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Face of Defense: Former Sergeant Major of the Army Still Serves

By Beth Reece
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 9, 2007 – Jack L. Tilley left the Army twice -- first after a tour in Vietnam, then again in 2004. But he still thinks he's a soldier.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Then-Sgt. Maj. of the Army Jack L. Tilley (center) speaks with interpreter Behar Gashi (left) and Army Spc. Tom Hanelly of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division, outside a Serbian church in the unit’s sector of Multinational Brigade East, in Kosovo, on Oct. 18, 2003. Tilley retired in January 2004 but continues to support soldiers. File photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Cole, USA

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"You can't just all of a sudden say, 'I quit.' You can't get it out of your heart," the former sergeant major of the Army said.

Tilley retired as the Army’s senior enlisted soldier in January 2004 after 35 years of service. He championed pay raises, saw the fielding of the black beret, and comforted soldiers and families after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon.

Still a man of action three years into retirement, he is the senior enlisted advisor to the sergeant major of the Afghan National Army and serves on the U.S. Army's retirement board and the secretary of veterans affairs' special advisory committee for operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

Tilley also supports soldiers through the American Freedom Foundation, which is a supporter of America Supports You, a Defense Department program that spotlights Americans' support of servicemembers.

Seeing the pain and startling motivation of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here moved Tilley to create the American Freedom Foundation, which raises money and awareness for veterans organizations helping soldiers wounded in the war on terror.

"I went to the hospital and talked to veterans, talked to wounded warriors, and it absolutely broke my heart," he said. "But it's sad for me, not them. They're all motivated and pumped up; they want to do things and get on with their lives."

Tilley gives motivational speeches and classes on team-building and leader-development, focusing on something he said soldiers often take for granted. "The civilian sector needs people with a lot of leadership experience. You look at a guy like me, … I came into the service at age 17 and went straight to Vietnam. I've been a battalion, brigade and division sergeant major, moved a lot of troops and trained troops," he said. "The civilian sector needs our knowledge and expertise."

Without discounting the value of formal education, Tilley maintains that experience turns soldiers into leaders. "The way to be a good leader is to be a leader. From what I've seen, development comes with time," he said.

During a recent presentation in Pennsylvania, Tilley spoke about things that have touched his life: war, family separation, God, and the fact that America has seen about 3,800 soldiers killed and 27,000 wounded in the war on terrorism.

"Then I got them to close their eyes and listen to a song from Lonestar, called 'Message from Home.' Everybody cried," he said. "My point to them was that we need to not just talk about things. Don't just talk about taking care of soldiers. Take care of them; show them your support," he said.

Tilley said he's deeply concerned about post-traumatic stress disorder and mild traumatic brain injuries plaguing today's combat veterans. "I don't think we really know the damage we've done to the Army, and I don't think we'll know for years," he said. "But the Army will get through it."

He also said he’s a fan of the Army's current focus on families. "Families are taking so much stress right now. I think our country needs to be more aware of the things they're sacrificing for us. … My spouse was just as much a soldier as I was."

When Tilley left the Army after Vietnam and began work at a paneling factory, he still felt drawn to the military. He couldn't drive by a recruiting station without going in just to talk. And while in Seattle, he visited Fort Lewis just to watch soldiers train. "I got out of the Army, but the Army was still in me," he said.

Eventually a recruiter called Tilley to say he had one week left to rejoin and retain his rank of staff sergeant. "The next morning I was down there signing up," he said.

Tilley said he credits dumb luck for his selection as the 12th sergeant major of the Army. "You look at guys like SMA (Richard) Kidd and SMA (Robert) Hall, … they were my idols. To say I was as good as they were, that was a big step," he said.

(Beth Reece works for the Soldiers Media Center.)

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