A Soldier’s Soldier


by Ralph Peters [author, novelist]

Few American soldiers have more combat-zone dust on their boots than Command Sgt. Maj. Philip F. Johndrow, US Army. After serving a total of 42 months in Iraq at every tactical level, he’s earned the right to speak up.

Recently, he agreed to give New York Post readers the view from the soldiers’ level:

Question: In your 3½ years in Iraq, was there a “finest hour?”

CSM Johndrow: “A day I will always remember with pride came on my third deployment. I had to go to the Baghdad Zoo, which had just reopened. Five or six families were laying out blankets and having picnics, playing with their kids. A father and a mother expecting another child had three little ones around them. I asked how things were going.

“The man told me to look around at the families having fun and how excited he was not to have to worry about violence, since security had improved so much. What I saw in his eyes was hope. That was the day I knew things were finally getting better — in Iraqi eyes, not just our eyes.”

Q: What was your darkest hour in Iraq?

Johndrow: “Every time I went to a memorial for a fallen soldier. I attended memorials for over 500 soldiers. Each one was a member of my family. At the peak of the surge, I attended a memorial almost every day for four months. We need to thank them every day, along with their families, for what they sacrificed for us.”

Q: In today’s conflicts, noncommissioned officers (NCOs) have greater responsibilities than ever before. What works, and what doesn’t?

Johndrow: “What works is a genuine love and passion for being a soldier . . . and soldiers knowing that their fellow team members are going to take care of each other each time they go on a mission outside the wire.

“I’m extremely proud of our NCO corps and how we’ve progressed since I was a young sergeant. Our NCOs continue to amaze me. When I visited them at the combat support hospital, no matter how badly wounded they were, their first concern was the welfare of their soldiers. I’ve had NCOs apologize to me for getting wounded because they felt that, by being evacuated, they were letting their team down.

“I had one wounded soldier we never thought would make it back. One Thanksgiving Day, there he was. I asked him why he came back on Thanksgiving, when he could’ve stayed with his family. He said, ‘Sergeant Major, that’s why I came back today — so I could be with my family for Thanksgiving. You’re my family.’

“And I had a platoon-sergeant truck driver who lost his arm in an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] attack. This NCO argued with me that he could still drive a truck with one arm — he didn’t want to be evacuated.”

Q: It must be challenging for NCOs with multiple combat tours to “train up” new lieutenants.

Johndrow: “My dad, an NCO veteran of the Korean War and Vietnam, told me that the most dangerous person on the battlefield was a lieutenant, and it was our fault as NCOs if we didn’t train them. Today, our NCOs take great pride in training our young officers. If you ask any general today, he’ll tell you about the NCO who helped mentor him. Young officers with whom I served are now commanding corps, divisions, brigades and battalions. I’m extremely proud of each one of them.”

Q: As a sergeant major from squadron level on up, serving at the crucial point where the enlisted and officer ranks meet, you’ve obviously been a success. Your secret?

Johndrow: “First, never forget where you came from. Second, love your soldiers just as you love your family. Third, treat all soldiers with dignity and respect. Fourth, you have to be a servant-leader, not a self-serving leader.”

Q: What was the most challenging tactical mission in Iraq?

Johndrow: “To adapt. At the outset, we thought, ‘We’re soldiers, we do the fighting, and someone else will come in behind us to do the reconstruction.’ But there was no one to pass it on to. So you had soldiers running oil refineries and water-treatment plants . . . running cities . . . and they learned as they went along.”

Q: Last thoughts?

Johndrow: “I want to finish by thanking the American public for what they do. I travel everywhere in my uniform, and I have people coming up to me all of the time, thanking us, as soldiers, for what we do. I say, ‘Thank you. You’re an American taxpayer and you pay me to do exactly what I chose to do, and that’s to be an American soldier. You’ve enabled me to be part of the most-honored profession in the world.’ ”

Q: Sergeant major, thank you for speaking to Post readers — and, above all, thank you for your service.


NY Post / copyright 2009 NY Post

Ralph Peters new novel, “The War After Armageddon,” is on the street. He is Fox News’ strategic analyst. His most recent book is “Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World.”

Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of 19 books, as well as of hundreds of essays and articles, written both under his own name and as Owen Parry. He is a frequent columnist for the New York Post and other publications.

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