YOKOTA AIR BASE — It was 2005, and Command Sgt. Maj. Raymond F. Chandler III had just returned from a year in Iraq — his first combat experience — with the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. After more than 20 years in uniform, he said he felt accomplished but tired. He was ready for retirement and civilian life.
Chandler and his wife, Jeanne, wanted to start a business, a professional hair dressing school.
“It seemed like a good idea,” he said.
But between the Army asking him to remain on active duty and a flailing U.S. economy that made a start-up business too risky, Chandler stayed a soldier.
On Tuesday, he will become Sergeant Major of the Army, the Army chief of staff’s personal advisor on all enlisted matters.
Education and quality-of-life concerns will be among his top priorities, he said, as the Army renews focus on those issues after nearly 10 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’ve had to put a lot of that stuff on the back burner to support the nation at war,” he said.
By October, the Army should be able to give all active-duty soldiers at least two years at home between yearlong deployments.
“We’re not where we want to be now, but we should be soon,” he said.
Meeting that goal is critical for advancing the education and family-centric initiatives he will soon be tasked with at the Pentagon, he said. Soldiers need more dwell time to recuperate from combat, Chandler stressed, adding that the Army needs the break to build resiliency among its troops and their families who have seen increased hardships in recent years — from post-traumatic stress disorder to marital problems.
Some blame those hardships for the alarming spike in suicides among soldiers, which Chandler believes can be reduced “by soldiers looking out for soldiers” not only on the battlefield but back in garrison.
“It’s that empathy for individuals that we have to keep pushing,” said Chandler, who has not deployed to Afghanistan but expects to go soon to talk to soldiers there.
Another high-profile issue on his agenda will be the implementation of the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, allowing gays to openly serve in the military.
“The decision has been made and it’s our responsibility to support and uphold that wholeheartedly and without reservation,” he said. Though the Army has yet to release a detailed game plan for implementation, troops should understand the new policy is “our duty to uphold as soldiers,” he said. “You have to do that because that’s your job.”
Chandler, 48, will take over for Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston during a swearing-in ceremony Tuesday at the Pentagon.
Chandler was chosen by outgoing chief of staff Gen. George Casey, who said in a statement at the time that Chandler had the experience and deep understanding to “help us lead our Army.”
Casey is expected to be replaced by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. He and Chandler have worked together before. Chandler comes to the Pentagon after running the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas. Dempsey designated Chandler as the academy’s first enlisted commandant in 2009, while he was serving as the school’s top NCO. Before Chandler, colonels held the position.
The historic appointment exemplifies not only his success in the Army but also what Chandler describes as a quantum leap in responsibility for today’s enlisted corps.
“Before 9/11, soldiers knew what they were going to do in major combat operations,” he said. “But with [counterinsurgency operations] soldiers have to take on an expanded role and do things beyond what they were trained to do for so many years.”
That notion struck Chandler during his deployment to Iraq, when the life-and-death reality of his decisions as a senior NCO became clear.
“You have to be able to do more than move, shoot and drive a tank,” he said.
While military training hones soldiers’ combat skills, he said, they need more civilian education to broaden their perspective of the world, which will help with their technical proficiency on the battlefield.
Though the NCO corps is expected to be more analytical, the bread and butter of an NCO’s job — executing orders, setting standards and enforcing discipline — will not change, Chandler said.
“Officers make plans and NCOs make it happen, that role is still there,” he said.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie W. Spencer, director of the Association of the United States Army, said, “He is the right person at the right time for the Army NCO Corps,” according to AUSA’s website.
Leading by example
As the academy’s top NCO, Chandler set about transforming NCO education standards to include more academic coursework. While enlisted troops are pursuing college degrees in record numbers, many others joined the Army because they didn’t want to go to school.
Chandler is a prime example.
In 1981, the 19-year-old enlisted as a tank gunner with plans to go to an automotive trade school after what was supposed to be a short stint in the military, an “adventure,” he said.
“I wasn’t the best student in high school,” said the Whittier, Calif., native, who admits knowing nothing much about the Cold War when he joined the Army.
“The greatest heroes to me are the men and women who enlist today and continue to serve knowing that they’ll likely be deploying in short period of time,” he said.
Chandler, who comes to Washington with 30 years of assignments throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia, said he decided to make a career of the Army after his first year on a two-year tour in Germany.
He soon realized a college degree was necessary to advance. It took him 26 years to earn his bachelor’s degree while working, constantly moving, deploying and raising a family.
But he managed it all while climbing the ranks.
“I did it when I could,” said Chandler, who chipped away at his diploma for years before the advent of online coursework made higher education more accessible to servicemembers.
Chandler completed his bachelor’s degree in public administration in 2009 while at the academy. A master’s degree is next, he said.
The year ahead
Chandler was interviewed last week as he and his wife prepared to drive from Texas to their new home in Washington, with their cat and 27-foot Sea Ray cabin cruiser in tow. It’s one part of his life he won’t leave behind as he starts a new chapter at the Pentagon.
“It’s a passion me and my wife have. It’s just a lot of fun for us,” said Chandler, whose colleagues at the academy included a caricature of him as the skipper of “SS Minnow” as part of his going-away fanfare.
Chandler calls his wife his “best friend” and “sanity check.” She’s the one who “tells me I’ve messed up when nobody else will,” he said.
He considers John Sparks, his former first sergeant and a retired command sergeant major, his other mentor. Chandler said Sparks taught him “calmness under pressure,” which he has worked to embody professionally and personally throughout his career.
Chandler is approachable but authoritative, said Charles Guyette, chief of staff at the academy and a retired command sergeant major.
He said Chandler was known for his thoughtful and reflective attitude.
“He’ll often say: ‘I don’t want an answer today, go and think about it,’ ” Guyette said. “He’s not the old gruff sergeant major that we grew up with.”