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Maj. Gen. Alan W. Thrasher, center; Jay Frye, left, general manager for MB2 Motorsports; and NASCAR driver Joe Nemechek use a sword to cut a cake celebrating the 230th birthday of the U.S. Army. Nemechek, driver of the No. 01 Army-sponsored Chevrolet, sported a special Army paint scheme for Sunday’s running of the Pocono 500 at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa.

Maj. Gen. Alan W. Thrasher, center; Jay Frye, left, general manager for MB2 Motorsports; and NASCAR driver Joe Nemechek use a sword to cut a cake celebrating the 230th birthday of the U.S. Army. Nemechek, driver of the No. 01 Army-sponsored Chevrolet, sported a special Army paint scheme for Sunday’s running of the Pocono 500 at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa. (Tim Parks / Special to S&S)

ARLINGTON, Va. — You know you’ve been knocking around the Army for a while when you start seeing things come full circle.

That’s certainly the case for the Army’s top enlisted soldier, Sgt. Major of the Army Kenneth O. Preston, who will mark his 30th year in the Army this June, just as his beloved service is celebrating its 230th birthday.

Preston has seen enormous changes in the Army since he first set foot in boot camp at Fort Knox, Ky., on June 30, 1975.

But sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Take the black beret.

During his first enlistment, Preston belonged to 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, which was part of the 1st Cavalry Division, based at Fort Hood, Tx.

Until the late 1970s, members of the much-storied 1st Cavalry — the Army’s first air-mobile unit — donned the black beret as an “optional wear” item.

“The armored cavalry took a lot of pride in that black beret,” Preston told Stripes during a June 8 interview in his Pentagon offices.

However Army leaders decided that the beret — while a valuable in promoting esprit de corps in the “Black Horse” regiment — created a rift between “the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’,” Preston said.

“So they took the berets away from us, made us wear a patrol cap,” just after Preston was promoted to sergeant in July 1977, he said.

Amidst much controversy, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki brought the black beret back in June 2001, this time as mandated garrison headwear for the entire Army.

So Preston took off the patrol cap, and once again, donned the beret.

How did it feel to put the old headgear on again, after more than 25 years of not wearing it?

“It was good,” Preston said, smiling at the memory. “It was interesting to see we’d gone full circle.”

Preston came at a pivotal time in the Army’s history: the transition from the conscript, or drafted, force to the all-volunteer Army.

But it was also “a tough time,” Preston said. “There was a lot of carryover from Vietnam.”

Vietnam may have wrenched America’s soul, but the conflict also played a key role in shaping the future Army.

“There were a lot of lessons learned that came out of Vietnam that really led to the [Army’s] task organization and the organizations we formed after that,” Preston said.

And there was a wealth of experience for young soldiers to tap, in the form of the Army’s senior non-commissioned officers.

“They were all combat veterans,” Preston said. “They knew what the realities of combat were … and they shared that knowledge with us.”

Preston may have entered a peace-time Army, but “we also faced a real-world threat [in the Soviet Union],” he said.

“There was a lot of buildup and a lot of tension with the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall. We really began assessing how we stood as an Army should we go to war with the Soviet Union.”

In 1978 the Cold War environment led Preston — “a young buck sergeant” — to Germany, where he stayed until 1981.

In fact, “I have not spent more than three, three and a half years in the States at any one time,” Preston said.

When Preston first got to Europe, he joined 220,000 U.S. Army soldiers.

But in mid-1990s, with the fall of communism, and the end of the first Gulf War, U.S. officials decided it was time to start drawing down those Europe-based troops, and their numbers fell to about 62,000, Preston said.

Today, Preston is helping orchestrate a second major draw down of forces in Europe, even as the active Army is growing once again, from 470,000 to 510,000 to meet the needs of the war on terror.

In 30 years: Preston has seen the entry of the Abrams main battle tank (he helped do the tests that led to its fielding), the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Humvee, and now, the Stryker wheeled armored vehicle.

Yet while the Army’s weapons, training, and tactics may be much more sophisticated now, what hasn’t changed over 30 years — 230 years, for that matter — is the loyalty soldiers develop for their units.

“When I was with the 1st Cav Division, we’d do these force-on-force missions against the 2nd Armor Division, the other division at Fort Hood at the time,” Preston recalled. “I always remember our battalion was the hero, we always won,” he said.

“I never remember 2nd Armor Division winning anything.”

Preston chuckled, still pleased with his unit’s prowess almost 30 years after the fact.

“It’s pride.”

Preston’s Army: 30 years of key events

June 30, 1975: Kenneth Preston reports to Basic Training, Fort Knox, Ky.

1976: Army adopts the “air-land” battle concept, the Pentagon’s first joint fighting doctrine.

1980: The first M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank rolls off the production line at General Dynamics Land Systems. Named after Gen. Creighton Abrams, the tank is designed to dominate in Europe’s fields against a possible war with the Soviet Union.

1984: The AH-64 Apache attack helicopter enters the Army inventory. The helicopter can perform day and night, in almost any weather condition.

1985: The HMMWV (High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle) replaces the Vietnam-era Jeep. Based on a common chassis, Humvees can be configured as troop carriers, armament carriers, ambulances, TOW missile carriers, and Scout vehicles.

Oct. 25, 1983: Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada, begins. The initial assault includes 1,200 U.S. troops, expanding to more than 7,000. By mid December, U.S. combat forces are on their way home, and a pro-American government is taking power.

1989: Operation Just Cause, the Panama invasion, begins. Participants include combat elements of the XVIII Airborne Corps, the 82nd Airborne Division, the 7th Infantry Division, the 75th Ranger Regiment, a Joint Special Operations Task Force and U.S. Marines.

1990: Iraq invades Kuwait

January 1991: Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. The Persian Gulf War, which includes more than 500,000 U.S. troops, is America’s first large-scale war since Vietnam.

Feb. 1, 1992: United States and Russia sign a treaty officially ending the Cold War.

December 1992: A multinational task force deploys to Somalia that includes about 13,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines. President Clinton withdraws forces in March 1994.

December 1995: Operation Joint Forge. “Task Force Eagle,” led by the Germany-based 1st Armored Division, enters Bosnia as part of a NATO Implementation Force, or IFOR. The U.S. military maintains a steady force of about 6,900 personnel in Bosnia until 1994, when the European Union takes over the peacekeeping mission.

June 1999: Operation Joint Guardian. U.S. forces enter Kosovo as part of NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR).

Sept. 11, 2001: Terrorist attacks on the United States target the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon and open the ongoing war on terror.

Sept. 14, 2001: Operation Noble Eagle, a homeland defense mission, begins in the United States. Army National Guard units play key roles.

Sept. 24, 2001: President Bush declares a state of national emergency, allowing the nation to mobilize the military’s reserve forces for war.

Oct. 7, 2001: Operation Enduring Freedom begins in Afghanistan

May 2002: The Stryker enters the Army inventory. The armored wheeled vehicle is designed to enable the Army’s new Stryker Brigade Combat Teams maneuver more easily in close and urban terrain, while also providing protection in open terrain.

March 19, 2003: Operation Iraqi Freedom begins. The Army contributes the lion’s share of mobilized U.S. forces, which continue to hover in the 138,000 range.

— Lisa Burgess


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