Written by Sgt. 1st Class Peter Mayes
101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (AA) Public Affairs
Fort Campbell, KY – From the moment he arrived at the 101st Airborne Division in 2007, the 101st Sustainment Brigade was the unit that Command Sgt. Maj. David Thompson said he wanted to lead.
“I was so happy to be at Fort Campbell, but looking across the post as a logistician, I was always looking for the sustainment brigade. That was the dream brigade job, and we all know as far as logicians go, the 101st Sustainment Brigade is the premiere sustainment brigade,” he said. “There were 12 of us interviewing for this job … I felt just blessed because it was a dream come true.”
Twenty-six after he first took the oath of enlistment, Thompson has finally arrived at the finish line, preparing to look at life beyond the Army and his “dream job” this week when he steps down as the Lifeliners brigade highest ranking senior non-commissioned officer during a Change of Responsibility Ceremony at the Brigade headquarters.
His philosophy of “Surrounding himself with Excellence” and sharing that mindset with his fellow senior non-commissioned officers prior to their year-long deployment to Afghanistan in 2010- helped pave the way for the brigade’s successful mission. The philosophy paid handsome dividends for the “Lifeliners” as the brigade set records for aerial delivery to forward operating bases in Regional Commands, East, North and Capitol, while also helping lay the groundwork for coalition forces’ exit from Afghanistan in 2014 with the Northern Distribution Network.
The ease in which Thompson speaks of the Lifeliners is effortless. Since arriving to the brigade in August 2010, the command sergeant major has focused on two agendas: working with Brigade Commander Col. Michael Peterman in leaving the footprint better than they found it, and continuing to instill pride in the unit.
Thompson said getting the brigade to buy into the philosophy was challenging, considering the deployment team was not fully formed when he arrived. Being a sustainment brigade in an Army unit as storied as the 101st Airborne Division meant always proving yourself to units who might not always fully comprehend the importance of your mission.
“When I say ‘surrounding yourself with excellence,’ I mean making decisions on ensuring that our main mission on this deployment was doing everything we had trained in our careers for and really shine as a brigade,” he said. “I think that’s why I personally thrive during deployments and I always had mixed feelings when it came to the [Transfer of Authority] when leaving, because everyone’s excited to get back home and see family and normalcy, but the mission of our headquarters downrange was over.”
The conversation inevitably turns back to relinquishing responsibility of the brigade, and life after the Army. Thompson said he has the same mixed feelings about the end of his career that he had during the TOA ceremony at Bagram Air Field: excited at the start of a normalcy, but realizing that this chapter of his life will be complete.
“You don’t what hits you when you start spreading the gear out that you’ve accumulated after 26 years and realize you’ve got to take name tags off,” he said. “I pulled a footlocker out and found two field jackets – the old Battle Dress Uniform field jackets – that I hadn’t seen probably in 10 years. It was a rush of a memory down memory lane. Then I started thinking about coming in and being amazed that somebody saw fit to take a country kid and make him a command sergeant major, and at the 101st Sustainment Brigade at that. It’s a huge sense of pride of an accomplishment that I was able to achieve.”
He said he considers himself, “a country kid from West Virginia,” although he has roots in Ohio. Thompson graduated from Marshall University and enlisted in the Army in 1987 as a Specialist. With his college degree, he could have easily began his career in the officers ranks.
“When I came in, the last rip of the officers drawdown had begun, so they weren’t knocking door to take soldiers into the ranks,” he said. “During that Cold War period, we had reduced numbers down so much I didn’t realize then what my degree was worth and what other possibilities were out there. I had jut pinned Sergeant, and once I became an NCO, there was no looking back.”
Thompson also said during that time, NCOs were not pushing their soldiers through the ranks. “They were great coaches, teachers and mentors, teaching us all the basics of the Cold War Army, the attention to detail things, but they were not educated. My sergeant could not read nor write, and I wrote all of the counseling statements for his platoon. He would put his finger on the top of the pen when I had to sign his name,” Thompson said.
It was not until 1989 when the Army mandated that Soldiers have at least a GED, Thompson said. “To see the Army’s non-commissioned officer corps go from leaders who cold not read nor write to one where today’s NCOs have masters degree’s, and in some cases working on their doctorates, is phenomenal.”
Thompson said he prided himself on now allowing himself to fall behind the changes in the Army. “When we first went to computers and digital forms, I made sure I stayed relevant,” he said. “I didn’t want to be that CSM who was not literate enough to communicate down and up. I didn’t want NCOs to be looked down upon any longer, because they were back in the 1980s. It was odd then how the officers looked down on the enlisted corps, and I found it to be embarrassing. And I saw the embarrassment on the NCOs at that time at not being able to communicate effectively.”
“No,” he said. “Today’s Army is an extremely literate and educated force. That is no longer a stigma on the NCO Corps,” he said.
In terms of unit pride, Thompson continued the legacy began by his predecessors. He ensured there was a “Deathstar” emblem all across the brigade’ footprint in Afghanistan, and continues to do so back at him with the newly erected Deathstar emblem located in the Brigade Headquarter’s quadrangle area. Thompson’s most enduring legacy, is the brigade’s Designated Unit Insignia, which he designed to go along with the Lifeliners recently designed Combat Patch. The DUI includes the Deathstar, as well as a parachute and rotary emblem which pays homage to the 101st Airborne Division lineage.
It started as a weekend project for him, Thompson said. “It’s about being proud of who you are,” he said. “Having that mentality, and knowing that pride in your organization, I think, has meant a lot and has made a huge difference in this brigade. We have in the past 12 months done extensive research to ensure our lineage and history was documents and recovered. There were eight battle streamers that were missing from our flag because no one in the past took the initiative to track those things. It’s not about competing with who has the most battles streamers during a division run; we remember all of those Lifeliners who’ve gone on before us, especially those who gave their lives.”
Thompson’s replacement as brigade command sergeant major is Command Sgt. Maj. Eugene Thomas, whom he describes as a “phenomenal NCO. “He definitely has the right pedigree to be the new Lifeliner Seven,” he said. “He will definitely ensure that everything we started here will continue.”