'll like it.'"
Mellinger relented, deciding to stay in the Army and join the 1st Ranger Battalion. But by the time the paperwork was completed, the new battalion was full. Mellinger declined a subsequent invitation to join the 82nd Airborne Division.
"In those days, 82nd had a pretty awful nickname. They were called 'The Jumping Junkies,'" Mellinger said. "They did not have a good reputation in those days."
A phone call from a noncommissioned officer in Washington, D.C., got his attention though.
"I thought, that's a big deal -- it's like getting a letter from the president saying, 'We want you in the Army,'" he said. "He said, 'We got a second Ranger battalion forming at Fort Lewis. I'm going to send you there.' And of course, I was a sergeant and I said, 'Well, if you can't send me to the first one, I don't want to be in the second one.' I was a little hard-headed, but I ended up going to the 2nd Ranger Battalion."
Mellinger spent five years at the 2nd Ranger Battalion, 75th Infantry, out of Fort Lewis, Wash. He served as a unit clerk, battalion personnel staff NCO, machine gun squad leader, rifle squad leader, rifle platoon sergeant and weapons platoon leader.
His re-enlistment to join the Rangers marked the beginning of Mellinger's voluntary enlistment in the Army. He was no longer a draftee -- at least not technically. And that wasn't the only change, he said.
As he left Germany, Mellinger said, he saw the beginnings of change in the Army -- change that re-emphasized leadership and discipline. A new culture was developing, one that put more responsibility on the shoulders of the NCO, and equipped the NCO to handle that responsibility.
"The Army, like the other services, recognized they had to do something to get back on the right track," Mellinger said. "We started doing equal opportunity training. We started alcohol awareness classes and drug awareness classes. Discipline and standards started getting reinforced. It really took leaders (who) were determined that they weren't going to take it anymore."
He said the Army wanted control of the barracks and formations again, so leadership started putting rigor and discipline back into the Army.
"There was a lot of focus on NCO education, on officer education, and how to do the right thing," he said. "It wasn't easy and it wasn't overnight. It took a number of years. It was probably into the early '80s -- a good 10 years after the end of Vietnam -- before you really started seeing a lot of competence and excellence in what units and Soldiers were doing."
Units like the 82nd Airborne Division, the 101st Airborne Division, the XVIII Airborne Corps and the Rangers, were all key in seeding change across the force, Mellinger said. They were elite units that forced Soldiers to compete for slots.
"Those units had a different kind of opportunity, because they had people that really wanted to be there," he said. "They were able to tighten up discipline and standards much quicker than the rest of the Army, certainly."
Mellinger was part of the Rangers and saw firsthand the kind of excellence early on that he said would eventually infect the greater Army.
"I had a really prideful time in my life where I was in that Ranger battalion when it formed, and I got to see it grow and stand up and help change the world around it," he said. "I reflect back to 30 years ago, when we had lots of goofy mustaches, and hair over the ears and everything else. And over time, what started out being a point of ridicule -- the Ranger haircut -- became the standard for the Army."
And the NCOs there, he said, foreshadowed the NCOs of today's Army.
"The NCOs I saw were experts at their craft," he said. "They knew how to shoot, move, communicate, secure, sustain -- if you wanted to know how to do a raid or an ambush, you wanted to know how to move cross country from point-A to point-B and hit a target -- these were the guys that knew how to do it."
As a younger Soldier, Mellinger said, he had experienced NCOs who were victims of their own weaknesses: a platoon sergeant who he said was "a drunk;" a squad leader who was also a drunk; even the mess sergeant was a drunk.
"There was a lot of drinking," he said. To be fair, he also said, early on there was competence too. "There were some good and caring NCOs. It was a mixed-bag in the early 1970s."
But the Rangers -- that's where "I found a whole different kind of NCO," he said. Those NCOs were mostly combat veterans, as were the officers.
"They made an effort to only bring combat veterans in that understood the ramifications of poorly trained Soldiers, and the benefits of trained Soldiers," Mellinger said. "It was a night-and-day change from when I was in Germany (to when) I was in 2nd Ranger Battalion."
Today's NCOs, Mellinger said, bear greater responsibility than those who came before them.
"The NCOs we have now have far more responsibility -- much tougher challenges than anything we've had in the past," he said. "When you look at the kinds of things we put on those sergeants -- a platoon leader today is doing stuff that a major, maybe 10 years ago, might have been given. We have got to give them that trust and responsibility. We can't get the job done without it."
For his part of the equation, Mellinger said he's always tried to be the best NCO he knew how to be, and to be a champion for enforcing standards, maintaining discipline and emphasizing the importance of providing Soldiers with ongoing, meaningful training.
"If you are disciplined and aggressive in training, you will be that way in combat," he said. "I am serious about what I do, and I take training, discipline and standards very seriously. I have, for years, seen the results of indiscipline. I came from that Army."
And he said as a learned NCO, he tries to make sure that young Soldiers know everything they need to know to succeed in the Army, so they can later teach their own successes to future Soldiers.
"I believe in taking care of your Soldiers and that means helping them set the conditions to be successful, and making sure they are doing the right things at the right time to grow and learn professionally," he said. "Having been a sergeant a long time, a sergeant major a long time, I know far better than you what you need to do to be successful."
Sometimes, he said, that means jobs that don't seem the greatest at the onset: recruiter duty or drill sergeant, for instance. Mellinger himself had been a drill sergeant, though initially reluctantly.
"You'll take that hard job -- you have to get out of that comfort zone, because there's things you need to do to grow," he said. "Otherwise you stagnate and become part of the problem and not the solution, part of the past, not the future."
Mellinger's been in the Army for almost four decades now -- technically, enough time for another Soldier to have been born, graduated from high school, enlisted, served and retired. But he soldiers on. His career has taken him throughout the U.S., and to Japan, Germany and Iraq. In Iraq, he served for 33 months as the command sergeant major for Multi-National Force-Iraq. Being airborne-qualified, he has more than 33 hours of accumulated freefall time in more than 3,700 jumps, and is a Federal Aviation Administration master parachute rigger.
When he thinks about the guys he knew before he was drafted, he said he's unlikely to remember them. And he expects they'd have long forgotten about him.
What he does remember though, are the Soldiers. "Those are the people I think about," he said.
Moving through his office at Fort Belvoir, Va., Mellinger will show you mementos of his career as a Soldier. There are buckets of coins, an assortment of patches, and pieces of military hardware, mounted to boards burned with unit insignias. There are countless unit photos, and even a mobile-like a wind chime, hanging above the small conference table in his office. It's made of pieces of surgical metal that'd been in his leg from a service-related injury.
But it's memories of Soldiers he's met and served with that he'll spend the most time talking with you about. It's the mementos that represent people other than himself -- Soldiers he's worked with and has known -- that have him recounting anecdotes in a hushed voice; stories about people he thinks are heroes.
"'Kentucky National Guard Soldiers receive Distinguished Service Cross,'" he says, reading a news clip he's kept in one of the many binders in his office. "That's huge. I've seen the video and after-action report from that battle. I've stood and talked with those Soldiers. I was there the day we presented the Silver Star to Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester and Sergeant 1st Class Timothy Nein and the rest of that squad, and listened to their stories."
Mellinger said he'll stay in the Army as long as the Army will have him, so he's not really sure when he'll retire.
"I have been unbelievably privileged to serve this nation for as long as I have," he said. "I know there will be a point when they say, 'That's it, times up. Grab your duffle bag and get on home.' Until that happens, I am only thinking about one thing: Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines."
Thinking back over his career, Mellinger recalled the commander he'd had in Germany -- the one who'd been challenged to get the unit into shape.
"I hope somewhere that first company commander I had is proud of me," he said. "I hope I've never done anything to let him down, or that first sergeant. Just as I look back on some of the Soldiers I've had who have done well -- it makes you proud that you were able to show them something to help them be successful. That's really a huge part of leadership. It is about the Soldiers, it's always about the Soldiers."