Warriors' Voices: 1SG Jeffrey Pennington, 1137th Military Police Company, Missouri National Guard
Perhaps certain people are instinctively well-suited to the soldier’s life. Perhaps some such individuals are aware of this suitability early on. But even after 22 years of service, First Sergeant Jeffrey Pennington, 1137th Military Police Company, Missouri National Guard, remembers having sensed no such calling as a teenager at Neelyville High. “When I was in high school,” he says, “I had no desire for military service. I was more interested in computers”.
So how did Pennington find himself in the National Guard? “In the mid-’80s, during the Reagan administration, there was a serious anti-communist ideology spreading through the country,” recalls Pennington. “The news media, television, movies all painted a picture of ‘the red threat’.
“At the time I saw that as a very serious threat to our way of life. I thought, ‘Hey! Somebody’s got to do something about that.’ And that’s when I decided to join.”
Since 1985, when he entered the National Guard, Pennington’s military duties have been numerous and diverse. He was initially assigned to telephone repair in the Guard; he transitioned from the Guard to active duty during the military buildup for Desert Storm. He was deployed for combat in Haiti in 1994. After extensive training Pennington began serving as a team leader in Explosive Ordnance Disposal, otherwise known as the Bomb Squad. He eventually became a missile repair specialist, maintaining launch optics and tracking systems for ground missiles.
From 2004 to 2005, Pennington was a first sergeant in the 835th Corps Support Battalion headquartered at Forward Operating Base Speicher, near the beleaguered northern city of Tikrit, Iraq. Tikrit was the birthplace of Saddam Hussein—and the city considered to have been the fallen dictator’s “last stronghold”. Now a police officer in the National Guard, Pennington, who was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq, continues to undergo Guard training and briefing one weekend of each month.
Pennington’s reflections on the making of a fighting force focus sharply upon the training, or rather the re-training, of ordinary individuals for service. “What basic training does is it erases you—erases all aspects of your individuality. It kills the individual in you. Then, after that, it rebuilds you with a team mentality. It integrates Army values into you: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and courage.”
This initial “erasure” of identity—which Pennington describes as “painful” while in progress—is a process wholly foreign to most quarters of civilian existence. Yet it undergirds the entire structure within which servicemembers operate every day, both stateside and abroad. “Sometimes, it’s difficult to switch roles,” he says of passing back and forth between civilian life—in which the married father of five is Information Technology Manager at Larry Hillis Dodge—and military life.
“Everybody’s got their own ideal; that’s what makes America great,” says Pennington. “But being a person who’s built his life in the culture of serving…” He stops, muses, and then shares a single thought that reveals much. “You know, we have a saying in the military: ‘Our mission is to preserve and protect democracy—not to practice it'”.
The U.S. armed forces have undergone vast changes in order to confront an enemy with “no real centralized source of management”, says Pennington, in reference to al Qaeda and other opposing forces. For example, he notes, “new brigade combat teams (BCT) deploy to a theater of combat organically. They’re a lot smaller than divisions, but with an enormous amount of firepower. They can deploy from home station to a theater of combat completely in a few days, as opposed to divisions, which can take weeks”.
“Today, we are all warriors,” says Pennington of servicemembers in Iraq. “The infantry, Special Forces, the Rangers always had this mentality,” according to Pennington, but as “there is no front line” in the current conflict, “even your telephone repair guy now has to incorporate this warrior mentality”.
What Pennington would like most from Americans in relation to the war in Iraq “is that Americans trust their leadership. That’s because in a military operation, questions ‘after the order’ can cost lives. In a civilian situation, you might cost somebody some money, but no lives lost”. Specifically, Pennington continues, “When General Petraeus speaks, I hope people will listen”.
Despite having made a life of military service, Pennington does not wax poetic on the particulars of armed conflict. He shares a beloved quote on the subject, from the writings of British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), to illustrate his own perspective:
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things…The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
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