How the Army's Retiring Top Enlisted Soldier Fought to Make Life Better for Troops by Being Open About Himself
2023/07/30

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"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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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