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NEWS | June 13, 2018

Honor, integrity on and off the trail

By Maj. Michelle Lunato 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training)

When most people think of drill sergeants, they think of disciplined instructors, intimidating stares and squared-away, by-the-book Soldiers. While these rigid images may all be true, it is only one side of the iconic job in today’s Army Reserve.

Drill sergeants in the Army Reserve have to be tough and disciplined to transform civilians into Soldiers in short periods of time. So the hard exterior is just a requirement of the mission. However, there is a lot more behind those stern-faced Soldiers. For many drill sergeants, patriotic passion, personal drive and depth of character push them to excel in the demanding role that helps shape the Army of tomorrow. 

Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Louis Rodriguez, a senior drill sergeant with Bravo Troop, 2nd Squadron (Cavalry One Station Unit Training), 415th Regiment, 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training), 108th Training Command (Initial Entry Training), signed up to become a Citizen-Soldier drill sergeant because of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. 

“I specifically came back into the military to become an Army Reserve drill sergeant,” said the Sacramento, California, native who had served on active duty from 1987 to 1992. “I was in the recruiter’s office that same week … put me back in.” 

But with nearly a 10-year break in service, Rodriguez could only join the Army Reserve as a private. That meant he was ineligible to become a drill sergeant, at least until he earned the rank of a noncommissioned officer. That didn’t deter the former private first class, though. As a trained medical professional in his civilian capacity, Rodriguez decided to join a medical unit until he was eligible for the drill sergeant role he ultimately wanted. 

Having served in Desert Storm, the Soldier said he knew the events of Sept. 11 would “grow into something bigger,” and it was time to put the uniform on again, and do his part. 

“I went back in because I wanted to teach somebody, anybody, or multiple people things to help them survive in a combat situation… I wanted to be able to instill something in Soldiers that would help give them that extra little thing.”

In 2005, Rodriguez achieved his goal when he donned the iconic Brown Round hat and became an Army Reserve drill sergeant. After several years of rotations on the trail training recruits, Rodriguez says he only has one afterthought.

“I didn’t realize how bad the hours would be … with just four hours of sleep a night at times,” he said with a laugh.

Regardless of the lack of sleep and long, hard hours, the Citizen-Soldier has no serious regrets about the decision that altered the course of his life. 

“Even now, I want to be able to have [the trainees] look back and say, ‘Oh, Drill Sergeant Rodriguez taught me this, and now I can use it.’ It might be that one single time that it works, or multiple times, but for them to think back about what they learned and it helps them in their life … that means a lot.” 

On the civilian side, the drill sergeant still serves the community as an MRI/CT technologist at the University of California Davis Medical Center. On the surface, the two different roles may not seem to go hand in hand. However, that’s not how Rodriguez looks at it though.

“The different roles balance me, I think. I’ve always enjoyed my customer service to patients. I’ve been doing this for 30 years now, and still, I enjoy the feeling immensely. And as a drill sergeant, it’s the same way. It’s a rewarding feeling when you see a Soldier who you’ve trained from Zero Day to Graduation Day. To see the way that they’ve changed and become a better person—it’s just a great feeling.”

This passion and drive to help others is not just something Rodriguez feels on the trail or in the hospital. It’s something he does every day. Its just part of who he is, said Sgt. 1st Class Glenn Holmes, a fellow 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division drill sergeant. 

“Rodriguez has always been a model of character. Not only does he make friends everywhere we go, he also helps everyone in need,” said Holmes referring to his mentor and friend of 10 years.

As Rodriguez is known for his exemplary conduct and character, it came as no huge surprise to his comrades that the drill sergeant would show up to the 2018 U.S. Army Reserve Command’s Best Warrior Competition (USARC BWC) with a personal side mission that, for people who don’t know him, may seem a bit odd. 

Outside of testing the competitors from seven geographic commands and 22 functional commands, Rodriguez’s personal mission at Fort Bragg, North Carolina is to spread the ashes of a fellow veteran and dear friend. While that alone is easy to understand, the odd part is that the ashes are of his wife’s ex-husband, 1st Lt. Ronald Alan Plunkett, a former special forces medic and physician’s assistant who served with Team Delta, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), which is headquartered at Fort Bragg. 

Rodriguez first met Plunkett as his stepson’s father. Over time, in the efforts of co-parenting, the two Soldiers began to realize they had a number of things in common, and naturally, like many Soldiers with shared experiences, they became friends. 

“Ron and I went through Basic Training together in 1987 at the same place, at the same time, but didn't know each other. We also served in combat during Desert Storm, in some of the same locations, but still hadn’t met,” explained the drill sergeant. “It wasn’t until 1997 that I met Ron, shortly after meeting my wife, Shannon. With the two of us being military and medical, we always enjoyed each other’s sick sense of humor, and enjoyed many laughs over the past 19 years.”

While the close bond may seem unusual to some, it just worked, said Rodriguez. It worked so well in fact, that the two Soldiers became the best of friends. 

“I didn’t really consider him just my wife’s ex husband, even though he was. I considered him my friend. He would introduce me as his husband-in-law,” reflected Rodriguez with a laugh. “It was funny—that was just the kind of relationship we had. We were friends.” 

The ability to really see the value in others, and look past the surface, is just one shining example of how honorable Rodriguez is, said Holmes. “First of all, he was able to not only accept [Plunkett], and co-parent with him, but he was able to become his friend.” 

The years passed with countless laughs, good beers and serious discussions on medicine and military service. Rodriguez even stood by Plunkett’s side as a groomsman when he decided to remarry. As the Soldiers’ friendship deepened, their mutual respect grew as well. 

“I always remember how intelligent he was. It just always blew my mind how smart he was,” said Rodriquez about Plunkett. “He was fluent in three languages … and all the stuff he knew about being a Soldier, it was just incredible to me. The stuff that he could just spit out, without having to reference a book … he was extremely knowledgeable—one of the most knowledgeable Soldiers I’ve met. One of the most decorated Soldiers I’ve ever met. I’ve never met a Soldier with that many awards on their uniform.”

The respect went both ways, too, explained the Army Reserve drill sergeant. “Ron [Plunkett] was rarely at a loss for words. This was one of his attributes that I always appreciated. He would always speak his mind. He would frequently tell me how much he loved me as his friend, as a father to his/our son, Shayne, and for bringing so much happiness to Shannon. He would say, ‘I couldn’t have asked for a better man to be a part of their lives.’”

With that level of closeness, it was just normal to discuss everything, said Rodriguez. So when Plunkett started having complications, including seizures, from his medications, the two Soldiers had some very real discussion about last wishes. 

“He passed away two years ago, and one of his last wishes was to have some of his ashes spread on a drop zone [at Fort Bragg],” explained Rodriguez. “I never thought I’d be at Bragg. We never have missions that come to Bragg. So when [the USARC BWC] mission came up, I said, ‘Put me on that,’ and I brought his ashes with me.” 

As a former Honor Guard Soldier, Rodriguez knows just how important memorials and last wishes are, not only for the deceased, but those left behind. After performing countless ceremonies, Rodriguez said he feels obligated to respect and honor veterans who have passed, and provide some comfort to their families.

“I think it’s extremely important for people to know that there are people out there who care and are grateful for their family members who’ve passed away. That’s really important to me.” 

Of course, coping with the emotion of a ceremony is difficult, but maintaining composure on the Honor Guard is a must, said Rodriguez. 

“When we had to perform our duties, it was always hard. Every time. Because different things would play in my head from my experiences, then the looks on the families’ faces as we are doing taps, 21-gun salute, holding the flag, and just learned to compartmentalize and put that part away and access it later because I am trying to do something honorable for that family, and I don’t want them to see me in that state. They are expecting me to be the professional.” 

Now, even with years of drill sergeant experience under his belt, composure will not be any less difficult when he spreads the ashes of a fellow veteran and friend. The spreading of ashes is not about closure though, said Rodriquez. It’s about respecting everything that Plunkett was and did.

“The things that he did as a Soldier, and a family friend, are just incredible. He was a great guy. To be able to do this for him as a last wish, is an honor for me…and it’s something I really want to do for him—just to respect his wishes.” 

That sense of obligation to a veteran and friend makes this deed normal for Rodriguez, but his leaders and peers say its just one more example of how noble and honorable the Army Reserve drill sergeant is. 

And from everyone’s reaction, Rodriguez says he’s realizing that what he thought was natural, might just stand out a bit. 

“It’s funny. Every time I tell this story about what I am doing here, I get the same kind of reaction when I tell them it’s my wife’s ex-husband. But they say, ‘It’s really cool of you to do this,’” said Rodriguez about the task he considers an honor and obligation. “I was just doing something to help my friend. But from the reaction I am getting from people, I guess it is something good.”