How the Army’s Retiring Top Enlisted Soldier Fought to Make Life Better for Troops by Being Open About Himself

July 28, 2023
Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston

“I just couldn’t imagine what those families were thinking.”

Sgt. 1st Class Michael James Goble, a New Jersey native and Green Beret assigned to 7th Special Forces Group, was killed in combat in Afghanistan three weeks before what would have been his 34th birthday. His remains were returned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Christmas Day 2019. He was the 20th U.S. service member to die in Afghanistan in that conflict’s deadliest year in half a decade.

Trying to help Goble’s family cope with their loss still shakes up Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston. Remembering the ceremony nearly four years later, Grinston’s face was flushed, his eyes slightly puffy and his jaw tensed as he tried to hold back tears.

It was the hardest day of his tenure.

Grinston, who has been the service’s top enlisted leader since 2019, has been a noncommissioned officer since before Operation Desert Storm, burdened with the experience of multiple wars and proximity to many casualties both in combat and at home due to the scourge of suicide. He’s not alone in that shared memory, and generations of soldiers have had to figure out how to cope with those less visible wounds.

What might make Grinston different, though, is that as a man in a leadership position he has been extremely open with his troops about the invisible divots those losses have left on him, and the struggles they’ve precipitated. He sought therapy, he says, while encouraging others to do the same. He talks often about struggles, and the toll service can take on troops and their loved ones.

“Like every soldier, it’s your family. It brings back all the times I’ve personally lost soldiers,” Grinston told Military.com, staring at the ceiling in his sparsely decorated Pentagon office as he gripped his camouflage pants. “When I see those families, I just think about the kids that I lost.”

Grinston is set to retire on Aug. 4. His time in the job has covered some of the most tumultuous and transformative times for the service since 9/11: Everything from the scandal revolving around the slaying of Spc. Vanessa Guillén; the pandemic; President Donald Trump’s rapidly shifting military policy; the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection; the collapse of Afghanistan; the Russian invasion of Ukraine; and the Iranian missile strike on Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, which wounded 110 troops.

But it’s mental health that has been the center of gravity for Grinston’s tenure. The year he took the job, the Army saw 258 suicides across its active-duty and part-time components, a number the service has struggled to reduce.

The Army is suffering from the nationwide shortage of mental health care workers, and soldiers consistently report appointment backlogs that can stretch beyond a month. The service also has virtually no policy or general guidlines for units to handle soldiers with suicidal ideation, and decisions on care are typically left to mid-level NCOs and commanders with no significant health care training.

Some of those problems are beyond Grinston’s control, but just openly discussing mental health care is a significant change for the force, which has traditionally seen seeking behavioral health as a weakness and something that would stifle careers.

Those sentiments are still pervasive in the force. But seeing a senior leader, and one with combat bona fides, talk about mental health and the routines he undertakes to take care of himself has set up a permission structure for troops to seek help.

Grinston wakes up most days at 4:15 a.m. and wraps up his morning stretch and workouts two hours later. He credits that time with preserving his mental health, though his four-year tenure has taken a toll.

“I think, without that routine, I wouldn’t have made it. I … to be honest probably would’ve had a mental breakdown or something. I wasn’t eating right, I wasn’t sleeping right,” Grinston recalled of the early part of his tenure, facing monumental pressure to get the Army through the pandemic and Guillén’s murder. “It was hard to focus on everything that I needed to focus on … and I went and asked for help. It was really hard.”

Even without an unrelenting barrage of career-defining events, the job as the service’s top enlisted leader is constantly demanding.

“He gets beat up like every leader in the Army does,” Command Sgt. Maj. Phil Blaisdell, the top enlisted leader of V Corps, told Military.com. “But from everything that was going on, thinking about his tenure as sergeant major of the Army, I don’t think anyone has been through four years of what he has gone through. He was really keeping the Army together.”

Social Media Stardom

Part of Grinston’s openness extends to allowing himself to be seen as more than a square-jawed soldier in a freshly pressed uniform.

Right before the interview for this story, early in the morning in his office at the Pentagon, Grinston rewatched the 82nd Airborne Chorus on “America’s Got Talent.”

“Those are great soldiers,” he said. “I’ll miss that.”

His declarations about his love for the troops, along with the polished figure he’s presented to media outlets for years as a guy fighting for the rank and file, could come off as a public relations creation were it not for the unfailing earnestness.

Yes, he has become a social media star in the military community through a carefully cultivated persona that his team nurtures constantly. That includes jumping in on lots of Army debates while also publicly being protective of those who wear the uniform and defending their right to do it, regardless of gender or race or any of the other dividing lines that have become major topics of criticism about the modern military from some commentators. He’s unusually available to the press, compared to most other Army leaders.

But he also makes a point of pulling aside junior troops, including those just out of basic training, who often seem panic-stricken that the sergeant major of the Army is talking to them. Grinston always disarms them using a combination of a friendly face, a casualness not always common among leaders, and typically a challenge coin. He also often walks away from those chats almost giddy.

That’s in contrast to the staid soldier the Army sees day to day. His humor is mostly dry, and he tends toward stiff mannerisms that make it hard for some to decipher when he’s joking. Pair that with his combat record, which includes four deployments to Iraq and two to Afghanistan, with two Bronze Stars for valor.

His willingness to present himself as a fully fledged human, talking about his own struggles and how he’s worked through them, is part of his strategy for grappling with the service’s suicide crisis. Instead of a reactive approach, he wants the Army to focus on prevention — an idea spurred from Dan Heath’s book “Upstream,” which Grinston routinely references.

“Upstream” focuses on solving problems before they happen. For Grinston, that means tackling suicide through quality of life. That means improving barracks and Army dining facilities and fostering a culture of engaged leaders. Grinston has also shifted the conversation to focusing on things like financial literacy and healthy romantic relationships, both of which can be major factors in deteriorating mental health for a soldier. He also points to the relationship between physical health and mental well-being, instead of physical training being strictly to build athleticism for combat.

Behind the scenes, Grinston has been vocal with both Army leadership and Congress about the need to improve quality of life. Publicly, he’s been using his social media footprint to get the message out directly to the troops.

“I see something on Military.com or Military Times that comes out on a topic. Then, you also see Grinston posting about it on all social platforms,” Kinmuan, the user name for the moderator of the Army Reddit forum, told Military.com. “It’s attacking on multiple levels, to get whatever he wants out.”

Establishing that online footprint was directly correlated with Guillén’s murder and the rash of misinformation around the incident online. A significant chunk of the independent Fort Hood report blasted the Army’s public affairs apparatus for slow-rolling information to the public, allowing conspiracy theories to swell and sparking the ire of Capitol Hill. The base has since been renamed Fort Cavazos.

But it wasn’t just getting a message out to the force. The Army forum on Reddit is a hub for the rank and file, complete with the service’s signature gallows humor. But more importantly, it’s a town square for soldiers to highlight issues they face, such as moldy barracks, a problem that has jumped to the forefront of housing issues in the service. It’s a place where a soldier can almost guarantee their issue will be seen by Grinston and his team and swiftly get feedback from them and other soldiers.

Through that line of communication on Reddit, Grinston’s office has become aware of and directly intervened in at least six cases of suicidal ideation since May. That frequent intervention, often in coordination with Kinmuan, has prompted the Army to create a procedure for taking posts from Reddit that raise red flags and then tracking down the poster. In some situations, the goal is to simply keep the soldier responding to messages. If they’re typing, they aren’t dead. Grinston’s office frequently reaches out to soldiers personally and, in at least one case, stayed on the phone with the soldier until they were checked into a hospital.

“They feel the weight of that office, and they feel like someone important is finally paying attention to the fact that they’re crying on the floor in their house,” Kinmuan said, referencing the numerous times he has flagged critical cries for help to the Army and talked to soldiers himself. “We have a lot of accountability and intervention now. A lot of that is using the standard [Grinston] has put out there. He’s the first senior leader that, I felt, empowered me to help soldiers.”

Childhood in the Dixie South

Grinston enlisted in the Army in 1987, meaning the service has shaped virtually his entire life, though he jokingly points out that he “had one free adult year” before enlisting at 19 years old. But Grinston never intended to make a career out of service.

He comes from the town of Jasper, Alabama, named for William Jasper, a famous Revolutionary War noncommissioned officer.

Born in 1968, he was raised by a single mother, who was white. His father, who was Black, has been out of the picture since Grinston was about three years old. Racial identity is something he has struggled with most of his life. He saw the Ku Klux Klan marching during his childhood years.

“I love my hometown. I do,” Grinston said. “But did I see things? Did people say things to me? 100%. What was worse is if they said something to my mom … just bad things. One time, I found a note on her car and it had some … racial stuff on it. Those are the things that were hurtful.”

Growing up, Grinston had food in the house, but looking back later in life knows his family was poor. His mother was raising three kids by herself, delivering newspapers. Some of Grinston’s earliest memories from when he started walking were helping his mother prep newspapers for delivery at 2 a.m. He would often ride along with her, tossing newspapers out of the car window and helping in any way he could, something that might explain his surprising tolerance for journalists as an Army leader.

“She never took help from anybody; she did it on a job that most people would probably look down on,” he said. “I’m very proud of what my mom did.”

By the time he finished high school, he had plans for college including generous academic scholarships. After some time working with his uncle in construction, Grinston wanted to study architecture at Mississippi State University.

His first year of college was covered, so he was on the hook for only about $20 out of pocket. But after realizing what college would cost after scholarships ran out, he knew he needed help. That’s when an Army recruiter happened to call him.

The plan was simple: Do a quick two years in the Army, get out, and use GI Bill benefits to help supplement the rest of the schooling he needed. And Grinston, a specialist at the time, had one foot out of the service — after 18 months, he reapplied and was reaccepted into Mississippi State’s architecture program.

But the Army made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: a fast track to sergeant and the opportunity to serve closer to home. In September 1989, he was a noncommissioned officer and assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Thirty-four years later, he’s stepping away from the service.

ACFT Hype Man

Maybe where Grinston’s wielding of his social media clout and a direct line to the press has faced the greatest political headwinds has been his efforts to sell the skeptics of the new fitness test, which included the Army secretary, Congress and — most importantly — the rank and file.

When he took the job, the new test, which was made official in October, was mostly complete. He had the difficult task of convincing many that it was needed and an improvement on the fitness test that had made or broken careers since the 1980s.

But Grinston was relentless. He spent a huge chunk of his tenure traveling to different bases pitching the test to soldiers and taking it with them, even inviting members of the press and Capitol Hill staff to join in. He would post his own scores and talked about his own difficulties with the test, including deadlifts early on. His last test saw an almost perfect score, but the event in which soldiers throw a 10-lb. medicine ball was his white whale.

The old Army Physical Fitness Test rewarded slim soldiers who could run fast. But the new Army Combat Fitness Test needs soldiers who are strong, deadlift beyond their own body weight, are able to carry kettlebells and still run … just not as fast. But the test itself wasn’t the real goal: It was changing the whole culture of fitness in the Army. Yes, running is still a staple of an Army workout. But now soldiers are dragging sleds, flipping tires and other workouts generally associated with CrossFit.

Grinston was convinced that skeptics would be on board after taking the test themselves, as they’d be forced to experience just how difficult it is. Even the most die-hard opponents of the new test had a tough time arguing that the old APFT was a better measurement of overall fitness, though the Army has yet to solve the puzzle of proper grading scales for combat arms and women.

Nonetheless, in recent months the Senate has been debating going back to the old test, which led Grinston to summon a small group of reporters onto a call for some indirect lobbying, telling lawmakers, through the media, that the idea was ludicrous.

Grinston wanted an Army that was more fit and saw an upgraded fitness test as a key component to waging the next war.

But he won’t be fighting that war. He’s got only a few days left before he takes off his uniform for good.

Grinston does not have a civilian job lined up and plans to take a few months off to spend time with his family, golf and do some home remodeling after a breakneck schedule has ruled his life for years. Yet he sees himself working for a nonprofit that helps soldiers and veterans, the defense industry or something totally disconnected from the military — like banking.

“I’m really proud that I got a chance to serve in the Army,” Grinston said. “I don’t think there’s anything in my life I would change. I’ve enjoyed it; I’ve been really lucky. And no matter how hard and how painful it’s been … so far … I think it’s been worth it.”

Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can call the Veteran Crisis Line, 988 and press 1. Help also is available by text, 838255, and via chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net.

— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

 

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