Kevin E. Lake is an Iraq War veteran and an author. On his Facebook Page - Kevin E. Lake - he shares stories he has started calling "Hero Highlights". I have shared a few on my army wives page and Kevin has been kind enough to let me share them on my blog...
The first "Hero Highlight" I will share from Kevin E. Lake's Facebook Page is about First Sgt. Humphrey ---
By Kevin E Lake
my novel, "Off Switch," which addresses both P.T.S.D. among soldiers
and veterans and the pandemic suicide rate that is FINALLY getting more
attention in the media, I address two issues in particular which are
leading to the staggering rate of suicide among our heroes, currently
reported as 22 each day, though those numbers would be much higher if
the D.O.D. actually included the Army
Reservists and National Guardsmen who commit suicide in their count as
well. These two main culprits I address are severe substance abuse
(mismanagement of medication the VA and Army hospitals call it) and
The first issue is quite self-explanatory, but
the second, not so much. In laymen’s terms, toxic leadership involves
abusive leaders- both physically and emotionally abusive- though we
mostly see it in the form of ‘hands off, no physical evidence provable’
emotional abuse, like constant hazing, even in combat zones where it is
uncalled for and does NOTHING to promote the mission. This often leaves
scars- a sense of anti-authority- in the abused service member that is
long to fade, if it ever does, which in turn leads to the inability to
trust and extreme alienation from others.
However, there are great,
competent, motivating leaders within the ranks of the U.S. armed forces
who have sacrificed not just their enlistment terms, or one weekend a
month and two weeks a year to do the right thing as far as leadership
goes, but who have committed their entire being to this cause. One such
leader is First Sergeant Byron Humphrey of the United States Army.
first knew First Sergeant Humphrey as ‘Drill Sergeant’ Humphrey back in
infantry school and A.I.T. at Fort Benning, Georgia. I had enlisted in
the National Guard at the ripe age of thirty three and was actually
thirty four by the time I made it to basic, and in spite of my years,
which should have led to a more mature insight that often brings calm in
spite of oncoming storms, I was terrified! I knew it would be hard, but
I feared that because of my age, that my prime was well behind me and
that after the Army ‘broke me down’ in the first half the cycle, there
would be nothing left to ‘build back up.’
These fears intensified
when I laid eyes on the rock of a man who was to be my platoon’s Drill
Sergeant. He entered the foyer once we’d marched to the reception area,
jaw tight, eyes level with the horizon. His chest was bulging though he
was making no effort to stick it out. His shoulders were broad and as
square as his jaw, and he had an air of confidence like I’ve rarely
seen. I remember thinking I’d made the biggest mistake of my life, and
that no; I hadn’t enlisted at nearly middle age, because this decision,
for me, was going to make the mid-point of my life age 17. I was going
And then he spoke.
“I’m not a screamer,” he said when
he first addressed us. “I don’t yell. I don’t punish people for crimes
they don’t commit. We are at war, and within one year of the time you
leave here, ninety percent of you will be in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
It is my job to train you and instill in you the necessary skills
you’ll need to come back. Follow me.”
As he led us to our bay, where
we would begin learning the rules and start our training, my fears
subsided, but my respect for this man who I’d just met was elevated.
This was not the screaming, red faced dictator type I’d seen on movies
like “Full Metal Jacket.” Was I in the right place?
Over the course
of the next fourteen weeks I would watch as Drill Sergeant Humphrey put
his money where his mouth was. Not only did he train us beyond a point
which few of us thought we could go, but he was right there training
with us. He too was in his thirties, yet he could run circles around
every man in our platoon, many of who were nearly half his age, do more
pushups and sit-ups than any of us, and shoot any weapon we shouldered
better than the best man among us. He was a super soldier, while at the
same time performing all the required tasks and responsibilities as the
super leader he also was.
He remained true to his word the entire
cycle. He didn’t scream unnecessarily. He didn’t punish people when
there was no need. He motivated the incorrigible, quickened the
obtainment of maturity in so many of the youth, and helped old geezers
like me find gears we never knew we had, which enabled us not to return
to our primes, but get closer to them than any other means I would have
Sure, there’s always “that guy.” And we had
“that guy” who challenged Drill Sergeant Humphrey. He had grown up,
fatherless, in the inner city and had been involved in gang activity,
and at the age of eighteen, the Army represented this young man’s last
stop before the train reached the station. Yet, even in dealing with
this young man, Drill Sergeant Humphrey kept his cool, was reserved, and
didn’t yell and scream and punish the group for anything stupid this
individual was doing. Rather, he delegated authority with the wisdom of a
corporate C.E.O. or a competent Commander in Chief.
He took another
soldier, one who was very serious, very disciplined- the exact opposite
of this young man- and paired the two together as battle buddies. Oh,
the laughs we had over that, when “Private Serious” would take “Private
Dirt Bag” down to the foyer when our grueling , sixteen hour days were
through, and put him through more, private, battle buddy instruction;
drill and ceremony, memorization of weapon mechanics, etc. By the end
of the cycle, “Private Dirt Bag” had become one of the most squared away
soldiers in our platoon, and “Private Serious” had learned to lighten
up and laugh, and the two of them had become great friends.
And Drill Sergeant Humphrey had never raised his voice.
I’d come from a strong athletic background, having been a state
champion miler in high school and running track and cross country in
college, but those years were a third of my lifetime behind me, and I
thought I’d never see anything remotely close to them again.
Drill Sergeant Humphrey did not see things this way.
He motivated me, pushed me, and pulled the magic back out of me that I
thought had long ago died. As a result, I lead not only my platoon in
P.T. but the entire brigade during my cycle. I scored a 360 on the final
P.T. test (which has a maximum score of 300) of basic training, having
done, in two minutes, 95 pushups, 100 sit-ups, and then running a timed
two miles in 11:30. Yes, my body did these things at the age of thirty
four, but it was Drill Sergeant Humphrey’s motivation and leadership
style that made my mind realize it was possible.
At the time, the
highest P.T. scoring soldier in basic training was often rewarded with a
trip to airborne school for their performance. There were two slots
available for this in our platoon and I remember how happy I was
thinking that I would be going to airborne school and fulfilling a
lifelong fantasy of so many who have ever served; jumping out of planes
and earning my wings. However, the Army didn’t want to “waste the slot”
on me because I was a National Guardsman. I understood their position. I
would not be going to an airborne unit. I would never jump again. I
would become only what we call a five jump chump.
Humphrey, when informing me that I might not make it to airborne because
of my guard status, looked me in the eyes and asked me if I really
wanted it, and if I promised to work as hard there as I had in basic if
he could pull it off. I told him yes, and he spent endless hours over
the next few days, in lengthy meetings with people way above him in
rank, and he finally got me the slot to airborne school. As he told me,
“It isn’t about what unit you are going to. It’s about what you did here
at basic, and you kicked a##!” I went to Airborne School, I became a
five jump chump, and I got my wings. And this is not so much because I
“kicked a##,” but because my leader also kicked a##. He not only
motivated me to such a high level of performance, but he also went to
bat for me when I needed him.
I’ve stayed in touch with First
Sergeant Humphrey, first minimally and professionally as my short lived,
one enlistment career in the military progressed (I’ll always remember
the times he checked in with me while I was in Iraq to make sure I was
okay), and a little more personally now that I am a civilian once again.
When I found out he’d made it to the rank of First Sergeant, arguably
the most respected position, enlisted or commissioned, in the entire
Army, I was not surprised and I was as happy for him as I’ve ever been
for myself when good things have come my way.
Humphrey has deployed more than half a dozen times. He lost his best
friend in Iraq. The grueling life of the full time combat soldier who is
always on a constant deployment cycle has taken drastic tolls on his
personal life and has cost him a marriage. He could have chosen the
saner, more stable, and certainly the safer lifestyle of the civilian
sector at any of the numerous times that he has been up for
re-enlistment, yet he has stepped forward, repeatedly, in spite of his
personal losses, to lead the way for others.
I’ve drawn on many of
the lessons I learned during those fourteen weeks under Drill Sergeant
Humphrey’s care at Fort Benning. I remembered the lessons during the
tough times in Iraq, and I’ve drawn from them in the private sector
since. The biggest lesson First Sergeant Humphrey has taught me is that
your age, your competition- none of the circumstances around you- matter
in determining the outcome of your situation. It is your will; the
indomitable will that is within each of us. We just need to learn how to
pull it out.
First Sergeant Byron Humphrey taught me how to dig
deep and find my will, and he continues to do so for others as a First
Sergeant in the United States Army. There is no doubt in my mind that
the day will come when he is doing the same for the First Sergeants
under his leadership when he becomes a Sergeant Major! "