Servant-leader: senior NCO product of his struggles

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Story by Terrance Bell on 06/09/2017
FORT LEE, Va. (June 8, 2017) -- By most measures, the official portrait of senior noncoms tend to express a seriousness commensurate with their rank and authority.

His is unconventional with a toothy, beaming smile and a face as radiant as a 100-watt light bulb.

Command Sgt. Maj. Sean J. Rice, without a doubt, is unconventional the product of a hardscrabble childhood and a hard-jobs career path that has developed him into a figure of competence and compassion.

The 13th Quartermaster Corps CSM the senior enlisted advisor of an Army branch comprised of more than 96,000 Soldiers offered no recipe for success or roadmap for his ascension, instead clinging to what he knows is his truth.

"I'm committed, caring, humble and approachable," said the married father of three.

In consideration of the circumstances surrounding his childhood, those descriptions could easily be replaced with antonyms. Rice grew up in the community of Leavenworth, Kan., with a Soldier-mother who was a corrections specialist at the military prison there. When he was of young age, she was involved in an altercation leading to her son's placement in foster care. As a result, Rice lived with relatives in Austin and Dallas, Texas, and later Brooklyn, N.Y.

While living in Brooklyn, Rice was guided by Eyhraune Jau-Saune a man thought to be his biological father but was later found out to be his younger brother's who nevertheless embraced him as his own, never uttering the word "stepson."

When Rice was returned to his mother at 13, he was the oldest (by nine years) of five children. The "man of the house" by default, Rice grew broad shoulders and bore responsibilities that made for much instability. He said after joining the Army in 1988 and embarking on a promising career, his relatives often said this:

"Congratulations that you're doing well in the military because all the odds were stacked against you. You weren't being set up to be successful."

When Rice found himself in the Army recruiting office at 18 years of age, the turbulence of his youth did not warrant a return from where he came.

"I came in thinking I'm going to do this until I can't do it anymore because I wasn't going back home," he remembered. "There was no home' to go back to; no stability to go back to."

Although returning was not an option, he did not automatically embrace his new line of work. He had learned discipline from his strict mother, so being in the right place and right uniform was not the problem. His difficulty was more organic he was still clinging to b-boy status from his days in hip-hop heavy Brooklyn.

"Shell-top Adidas (sneakers), three-finger rings and still trying to sport waves in my hair -- I was still on the block," he recalled.

Rice also had difficulty with the issue of skin color.

"I struggled with race early on, being called many (insulting) names," he said. "I thought, Do I really have to deal with this?' But the reality always came back: If I don't deal with it, then what is there to go back to? As I progressed, I said, If I dont deal with it, how was I going to make life better for the next person?'"

The Army's tradition of making the institution better for future formations was a notion that came to Rice by way of an old-school, thrice-deployed Vietnam veteran named Sgt. 1st Class Larry Hughes. He was Rice's supervisor while assigned to a cavalry unit at Fort Riley, Kan., and he was "harder than woodpecker lips," fair, compassionate and had his Soldiers' "back," so to speak.

"He was one of the most impressionable NCOICs I ever had," said the supply specialist. "This was a person who kind of grabbed me by the short hairs and said, Hey, tighten up! If it is not you (who will affect change), then who is it going to be?'"

Hughes backed up what he espoused. During Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, he dealt harshly with a racist NCO who threatened Rice and his battle buddy Spc. David Sanchez, he said.

"He had told us that night I will never place you in a situation where I'm not protecting you,'" said Rice, noting the perpetrator was reassigned and never seen again.

Prior to the deployment, Hughes called Rice's mother, introduced himself and assured her he was in competent hands, despite the fact his young charge "was bucking up," said Rice.

"He had me in tears," he said, recalling the moment he walked in on the conversation, "and to this day, I get partly cloudy just thinking about it. I tell people today if you really want to care for a Soldier, then let a parent know you got them.' It takes guts to call someone and do that. He did everything you would expect a leader to do. I swear to God, I would've done anything for Larry."

Following the deployment, Rice felt more comfortable about his place in the Army. His aims and ambitions emerged, and he set about a course of self-improvement and career enhancement. He regularly enrolled in college classes, took correspondence courses and competed for Soldier of the month.

"For the most part, that deployment created a monster," said Rice with a laugh.

By the time he was selected for drill sergeant school in 1999, all of his assignments were with combat arms elements and he learned much about the operational Army. It prepared him well for the job of transforming civilians to Soldiers but presented a different type of challenge that brought to light various aspects of human behavior and precisely how the Army went about training the rank and file.

"Ask any drill sergeant worth their weight in salt, and they will tell you the trail' does not make you," said Rice in reference to his basic training drill sergeant duty. "It raises you to a higher level if you are competent and exposes you if you're not."

Balance is achieved through the element of humility and the sense of sharing, said Rice.

"It was my experience that the school was designed to somehow take the top 10 percent and humble them enough to raise the bar on the bottom 10 percent, thus creating force multipliers," he said.

Rice said the exercise of helping and supporting battle buddies enlightens one to the realization the campaign hat albeit prestigious is a symbol and cannot be worn forever.

"You cannot believe the hat makes you," he said. "It comes off at the end of the day, and I always removed it when I talked to Soldiers because I didn't need them to fear the hat as much as I needed them to respect the individual who was trying to train them to accomplish tasks so they could move on."

That lesson came courtesy of Lawrence Jordan, Rice's basic training drill sergeant at Fort Benning, Ga. He said Jordan's method of substantive connection was something he admired and practiced during the time his noggin sported the distinctive headgear.

"Jordan said you can run around cussing at folks all day or you can make positive change," said Rice, "Truth of the matter is you're going to see people get off of this bus who may be like you, who are leaving broken homes or some who are seeing black skin for the first time in their lives."

"Sure enough, it was true," he continued. "He said you have to connect with them first. Obviously, you have to break them down, but if you really want them to understand what they're getting into, take time out to just communicate with them show them there's a human side to you, and they'll follow you anywhere."

After drill sergeant duty, Rice went on to take "hard" assignments with the Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, La.; 82nd Sustainment Brigade, Fort Bragg, N.C.; and the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., to name a few.

His success in those assignments and his career in general, Rice said, can be attributed to the foundation of discipline he learned from his mother; the wisdom passed from his father; the faith-based upbringing he received from his extended family and the difficult jobs he took in the past.

Furthermore, Rice did not downplay the grounding force of family stability anchored by his wife, Vanessa, and their three daughters that was absent in his childhood, nor the counsel he received from retired Maj. Gen. James R. Klugh, his uncle and a hall-of-fame Ordnance Soldier who he rarely mentions to protect himself from the perception of privilege.

All are responsible for shaping Rice into what he describes as "servant-leader" and "Soldier's Soldier" a compassionate, hard-lesson-teaching resource who empowers subordinates to better perform their missions, he said.

"I've been led to be that a servant, a great follower and a great provider; if I have the answer, I'll give it. I'll leave it if it's the shirt off my back for the next generation."

That is not so much of a counterpoint. It is a notion connected to the tradition of taking care of Soldiers, something Rice has staked a decades-long claim.

And something worthy of a toothy, beaming smile.

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