3 Min read
True Story from the SMA (The Sergeant Major of the Army)
Army Ten-Miler, race in Washington, D.C. with 20,000 runners
I want to share something I heard at the Army Ten-Miler over this past weekend in Washington, D.C.
The SMA–three letter designation for the Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston*–is not a big man, but he tells a good story and he understands people. He’s an artilleryman who’s held every position from cannon crewmember to command sergeant major. And, he’s my age, except he enlisted in 1987 when I entered West Point. He spoke at the training dinner on Saturday night at a full house at the Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel just outside the Pentagon.
The Arlington Room is a grand ballroom with seating for over a thousand and it was packed. The Army Field band of six soldiers belted out songs from the stage. The boisterous runners hit dinner stations set up on three sides of the room. The clinking of plates and chatter sounded like a hall of soldiers because it was.
This year’s race was sold-out early with 20,000 in-person runners, just over half its pre-Covid size (at 35,000 in the past). And, Grinston or the SMA, is the head of the enlisted force, all the soldiers in the Army. The event is the largest fund-raiser for the Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR)* of the U.S. Army and Sergeants Major run the show.
Grinston steps up to the podium to address the crowd. His speech is short and he closes with a story I will not forget. I will paraphrase and hope to hit the key points. Imagine the thoughtful tone, the gravel in his voice, and the backing of a man who has lived and led hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
The other day at the Pentagon, I was outside the building and a man came up to me. He said, “Thank you for your service.” Then he walked away. He stopped and came back to talk to me. He asked if that comment bothered me, because well, folks in the service may not wish to hear it.
I told him, “I’ve served 35 years in the United States Army and deployed a dozen times and that statement does not bother me. I deployed for Desert Storm and Desert Shield, Iraqi Freedom, New Dawn, Inherent Resolve, Enduring Freedom, and Kosovo.* And, no, that statement does not bother me. I am grateful to have served this nation. And, I would go back and do it all again. The 35 years and dozen deployments. Because. . .
“Because I believe in this country and its people. And this country is worth it. And, I would not take offense at anyone who says Thank you for your service. And that’s why. Because you’re worth it.”
When someone thanks me for my service, I say You’re worth it.
*SMA, Saturday OCT 8, 2022 at the Army Ten-Miler Pasta Dinner in Arlington
The hall of soldiers and patriots and runners had gone quiet. When they realized that he had finished, it erupted in cheers. It was the single best thing I’ve heard on how to respond to the Thank You comment, one I’ve gotten all my life. I’ve not gone to war or stayed in for life or done anything near what the SMA has done.
I’m not sure what to say when someone thanks me for my service and it’s been 35 years since I entered the Army that same year as the SMA, 1987.
Now I know what to say.
*I pasted the SMA deployments from his official bio and believe that his speech used sexier names such as Middle East countries and cities. I also guessed at the number of a deployments as a dozen but it may be more. Whatever the case, for 35 years it was A LOT. I wanted to do justice to his message and any errors or shortfalls in recollection belong squarely with me.
*The Sergeant Major of the Army Fun Fact. “While the SMA is a non-commissioned officer, protocol places the SMA higher than all lieutenant generals (except for the Director of the Army Staff) and equivalent to a general for formal courtesies in addition to seating, billeting, transportation, and parking.” (Wiki link)
*The Army Ten-Miler was a virtual race–which means runners ran on their own–the last two years, 2021 and 2020. This year the race was in-person. From the site: “The Army’s annual Army Ten-Mile Race and Expo is conducted in our nation’s capital by the U.S. Army Military District of Washington (MDW). Attracting over 35,000 runners and 900 teams from around the world, the Army Ten-Miler (ATM) exemplifies the Spirit of Sport and the Spirit of a Nation. Participants include military, civilians, wheel chair athletes and wounded warrior athletes. ATM’s mission is to support Army outreach, build morale, and promote physical fitness. Over 900 Soldiers and 900 volunteers support the Army’s “world class” ATM race.
Now in its 38th year, over 443,685 runners have run ATM since its inception in 1985. ATM is a category-B Army Family and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) event open to the public. All race proceeds benefit MWR programs. To date, ATM has generated over $8 million for Army MWR.”
*MWR. “The Army Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) program is a quality-of-life program that directly supports readiness by providing a variety of community, Soldier, and Family support activities and services.”