The Soldiers were unaware of the rocket-propelled grenade until it was fired at their dismounted patrol in the Iraqi city of Baiji. But, the vision of it exploding behind then-1st Sgt. Michael Grinston after it whooshed four inches over his shoulder is forever etched into his mind.

It’s a grim, daily reminder for Grinston, who was sworn in as the 16th Sergeant Major of the Army, Aug. 9, of a lesson learned – a painful one that now drives much of his priorities to build a more combat-ready force. 

“When you get ambushed, and Soldiers are dying right there in the street, it is not the time to figure out if everybody knows what they’re doing,” he said. “It was a pretty tough day.”

Becoming Grunts 

Six months before Grinston’s artillery unit deployed to Iraq, they found out instead of firing rounds they would serve as infantrymen. 

His unit, part of 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, had just trained on advanced artillery ranges. The Soldiers now had to train outside their normal roles. 

The unit was sent to Hohenfels, Germany, for a crash course on infantry tactics. The largest live-fire exercises they could conduct, though, were only at the team level. 

“I tried to get in as many live fires as I could to kind of replicate what it feels like on the ground,” he said, “because I knew it was going to be hard.” 

Just three days into the process of replacing the outgoing unit in Iraq, his Soldiers had their first big test. 

Grinston heard over the radio that one of his unit’s vehicles had broken down in Baiji, a strategic city due to its oil refinery, the largest in the country. 

He rushed out of Forward Operating Base Summerall with a platoon to provide security. But once they got there, the stalled convoy was under attack, severely wounding one Soldier. 

“That was our first platoon live fire,” he said. “In the middle of the town, being shot at, and a Soldier loses a foot.”

About a month later, Grinston and others were on a patrol through the city. This time, it felt strangely quiet. The market was closed; the streets were deserted. 

It was still early in the Iraq War, and the artillerymen were unsure what it all meant. 

“It’s as clear as day when I run it in my mind (now),” he said. “But, at the time, you’re going from artillery and not noticing these things.”

A report then came down that insurgents were preparing to ambush the mayor’s office. Grinston joined a squad-sized dismounted patrol as they headed over to investigate. 

“Unfortunately, we found it,” he said of the ambush. 

As the patrol turned into an alley, an insurgent in a building about 100 meters away aimed an RPG at them. The Soldiers had no idea what was about to happen. 

“You can’t see every window,” Grinston said. “If you just stand in the city and somebody wanted to shoot you, could you stop them? It’s damn near impossible.”

The explosion instantly killed the squad leader and platoon sergeant: Staff Sgts. Raymond Jones and Toby Mallett, respectively. Spc. Peter Enos, a combat medic, died later from his wounds. Two others were also wounded. Grinston walked away unscathed. 

“Every day, I think about that. It’s what makes me wake up in the morning,” he said. “When you go through something like that, it’s life-changing.” 

Amid the chaos, Grinston and others transported the wounded and dead back to base. There, he refitted and returned to the city with M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles to confront the insurgents. 

After hours of firefights and RPG attacks, quiet was restored to the city.

For his efforts, Grinston earned a Bronze Star with Valor device -- the first of two he would earn in his career. 

The most difficult thing he has ever had to do in his life, though, did not occur against an enemy. It was calling Family members of those who would not come home. 

The squad leader, he said, had to deploy late so he could watch the birth of his son. It was the first and last time he would see his son in person. 

“You can’t forget it, when you call that Family and you have to explain that you didn’t protect their husband,” Grinston said, choking up. “If that’s not enough motivation, then I don’t know what is.” 

Mastering the Fundamentals

The fatal RPG attack, and many other combat situations he faced, continue to drive him to ensure the next Soldier is ready for them. 

As the top enlisted leader in the Army, one of his priorities will be for Soldiers to master the fundamentals -- the basic individual combat tasks and skills they should all know. 

“I truly believe we have to be experts as Soldiers, no matter what your (military occupational specialty) is,” he said. 

He will also concentrate on building more effective squads and taking care of Soldiers and their Families.

As for the fundamentals, Grinston was an early proponent for the Expert Soldier Badge, which the Army recently approved. 

Similar to the Expert Infantryman Badge and Expert Field Medical Badge, the new badge will test Soldiers from other MOSs on combat skills as an incentive to build readiness across the force. 

He looks forward to the Army Combat Fitness Test, which is set to roll out in late 2020, that he said will help Soldiers meet the physical demands of future missions. 

No matter the battlefield, he added, mastering the fundamentals to prepare for it is the ultimate goal.

“The Army has been changing since the Army has been in existence,” Grinston said. “We’re going to make sure that we are ready and lethal for whatever we’ve been asked to do.”