The Sergeant Major of the Army (SMA) is the highest ranking enlisted soldier in the United States Army
. Unlike other ranks, there is only one SMA in the Army at any given time. Since the creation of the position in 1966, there have been 13 SMAs.
Considering that many soldiers retire at the rank of Master Sergeant (E7), First Sergeant (E8), or Sergeant Major (E9) after 20-plus years of service, the Sergeant Major of the Army must truly be an Army "lifer". Carefully selected from among the Army's Command Sergeant Majors (E9), all SMAs have around 30 years of military service under their belts at the time of their selection. The SMA serves a four-year term, after which he retires, having obtained the highest possible enlisted rank.
The insignia for Sergeant Major of the Army closely resembles the other high grade Sergeant insignia. It is comprised of three upturned chevrons on top of three downward arcs (sometimes called rockers), with the American eagle in the central black field. The eagle is flanked by a 5-pointed star on either side. The original SMA insignia simply had the two stars in the center, but the eagle was added sometime during the Vietnam Era, probably to distance the insignia from that of Sergeant Major.*
The Sergeant Major of the Army serves in an advisory role rather than a combat one. The SMA reports directly to the Army Chief of Staff and is his personal adviser on all matters involving the training, accommodations, and grievances of the enlisted soldier. Being an enlisted man himself, the SMA serves on a wide variety of decision-making councils and boards to see that the average soldier's welfare is respected. The SMA travels to Army bases all over America to speak with enlisted men and their families; he is often invited to report his findings to Congress.
The most unfortunate aspect of the post is that most people did not know it existed until a 1997 sex scandal. Gene C. McKinney, the first African-American to serve as the SMA, was slapped with sexual harassment charges from a number of female subordinates. For the first time, an SMA was relieved of his duties so an investigation could take place. Although McKinney was eventually cleared of those allegations, he was found guilty of obstruction of justice. In addition to receiving a reprimand, McKinney was demoted to Master Sergeant and left the Army soon after.
With the possible exception of MSG McKinney, a soldier who manages to become the SMA is truly a great military man, fully deserving of the U.S. Army's highest enlisted grade. Attaining the position of Sergeant Major of the Army is no less an honor today than when it was first created over forty years ago.
*Next to the original two-starred SMA insignia, both the 1971 World Book Encyclopedia and Hasbro's 1992 G.I. Joe Operations Manual show a small photo of a black shield bearing an American eagle, somewhat akin to the Specialist 4 insignia. Is this some kind of alternative to the usual SMA insignia? My research has been inconclusive.