In for the long haul

Story by Sgt. Nicholas T. Holmes

JOINT BASE MYER – HENDERSON HALL, Va. – Growing up in Mulberry Grove, Illinois, a small rural farming community, Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Lewis, recalled spending hours in the forest near his home with his older sister and younger brother.

“We had an average childhood out in the country,” said Lewis. “We spent a lot of time in the woods hunting, fishing and just roaming around. I think that is what ultimately lead to me enjoying life as an infantryman.”

Lewis, formerly the operations sergeant major with 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) retired Aug. 1, 2017, after 30 years of dedicated serves.

Lewis originally enlisted in the Illinois National Guard and planned to take advantage of the educational benefits. However, attending basic combat training at Fort Benning, Georgia left a lasting impression on the then 17 year old.

“I just thought basic was the best thing ever,” said Lewis. “After training I went to college for a year and realized that wasn’t really where I was supposed to be.”

In December 1986, Lewis then 19, enlisted in to the Army as an infantryman.

“When I enlisted on that day, I knew that I was going to stay in until I retired,” He said with a grin. “I was in for the long haul.”

His first duty station was Fort Lewis, Washington where he was assigned to the 9th Infantry Division as a squad automatic weapons gunner.

“It was very intimidating to be the new private in the unit and realize that I didn’t know everything I thought I knew,” laughed Lewis. “But, I had a great team of leaders who took an interest in mentoring me. I think they saw something in me and started instilling leadership skills in me early.”

It was then when his platoon sergeant gave Lewis advice that would stay with him through his career.

“My first platoon sergeant would always say ‘Never expect a Soldier to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself as a leader,’” recalled Lewis.

That mind frame helped him become a highly decorated Soldier.

Lewis has earn many awards and decoration throughout his extensive career, including two bronze stars, combat infantry badge, Iraq Combat Medal, Afghanistan Combat Medal, multiple Army Achievement Medals, just to mention a few. Although, for a unique reason earning his Pathfinder’s Badge stands out to Lewis.

To be awarded the Pathfinder Badge, Soldiers must complete Pathfinder instruction in advanced land navigation, advanced scouting, tactical air traffic control in the field, and the control of parachute operations. The badge is awarded on completion of several examinations under field training exercise conditions.

“This was the hardest school I have gone through,” said Lewis. “Before I left to go to Fort Benning I told my first sergeant that I wanted to go to Airborne School and Pathfinders School. He told me that he didn’t see it happening for me because he didn’t see me getting through Pathfinder School.”

He used his discouraging words as motivation. After completing the course Lewis promptly mailed a photograph of himself at the Pathfinder School graduation to his former first sergeant.

“I never heard anything back from him, but I remember getting a lot of satisfaction from doing that anyway,” Chuckled Lewis.

While stationed at Fort Benning, Lewis also served as a drill sergeant for two years.

“I really enjoyed being a drill sergeant,” said Lewis. “I came to realize that not every private was going to make it through, but it was those privates that struggled in the beginning and finally made it to the end that made it very rewarding assignment.”

In 2006, while stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, Lewis deployed with 1st Infantry Division to Iraq as a platoon sergeant and in 2010 to Afghanistan as a first sergeant.

Lt. Col. Christopher Ricci, currently the future operations chief, with Alaskan Command, U.S. Northern Command, deployed with Lewis in 2010.

“I was the company commander and he was the company first sergeant,” said Ricci. “I have never worked with a more dedicated and competent infantryman. We were a true team and he was hands down the person I have enjoyed working with the most in the U.S. Army.”

These deployment had a profound effect on Lewis.

“The most difficult thing about those deployments was having casualty Soldiers,” he said before taking a long pause. “And knowing that these Soldiers never quit because they were doing their duty not only to their nation, but to their fellow Soldiers to their left and right.”

It was years before Lewis confronted these matters.

“I just compartmentalized it during the deployments and kept going on working harder,” said Lewis, as he stares off in the distance tapping the top of the desk with his finger. “It really wasn’t until about two years ago when I really started to come to terms with those issues.”

Lewis thought back to the advice he was given early in his career before confronting these lingering issues.

“I wasn’t a very pleasant person to be around and it got to the point that I didn’t like who I was being,” said Lewis. “I thought about what my first platoon sergeant said and I thought how could I expect Soldiers to take care of themselves when I haven’t?”

With the support of his chain of command and working with mental health professionals Lewis’ was able to come to terms with his internal conflicts.

“It is a difficult thing to talk about,” he said. “But, its part of my life and career so I feel it’s important to talk about.”

While with The Old Guard, Lewis served as operations sergeant major for 1st Battalion for two years before becoming the operations sergeant major for the Regiment. During this time he performed at memorial services for fallen service members at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia.

“I truly appreciate being part of the missions in Arlington National Cemetery,” said Lewis. “It never felt like work to me. It is an honor that few get to experience and I feel fortunate to have been afforded this opportunity.”

Lewis has participated in more than 400 memorial serves and completed his 50th ride with the Caisson Platoon through Arlington National Cemetery on July 20.

The Caisson Platoon is the last full time equestrian mounted unit in the Department of the Defense. The primary mission of the platoon is to serve as the mounted escort to our nation’s departed heroes.

The 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment’s Caisson Platoon is the last full time equestrian mounted unit in the Department of Defense. The primary mission of the Caisson Platoon is to serve as the mounted escort to our nation’s departed heroes in Arlington National Cemetery.

“I was lucky I got to train and ride with the Caisson Platoon,” said Lewis. “Those guys really didn’t have to let me do that and I really appreciate the time they took to train me.”

Following his final ride with the platoon, Lewis was awarded the Legion of Merit Medal for his exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.

“The Legion of Merit Medal is not an award guaranteed for retirement,” said Col. Jason T. Garkey, regimental commander. “This truly shows his dedication and commitment to serves. Not only did Sgt. Maj. Lewis put in a full career, but he exceeded the standard set by the Army.”

Seeing Soldiers development has been the most enjoyable part of Lewis career.

“I have had Soldiers who I lead who are now sergeant majors or first sergeants come and thank me for teaching different aspects of leadership,” said Lewis. “Knowing that I have played a positive role in developing those leaders is the highlight of my career. I enjoy seeing Soldiers progress.”

Lewis has left an everlasting impression on the Army and will continue to contribute to the country.

“He will be missed by the Soldiers, [noncommissioned officers] and officers he served with during his 30 year career,” said Ricci. “He is a humble man but his impact to our Army will be felt for years to come. I am grateful I was blessed with the opportunity to have him as my first sergeant and more importantly my friend.”

“We are really capping off a lifetime of service to the Army with this retirement,” said Garkey. “But, his serves to the Nation will continue with whatever he chooses to pursue in his local community, because that’s just the type of person he is.”

In the future Lewis plans to travel with his family. First stop is to travel to his hometown to visit family before joining the civilian workforce.

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