By Beth Reece
Jan. 8, 2010 - His household goods were packed and his wife and three kids were prepared - elated, actually - to be transferring to Panama when rumors spread throughout the 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas, that the unit might deploy to the Middle East. It was just before the launch of Operation Desert Shield in 1990, and David Roman, then an Army sergeant first class, wasn't worried about the impending war. He was Panama-bound.
But on a Saturday morning, behind closed doors, Roman's first sergeant taught him the meaning of loyalty.
"I need to send an advance team that includes a logistics person," his first sergeant said. "Your orders haven't been cancelled; you can still leave, but I want you to know that we could sure use your help over there."
It was a sacrifice Roman wanted to make. During dinner with his wife at Red Lobster that same Saturday night, he explained why.
"I told her, 'I'm a soldier; my unit needs me, and I need you to understand that,'" he said. He left the next day for a deployment that lasted a year and a half.
Now a command sergeant major, Roman has spent the last five and a half years as the Defense Logistics Agency's senior enlisted advisor. He's retiring after 34 years in the Army, and turns the position over in a ceremony here today.
"Noncommissioned officers like Command Sergeant Major Roman don't come along every day," said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Patrick Alston, senior enlisted leader for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. "He has a lasting effect on everyone he touches and is the type that doesn't just tell you to turn right. He shows you how."
Alston has known Roman since 2001. "I give him 90 percent of the credit for where I'm at today," he said, "because he really molded me and taught me the traits of being a great command sergeant major."
Roman spent the early part of his career climbing the ranks in tough units, including the 2nd and 25th Infantry Divisions and the 101st Airborne Division. In Grenada, Panama, Haiti and Iraq, Roman did his share of time leading troops on the battlefield. "No matter what unit I was with, I never escaped war," he said. "I was always deploying."
At DLA, Roman has worked to build camaraderie among the agency's active-duty military members, who are outnumbered by their civilian counterparts by a 44-to-1 ratio.
"When I got here and started traveling to DLA's various field sites, I realized that, in many cases, our military members rarely got together and weren't making the time for professional development," he said. "There were even places where they were unaware that other DLA servicemembers worked down the hall or in the next office."
Roman helped to bring DLA's military force together by putting a senior enlisted advisor in charge of organizing training conferences at the agency's primary-level field activities and regional commands. He also took the time to visit soldiers, sailors and airmen working in DLA's warehouses and depots, "getting the 'Paul Harvey' on how these folks really feel about their work and the response they're getting from customers," Roman said, evoking the radio icon's reports that famously provided "the rest of the story."
"The whole truth doesn't always lay in metrics and survey responses," Roman said. "Every great military institute has a senior enlisted advisor to keep things in perspective by going out there and meeting with the troops."
Longtime Army buddies have warned Roman that he will miss the military, but so far, he said, he doubts it.
As the son of a Pentecostal minister and one of 12 siblings, Roman grew up without luxuries. As a boy, he helped to pay the bills by shining shoes and pushing grocery carts. A strong family bond and love for one another made up for the material things the family went without, he said.
Life got easier for Roman in the early 1970s, when he landed a job as a city bus driver in New Jersey. It paid enough for him to enroll in college and pursue his love of police work. And when he wasn't attending weekend drills with the Army Reserve, Roman played the tambala, congas and bass guitar in a local band.
The death of his father in 1977 and a growing sense of discontent led Roman to his Army Reserve recruiter with questions about becoming a full-time active duty soldier. "The recruiter asked why I'd want to do a thing like that when I was doing fairly well for myself," Roman said. "But it just wasn't enough." His first duty station was with the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea.
"I had been a sergeant in the reserves, but when I came on active duty, the Army sent me back to private first class. I worked hard to get the rank back," he said.
Roman got lessons in leadership that he said helped to shape the rest of his career while serving as a supply clerk for a basic training company at Fort Dix, N.J. He was a specialist, and his supervisor was a "mean-looking" first sergeant who often invited the team to his home for weekend barbecues, but was strict and demanding in the office.
"He was essentially teaching me that business is business," Roman said. "He was my first sergeant and my leader. While we could relax a little and be buddies after duty hours, he'd put me on the spot for things like not standing at parade rest when speaking to an NCO. I learned from him that being a strong leader meant you couldn't always be friends with subordinates. You still had the responsibility to hold them to high standards."
By the time he received orders for the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., Roman was a master sergeant set on making first sergeant. Soldiers assigned to such units -- whose troops are qualified to rappel into combat from airborne helicopters -- ordinarily must have earned air assault wings to serve in a first sergeant or command sergeant major position. Roman had not, so he applied for the Army's Air Assault School at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, where he was completing his tour with the 25th Infantry Division.
Air Assault School is considered by some to be one of the Army's most grueling schools, even for young soldiers at their physical peak. "But there I was, an old master sergeant struggling through obstacle courses with a staff sergeant telling me what to do," Roman said.
He graduated and headed to the 101st Airborne Division, determined to be a first sergeant. Impressed with Roman's sharp appearance and experience, unit leaders granted him the first sergeant slot for a company of airborne riggers and mortuary affairs specialists that was then part of the 801st Maintenance Support Battalion.
"So they put me in charge of what we called 'the riggers and the diggers,' and it was challenging," he said. "My riggers were from Fort Bragg, N.C., and my mortuary guys were from Fort Lee, Va., with two completely different mentalities. But I had to mold them to work together as a team."
By the time he became the command sergeant major for the 2nd Infantry Division Support Command more than 10 years ago, Roman had long since perfected his leadership style.
"Back in the day, Command Sergeant Major Roman was known to eat a substandard soldier up and spit him out all in one conversation," said Army Master Sgt. Larry McClelland, senior enlisted advisor for DLA in Europe and Africa. McClelland was a staff sergeant when he first met Roman, a leader whom junior soldiers in the South Korea-based unit loved to impersonate, he said.
"I remember him as being a tiger back then," McClelland recalled. "You really didn't want to talk to him without first knowing that all your ducks were in a row." Roman's leadership style continues to inspire him and often is reflected in how he mentors his own subordinates, he added.
The Army also gave Roman the chance to pursue his passion for police work when, in the 1980s, he earned a secondary military occupational specialty as a military policeman and served with the 95th Military Police Battalion in Mannheim, Germany. The experience pushed him to take police officer exams for several major U.S. cities.
"I flew from Germany to take the tests, and I passed every one of them, even Washington, D.C.'s," he said. "But each time I got offered a position, I was either promoted or had too many years left on my military contract to leave when the police force wanted me. Everything happens for a reason."
After 34 years of "personal sacrifices and a lot of fun," Roman said, he'd like to be remembered as someone who gave his soldiers room and reason to grow. He's not sure what his future holds, but he said he hopes to do something that allows him to continue taking care of others, perhaps through social services.
"The Army is sorely going to miss him," Alston said of Roman, "but he will always be a part of this family."
(Beth Reece works in the Defense Logistics Agency strategic communications office.)