Thursday, February 02, 2006

Top soldier has big dreams

A story I did for last week's edition:

Knox's top soldier has big dreams

Turret staff writer

Jeff Heinrich started on his lunch in the seating area of Taco John's/Godfather's Pizza on Fort Knox's Eisenhower Avenue and chuckled about a recent accomplishment.

"They told me when I was going through the whole process, 'Yeah, you can win all this stuff, there's all these rewards that come with being the Soldier of the Year,'" he said, pausing between bites of pizza. "But I was just doing it because I wanted to get promoted."

It worked. Last year, on Sept. 7, then-Spc. Heinrich snapped to attention in front of the Fort Knox Soldier of the Year board. Surprisingly, he wasn't exactly happy to be there.

"I actually didn't want to go to the Soldier of the Year board, because it was the same day as my promotion board," he said.

Plus, Heinrich had already been to five competitive boards over the past three months.

"It's a lot of time in your Class A's," he said.

Fortunately for Heinrich, as soon as he was finished with the first board, he headed back to 16th Cavalry Regiment headquarters for his promotion board. Knowing Heinrich had just come from the post's highest competitive board for junior enlisted Soldiers, the president of the promotion board let him go without a single question.

After his brief appearance at the promotion board, Heinrich said, he headed back across post and found that he'd won Soldier of the Year. Turning right around and going back to 16th Cav, he learned once he arrived that he'd been promoted, too.

And while he did win some tangible rewards--$1,000 in savings bonds, about $400 in cash, and two Colt Peacemaker pistols--Heinrich's main goal had been a set of sergeant's stripes.

"I always thought I was a leader, and it's nice to be recognized--to have the stripes to back you up," he said.

Now 25 years old and a full-fledged sergeant, Heinrich, a New Jersey native who worked in St. Paul, Minn., as an investment representative before enlisting, has spent just over two years in the Army as a cavalry scout. He holds a bachelor's degree in business communications from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D.

"I went in and joined up at the start of the war," he said, "but my friends all were like, 'Dude, you have a degree.' They thought I was crazy, they didn't get it.

"I'm not sure I exactly got it either when I signed up," he added. "I knew it was something I wanted to do, so I just had to pull the trigger. I was young, I didn't have any attachments. I knew if it got too late, I would never do it.

"It was about the time the war started. I wanted to go serve my country."

After his boards, Heinrich packed up for the Primary Leadership Development Course at Fort Knox's Noncommissioned Officers Academy--a four-week instruction period where experienced specialists and corporals and newly-promoted sergeants learn the basics of leading troops.

However, he had to leave the course briefly when the post Recognition of Excellence ceremony was held at Haszard Auditorium Dec. 9. Some of his instructors and fellow students were surprised.

"I got pulled out of PLDC to go to the ceremony," he said. "So everybody knew about it. I caught a lot a heat for that... (but) it was all in fun."

After graduating from PLDC, Heinrich moved to Headquarters and Headquarters Troop's weapons squad in the 2/16 Cavalry. He's currently training to certify as an instructor for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

"We teach lieutenants (in the Armor Officers Basic Course) how to operate the Bradley," he explained. "It's like basic training with lieutenants... except we don't yell at them."

For others interested in going through the selection board process, Heinrich said confidence is the critical element.

"You walk in, and you see a table full of five sergeants major staring at you... it's a little intimidating," he said. "That's the whole point of boards: they try to intimidate you, and you've just got to hold your ground and let them know that you think you have the confidence to be in that room with them."

It can be hard to maintain composure, he said, but that's even more important than answering questions correctly.

"They're going to give you funny looks, and they're going to try to make you nervous," he explained. "You've just got to not pay attention to it, just focus on what you're going in there for.

"Answer your questions. If you miss one, who cares?" he said. "Because you're going to miss questions. That's just going to happen when you go in there, because nobody knows everything... except those guys. And you've just got to not let it affect you. Because that's what they want to see happen: they want to see you miss a question and break down."

Appearing before boards is a good idea even for Soldiers who aren't so inclined, Heinrich said.

"Everybody says they don't want to go to these boards," he said. "The thing is, it can only help you."

Heinrich said he plans on leaving the Army once his initial enlistment is up in eight months. He wants to join one of the United States' top law enforcement agencies--the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Secret Service.

"That was always my goal in joining the military--to get my foot in the door to one for those agencies," he said. "It's not that I dislike the military--I respect it, and I love the time I've spent in. But I wanted to move on, and I always knew I did. I knew I wasn't going to make it a career. If I'd wanted to make it a career, I would have joined as an officer."

As Heinrich starts his new job as a Bradley instructor, he said he'd rather not have people form ideas about him based on his prestigious award. To him, it's not that big a deal.

"They say it is, and it's awesome, but I don't like drawing attention to myself," he said, finishing his pizza. "That's kind of why I didn't tell them about it at PLDC... I'd just as soon go about doing my job and let people think what they want to think about me by the way they interact with me socially or personally as opposed to the 'Soldier of the Year.'"


UPDATE: Open Post at Argghhh!