Command Sergeant Major Mathew Barnes sat at his desk Friday morning and pecked away on his iPad as he tweaked his farewell speech. He was alone in the room, yet he was surrounded by troops. From the walls they smiled back at him. Troops a young Barnes served with in Germany; Barnes and other Rangers from 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment in the primes of their soldiering lives; and now a slightly graying Barnes with Soldiers and Airmen hes served alongside since he became the Fort Lewis command sergeant major in 2008.
Its funny how life takes you down a path and 26-and-a-half years later Im sitting in this office, the confident, unassuming senior enlisted leader said. Its crazy.
Barnes military career started two admittedly unimpressive years after high school and roughly 30 minutes after seven space shuttle Challenger astronauts left Earth and never returned in 1986.
I was sleeping in and my Dad popped his head in and said, You get a job today, which wasnt so cut-and-dry in Oklahoma following the oil booms bust. I was sitting in the living room, eating a bowl of cereal and watching space shuttle Challenger. I watched it blow up, and back then news coverage wasnt like what its like today they went to commercial.
Looking back, he said sharing a moment with his country may have led the self-proclaimed punk with no direction to make a phone call that changed his life, but he distinctly remembers a TV commercial mixed in.
Back then it was Be all that you can be, he said of the popular Army recruiting slogan, and I kid you not, I picked up the Yellow Pages, called a recruiter and asked him is this Rambo **** for real? I told him Id be down there in an hour.
It was somewhere between those two (moments) that I said, here are seven Americans that gave their lives for the country. It was that, and my own lack of direction it had a profound effect on me. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to join the Army to be a part of a team.
I beat my parents home that evening and when they asked, did you get a job today? I said yeah, I got a job.
Barnes enlisted in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, not because of its beginnings under the legendary Gen. John Black Jack Pershing, or not for its almost 100 years of history since, but he did have a reason.
It was the fastest thing that got me into the Army, Barnes said. I enlisted as a 54 Echo. The numerical MOS designation has changed, but Ive always been a part of the chemical corps.
He said that growing up in a military household, he and his younger brothers were raised with maybe a little more discipline than his peers, so boot camp wasnt much of a shock, but he did walk out a person who was more mindful, more respectful and very proud.
Now the hard part was figuring out the Soldier he wanted to be. He said Airborne mentors, and a shadowy figure in Cold War German woods showed him the way.
Initially I was just going to do four years and get out, he said. I had done everything I needed to do: competed at boards, I had a great squad leader. But I was hellbent on getting out. I wasnt an exceptional Soldier, but I wasnt marginal either.
In 1987 we had a company commander come in by the name of Ray Van Pelt. He was a captain at the time and there was something about him one, he had a Ranger tab; two, he had served in the 82nd (Airborne Division). Those were things I wanted to be, but was told that because of my MOS, itd be very difficult to do. I extended (my contract) to go to Fort Benning because of Captain Van Pelt.
Barnes didnt just extend because of his interest in Van Pelt it was because the captain took an interest in him as well.
We were near Manheim somewhere and this was back in the day when you actually dug foxholes, he said. It was two or three in the morning, I was standing guard duty in my foxhole and the commander was out trooping the line. It was Capt. Van Pelt and he told me to get out of the foxhole.
I told him I cant.
He said, the Russians arent crossing the line tonight bud.
Leaning up against trees that night, then-Capt. Van Pelt told me, Youre a good Soldier and we need to keep you in the Army. (If) you want to be in the 82nd Airborne, you want to go to Ranger school, then those are the type of units you need to be in. It was that morning I decided I wanted to make this a career.
Some may have called Barnes goals lofty, but the average kid who enlisted in Oklahoma, who turned into the slightly better-than-average Soldier until one night in German woods, never thought of himself as average and said, even today, doubt never crosses his mind.
I didnt care what I needed to do, I knew these were things I wanted to attain, he said. I didnt just want to exist, I wanted a bigger challenge. From the aspect of what Ray Van Pelt, Wendell Williams, all of them guys, took an interest in me and said you need to stay in the military, but you need to do something different. You need to push yourself, and these are the ways that you can push yourself. Because its easy to talk **** and say you want to go to Airborne school its another thing to do it. Thats what those guys taught me.
After earning his jump wings and a tour with the All-American Division, an inability to doubt himself lasted him through Ranger school and brought him to the former Fort Lewis and 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. He recalls some of the Soldiers he served with there like a baseball fanatic lists the 1927 Yankees lineup.
Randy Inman, who became a regimental CSM; Hugh Roberts, who became a regimental CSM; Mark Renninger, who got out of the Army, became a cop and was one of the Lakewood 4 who were killed two years ago, he said with even-toned respect. It was everything that mattered to me.
He said it was on the Ranger compound where the importance of leading Soldiers, rather than just being a good Soldier, hit home.
One, you have to want to be there, and that exudes throughout the command, he said. It was tough not to become a good NCO in that type of environment and that was where it happened for me.
After time on the trail as a drill sergeant at Fort Sill, Okla., he returned to Lewis twice more before becoming its command sergeant major. He said a lot as changed from when he was a new check-in with 2-75 Rngr., but a lot has also stayed the same.
(It was) small back then, he said. Now, you see excellence in a lot more commands. When everyone is focused on the end result, no matter what that may be, no matter what the unit, I see it every day. Look at the standing up of the (16th Combat Aviation Brigade), when we converted 2nd ACR to 4-2, the goals are more achievable when everybody has the same mindset.
The successes weve had (as a joint base) is because we integrated right off of the bat. Sure weve had hiccups, but weve gotten through those. The best thing I can think of when I think of joint basing is we were told that we would never be able to pull off the (2011 Air Mobility) Rodeo. (Air Mobility Commands Commander) Gen. (Raymond E.) Johns said it was the best one hed ever been a part of. This years air show will be just another avenue in which to showcase the joint base and (an example of) what we can do when we pull everything together and focus on the mission at hand.
My predecessors all did phenomenal things when they sat in this seat and those that will follow me will equally do great things.
Barnes truly believes that. With almost 30 years of service, he hangs his hat not on his accomplishments, but the opportunities for accomplishment hes been allowed, and the roads he paves to create those same opportunities for others. Somewhere inside the decorated Soldier remains the kid who needed direction, found it in the Army, and remains an example of the value of can.
You can take this Ranger tab off and Im still going to be Barnes, he said. You can take the wings off and all the patches off and Im still going to be me. Ill probably be shot for saying this but, sure, not everyone is Airborne qualified, thats not saying that everyone cant be Airborne qualified. Im very proud of going Airborne and going to Ranger school, but I think anyone can do anything they put their mind to.