WASHINGTON - Kenneth Preston left his small Western Maryland hometown in the spring of 1975, ditching his hopes of becoming an architect to join the Army and train to fight the Soviets.
Nearly three decades later, Preston has risen to become the top enlisted man in the service - sergeant major of the Army. And he has become an architect of sorts, helping senior leaders design a fighting force to battle a more shadowy and adaptable enemy.
"What we've learned is that the battlefield changed," says Preston, who takes his position at the Pentagon after serving for the past year in Iraq with the Army's V Corps. "It's not like the Cold War."
He saw firsthand how the teeming cities of Iraq can hide enemy gunmen while a dead animal or trash on a desolate road can shield a bomb, the ever-present IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) that are killing his comrades every week. The Army, he says, now faces a "360-degree battlefield," meaning the enemy is everywhere, and America's fighting men and women must quickly adapt.
The sergeant major of the Army is the top enlisted adviser to the Army's senior officer, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the chief of staff, advising him on everything from training, food and uniforms to health care and housing.
Preston, who turns 47 this month, hopes to instill a "warrior ethos" in all soldiers. Senior officers fear that over the years some support troops - those less likely to be on the front lines - have lost their fighting edge.
That view was reinforced last spring when members of the Army's 507 Maintenance Company - including the subsequently famous Jessica Lynch - were ambushed by fedayeen fighters and captured. Most of the company's soldiers were unable to shoot back after their weapons jammed because they had not been properly maintained.
"We're all soldiers first," insists Preston, who says all troops will soon be required to qualify twice annually with their weapons - rather than once - and take part each year in a live-fire convoy exercise to prepare them for one of the perils soldiers face in Iraq.
Preston rode into Iraq with Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, the commanding general of V Corps, behind the lead brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, one of the units that spearheaded the attack. He recalls later instructing soldiers in Iraq to be aware of their surroundings, watch for suspicious patches or piles in the road that could hide bombs. "Don't be a truck driver," Preston told them, "be a NASCAR driver and maneuver."
His military pedigree covers all the services: He was born at the Naval Academy hospital, the son of an Army soldier and an Air Force mother. Now one of his three children wears the same uniform. Michael, 22, an Army reservist, is in Baghdad with the Cumberland-based 372nd Military Police Company.
Preston's calm and stoic demeanor reflects his hardscrabble rural roots in Allegany County, where his father, a tinsmith and draftsman by trade, also ran a farm. He points to a small scar under his chin, the lasting mark of a 5-year-old who fell against a heavy bucket as he headed off to feed the pigs.
Stocky, with close-cropped brown hair and dressed in Army fatigues, the laid-back Preston seems out of place in his spare office on the Pentagon's high-powered "E" Ring, a corridor that bustles with civilian leaders and the top brass, their attentive aides in tow.
The oldest of four children, Preston played high school soccer in Mount Savage and ended up marrying his classmate, Karen, whom he had known since first grade. He could have farmed part-time and gone to college, Preston says, but he settled on the Army and its promise of education money.
"I was looking at getting out on my own and being independent," says Preston, who has gone on to earn an automotive mechanics degree and some college credits through the service.
While he never planned on making the Army a career, he rose quickly in the ranks and became the top tank gunner in his division. And while he was approached at one time by an Army colonel about applying to officer candidate school, he politely declined. "I really enjoyed what I was doing," he says, "and I was getting good at it."
There were 16 nominees for the top enlisted job, which carries an annual base pay of $73,080. Schoomaker had his staff whittle them down to five and then spent seven hours interviewing the finalists.
"That was the toughest competition," Schoomaker said in a brief interview in a Pentagon hallway. The top general, himself a taciturn and unflappable soldier, said he was looking for someone who would "complement me in personality" and also be an effective leader.
Preston fit the bill, Schoomaker said, and the sergeant major's experience over the past year was key. "Iraq was important," he said.
"We have a real soldier here," Schoomaker said, swearing in Preston at a Pentagon ceremony last month. "I am confident he will serve our soldiers well as we transform and reorganize our Army." Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, termed Preston as "a soldier's soldier" who was constantly on the road when he was in Iraq, "looking after our soldiers and digging into the issues that affected their safety."
Preston's background and qualifications "give him tremendous credibility" among the troops, Sanchez said in an e-mail from Baghdad.
Preston's immediate predecessor, Jack Tilley, a chatty and engaging Vietnam veteran, calls Preston "a real down-to-earth kind of guy. I think he's quiet, but he's a great listener."
Tilley logged about 800,000 miles as the top enlisted soldier, and Preston says he expects to travel to meet the troops 200 days out of the year.
'How soldiers feel"
The rank of sergeant major of the Army has its roots in the fledgling Continental Army of 1775 and was seen as crucial to keeping a well-disciplined and trained force. The post was eliminated in a cost-cutting move in 1920. During the Vietnam War, Gen. Harold K. Johnson, then chief of staff, said that if the noncommissioned officer is truly the "backbone of the Army," the senior enlisted job must be reinstated. He signed General Orders No. 29, bringing back the sergeant major of the Army on July 4, 1966.
A later sergeant major of the Army, Glen E. Morrell, likened his job of frank advice and criticism to "the slick duck hunter who lays back and waits for the right time to get in a shot."
Tilley says of the post, "I'm here to tell you how the soldiers feel." And he predicts that Preston and Schoomaker will make "a good team."
But these will likely be some of the toughest times in recent memory to be the top enlisted adviser to an Army chief of staff.
Besides the almost daily toll of dead and wounded in Iraq, many officers and lawmakers argue that the Army is stretched thin. Eight of the 10 divisions are moving to or returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bonuses of $5,000 to $10,000 are being offered to soldiers who re-enlist. There are backlogs for training and schooling for noncommissioned officers. Many officers and analysts fear that recruiting and retention will suffer.
Two weeks ago, Lt. Gen. John Riggs told The Sun that the 480,000-soldier Army must be increased "substantially" more than the 10,000-soldier increase that passed the Senate last year but failed to win approval in the House. And Tilley says he believes the Army must have more soldiers, saying, "The Army is stretched too thin."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Schoomaker balk at increasing the size of the Army and are instead planning a temporary 30,000-soldier expansion and other measures, such as sending soldiers who are performing essentially civilian jobs back into combat divisions. Such a move is expected to eventually free up about 10,000 soldiers.
"That's 10,000 soldiers who can be put into deployable units," says Preston, who agrees with the Pentagon hierarchy that there is now no need to permanently boost the Army's size.
Recruiting and retention must be monitored, Preston agrees, during these busy times for the active Army and the Army Guard and Reserve, who will make up about 40 percent of the 105,000 soldiers on the ground in Iraq by May. "It's a concern that's being watched closely," he says, adding that the Army is meeting its goals.
During his years in the Army, Preston says, he has noticed that some of the busiest units have the highest retention. He expects that to hold true in Iraq.
"Soldiers who come into the Army today come in to be soldiers," he says, "and part of something bigger than themselves."