KANADAHAR — The International Security Assistance Force’s senior enlisted leader completed his 100th and final battlefield circulation Aug. 13.
Since Aug. 4, 2009, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael T. Hall has traveled more than 265 days to various combat outposts, forward operating bases, camps and bases scattered throughout Afghanistan. He’s also made 12 overseas trips to NATO units in Europe and the United States to brief them on counterinsurgency strategy before they deploy to Afghanistan.
Most importantly, Hall goes to the front lines to listen to troops, see what they see and do what they do for few days and nights. Then he takes back their comments and suggestions, along with his observations, to the ISAF commander.
Last year, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, then the ISAF commander, asked Hall to come out of retirement to serve as the ISAF and U.S. Forces Afghanistan command sergeant major. He has continued in that role during the transition period since Army Gen. David H. Petraeus took the ISAF reins July 4.
“I was tasked by the commander of ISAF to help change the mindset of ISAF forces,” Hall said. “You can write things, and the chain of command can pass [the intent down]. But the commander wanted to ensure the troops at the lowest leader level, that first-line supervisor, understood his intent. What was being asked of troops was hard, and they had to believe in it.
“By being out there with them,” he continued, “I could explain the intent and also get feedback so we could modify our strategy based on what was working and what wasn’t. This is a battle of perception of the Afghan people, and the forces at the lowest level will be the ones to win this, not the people in [the Afghan capital of] Kabul.” In addition to traveling three to five days a week for his own battlefield circulations, Hall also would accompany the ISAF commander twice a week on trips around the country to gather troop feedback.
“I tried to spend time with every brigade and separate battalion-sized element, covering all the services’ combat, combat support and combat service support units, all the contributing nations, all the separate entities like special operations forces, provincial reconstruction teams, agricultural development teams, route-clearing units, engineers building things, training organizations, etc., trying to show that everybody was important to the fight,” Hall said. “[The] goal was to spend time with them during predeployment, within a few months of them arriving, and near the end of their deployment.”
Hall spent most of his 32 years in uniform serving in special operations. This included a two-year stint in the 1990s in which he served under McChrystal at the 75th Ranger Regiment. He also served as the command sergeant major for Joint Special Operations Command, where he helped to lead the initial U.S. invasion into Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001.
Hall has observed significant changes and implemented some as well during his year as the senior enlisted leader for ISAF.
“I have been able to establish a wide-ranging Internet network that regularly passed best practices,” Hall said. “[I] was also able to use this ‘flat’ network to quickly get feedback on hot issues that needed opinions from the field in a timely manner. I think the most significant contribution has been that units coming over have been hitting the ground running as a result of providing timely information to prepare them for deployment. I have been able to explain why we do things and make folks understand the urgency and importance of what we are trying to do, to ensure we don’t repeat mistakes of the past.
“The benefit, I hope, was to be able to show [the ISAF coalition forces] the progress they have made,” Hall continued. “Soldiers are at it day after tough day; they lost friends and family. They often question, are we really making progress? Is this worth it? I can never answer that hard question on whether it is worth it. Each individual must answer that, but I am able to point out the changes I observed since the last time I was there and let them know that every decision we make, we make with the soldier in mind.”
Hall said he has many memories of his deployment to Afghanistan and was proud to contribute to the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, a place he’s been involved with since initial U.S. forces, including Rangers he led, entered the country in late 2001.
On his final battlefield circulation, Hall visited four units in Regional Command South, including Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 232, a unit that flies F‑18 jets out of Kandahar Airfield.
“I think it was great to see the high command come in the area,” said Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. George Foster, the squadron’s maintenance administration chief. “It gets eyes on what the men are going through.”
Marine Corps Cpl. Juan Alas, powerline mechanic with the squadron, said he and Hall had a good discussion about his duties. “We talked about engines and ordnance,” he said. “His visit was pretty motivating.”
Hall also visited Task Force Destiny here, led by the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade from Fort Campbell, Ky.
“It’s a tremendous morale boost for the soldiers,” said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Trevor Beharie, the unit’s senior enlisted soldier. “He’s definitely a soldier’s leader.
“We’re lucky to have someone of his caliber at the ISAF headquarters,” Beharie continued. “He cares about the soldiers. He cares about the mission. It’s evident from the moment you meet him. He understands the commander’s guidance and he takes that to the field.”
Army Spc. Ryan Egnor noted Hall’s genuine concern. “He’s not sugarcoating it,” he said. “He’s trying to find out if there are reasonable things he can fix.” Prior to the Kandahar trip, Hall also made it up to Regional Command North to visit 10th Mountain Division soldiers and to accompany a foot patrol to the village of Aliabad with one of his former soldiers.
“He’s had a huge impact,” Army Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Defreese of the division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team. Defreese served as a platoon sergeant under Hall in the 101st Airborne Division.
“I don’t have enough adjectives to describe what he’s done,” Defreese said. “He’s a national asset.” Hall said spending time with troops has made it all worthwhile.
“What I’ll miss the most is the honesty and candor that you get from troops — the sense from these folks that they really understand what things in life are really important,” Hall said.
“Physically it beats you up,” Hall said of his travels. “My schedule is so erratic that my body never gets to recover or get into a routine. At my age that can be a problem, but the strength and motivation I get from being around people keeps me going. Mentally, it’s tough also. You spend time with people that just lost someone, or you get back and read the reports of folks you were just with. It makes you stop.”
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, who most recently served as U.S. Army Central Command’s command sergeant major, will assume the ISAF senior enlisted leader position Sept. 1. Hall will retire again and will return to his wife and son in Tennessee. Then he’ll go back to work for the defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
As he headed into the final weeks of his tour, Hall reflected on the many positive changes he’s seen over the past 13 months in Afghanistan.
“Every organization, no matter what type or country, that has come over since about last November truly understands and believes in the counterinsurgency strategy and what we are trying to accomplish,” he said.
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