FORT LEE, Va. -- Command Sgt. Maj. Michael J. Perry III has logged thousands of hours toiling over hot stoves in kitchens across the Army but gladly points out his interests went far beyond the confines of those many dining facilities.
“What I did as a young sergeant with three years in the military was strive to be the best leader I could for the Soldiers I had the privilege of leading,” said the CASCOM CSM, only the second culinary specialist to carry that distinguished title. “From that standpoint, it didn’t matter what my MOS was.”
Although he is proud to be a food service professional, Perry acknowledged long-held stereotypes paint those in his career field as too singularly focused. He’s adamant that technical skills should never overshadow one’s purpose as a Soldier.
“There are those fundamental things NCOs are expected to do for their troops regardless of MOS,” said the 44-year-old. “I just continued to concentrate on that and being technically proficient as a food service Soldier. I never lost focus on leadership as an obligation to the Army.”
Perry, who has spent 26 years in uniform, views leadership as the cornerstone of his soldierly existence, but said he was never attracted to positions of higher rank because of power, prestige or authority.
“I see myself as servant-leader who has a span of positive influence,” he said. “Leaders are going to give you one of two examples: the one to follow or the one not to follow. From my experience, the best leaders having the greatest impact weren’t necessarily the fastest, the strongest or who held the highest positions; it was truly the person, who they were, how they carried themselves and the positive influence they fostered.”
As CASCOM’s top enlisted leader, Perry’s span of influence is far greater than any of his past assignments, including his last as Sustainment Directorate sergeant major for Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve in the Middle East. As part of the leadership team under Maj. Gen. Rodney D. Fogg, CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general, Perry helps oversee an organization responsible for training and leader development, sustainment doctrine and force design, and comprised of several schoolhouses and thousands of Soldiers and civilians at several installations.
“Never would I have thought, especially back in August of 1992 when I started this journey, I would serve as the CASCOM command sergeant major,” he said. “I am honored and humbled to have this opportunity, and that’s what it is, an entrusted position as a part of this command that does so much for our Army.”
Perry’s bent on servant-leadership has its beginnings in Youngstown, Ohio. The son of a former Marine and ex-Sailor, he grew up mostly in a single household, the oldest of four children and who was fully aware of his circumstances. That cognizance would factor in his decision to join the Army.
“Although I got very good grades in school, what I didn’t want to do is burden my mother or myself with a bunch of student loans, so I looked at the military as a great opportunity to first, kind of get a good foundation in life, and second, get money for school,” he said. “My plan was to do three years then transition back to Ohio and go to college.”
Perry’s initial intent never panned out. He was confronted with such an array of life-enriching and life-altering opportunities in the Army, he found it difficult to reject. Perry went on to serve as a food service Soldier in such locales as Fort Richardson, Alaska; Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Hood, Texas. His CSM assignments include the 101st Airborne Division Sustainment Brigade, Fort Campbell, Ky.; 264th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, Fort Bragg; and Regimental Support Squadron, 2d Cavalry Regiment, Vilseck, Germany.
Perry’s ascension to the rank of CSM came via CSM Ken Taylor and CSM Armando Alfaro, the top enlisted leaders for the 4th Brigade Combat Team and 782nd Main Support Battalion, respectively. Alfaro recommended and Taylor approved Perry for a 782nd MSB first sergeant position after he made the E-8 promotion list. It was the kind of a boots-on-the-ground opportunity Perry savored and one very few food service Soldiers come by.
“I’m thankful to them because if they wouldn’t have looked past my MOS and just trusted what they saw in my performance and my potential to serve in that very demanding position, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I was given throughout my career,” he said.
Wearing the first sergeant’s diamond insignia was the biggest meal, so to speak, Perry would ever have to prepare. The health and welfare of hundreds of personnel were the main course and a plethora of accompanying issues were the side items he had to constantly consume. Perry was hungry for leadership, however, and endured 42 months during a tenure that included the loss in 2007 of one of his Soldiers during a unit deployment to Afghanistan.
“The promise I tried to make to our Soldiers and families when we deployed in January ’07 was ‘Bring everyone back safe,’” he remembered. “As the first sergeant, I felt like I had failed.”
Perry noted his recovery from the loss was advanced after meeting the Soldier’s mother, who had come to grips with her son’s death and offered him messages of encouragement, comfort and compassion.
“What she said to me that day got me to that next level of never forgetting the Soldier and truly healing much better,” he said.
Lt. Col. Heather M. Reilly, chief of the Commander’s Initiative Group at CASCOM, was Perry’s commander during the 2008-2009 timeframe following his deployment. She said his accomplishments and leadership style had lasting effects.
“Mike is a soldier’s Soldier and a paratrooper’s paratrooper,” said Reilly, who considers Perry a friend. “He has the unique ability to stay connected to Soldiers at all ranks. He is passionate about the Army and constantly gives back as a leader through mentorship and maintains connections with all those with whom he has served.”
Through the course of his career, Perry said he has cultivated a leadership philosophy that keeps him grounded to the needs of Soldiers while maintaining his focus on the big picture. He calls it “the three P’s” – passion, people and personality.
“If you’re a passionate leader and trying to be the best example you can for your Soldiers, people will feed off of it because they can see you’re excited and passionate about serving,” he said. “The next thing is to have a personality. That means being personable and humble. When you acquire that, it sets a very good example for those who see you in any capacity as a leader. The last ‘P’ is for people. As that passionate someone who is a servant-leader with a good personality and not someone with a ‘hail me’ complex, you should always factor in the human cost. Sometimes as leaders, we get so hung up on mission accomplishment, we lose sight of the impact on the organization, personnel and families.”
As much as can be said about Perry the Soldier, still more can be told about Perry the family man. He and his wife of five years, Razell, have a blended family of five. Perry said he has learned to draw the lines between military service and family life, but the reality is the lines can often become blurred.
“I wouldn’t be who I am as a leader if I was not who I am as a person who has tried to find the balance between being a good Soldier and a good father, husband and person,” said Perry, noting he is also a man of faith. “What I will say, and I don’t think it’s political, that it is next to impossible as a senior leader to have balance in the sense of being equal to all things.
“We are going to have to sacrifice a lot more of our time and energy, and as a result of that, our families will as well,” he continued. “The bottom line is you cannot be an effective leader if you’re stuck on 50-50.”
In full acceptance of his military obligations, Perry said it is imperative Soldiers “make time for those things that are important in order to do the things the Army needs” one to do. It can be as simple as going to a baseball game or spending time with the family, he said, “because the Army is going to get its time out of you during deployments and everything else.”
No doubt, Perry is a pragmatist. Further, he considers himself a leadership study, not one to sit atop the pedestals of his achievements and bask in their glories. Perry offered he is still in pursuit of lessons to be learned and applied to the real world.
“I’m still learning and evolving as a leader,” he said. “As a professional or as a person, whenever you feel you’re at a point of comfort, then that’s when you stop growing. Being a humble leader, I have never allowed a position or rank to dictate whether or not I’ve arrived. I’m still trying, even in my current position, to learn, evolve and grow as a leader and person.
“It’s all driven toward my efforts to be the best leader and example I can be for our formations.”
Perry will serve as the CASCOM CSM for two years.