Michael Grinston's Quiet War to Help Make the Army More Lethal, Wokeness Hysterics Be Damned

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U.S. Army Forces Command’s Command Sgt. Maj. Michael A. Grinston applies camouflage face paint at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
U.S. Army Forces Command’s Command Sgt. Maj. Michael A. Grinston applies camouflage face paint at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, May 22, 2018. (Photo by Sgt. Steven Lopez/40th Public Affairs Detachment)

"Everyone leave the room," Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston told his entourage during a July barracks inspection at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. 

The barracks room had a massive hole in the wall with exposed pipes, an issue unresolved by a long delayed work order. Local leadership had long claimed the barracks were suitable for soldiers to live in, despite ongoing mold issues, among other problems.

But even as Grinston wound up to dress down those who had tolerated the housing conditions, he maintained a slightly unnerving level of calm. He has the energy of someone who just completed a difficult workout -- levelheaded and humble. A casual observer might mistake his tone for fatigued, but he's routinely prepared with a razor-sharp quip, the kind that quickly puts soldiers under him at ease.

Barracks and quality-of-life issues for soldiers are a top concern for Grinston, the Army's top enlisted leader. Grinston has a year left in his role before his successor takes the baton. He's popular among the rank and file and respected by senior leaders. He is largely seen as the most transformational and progressive leader the Army has had in recent memory, overseeing radical changes to the service's core tenets of training while also making the Army a more inclusive force and zeroing in on soldier welfare.

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Those policy changes have frequently become the target of conservative commentators looking to claim that the Army has gone "woke," or become so fixated on diversity and inclusion that it has abandoned its responsibility to be ready to fight.

But Grinston sees most things, including those efforts to support a wide range of soldiers through policy tweaks, through the lens of boosting the service's ability to wage war.

"I couldn't care less about my legacy, what I'm known for or what people write about," he told Military.com. "What does concern me is, have I done my absolute best to make the Army more lethal?"

Grinston, who looks like he came off a salty noncommissioned officer assembly line with a chiseled jawline and graying hair, carries the weight of combat experience behind his words. He's an artilleryman with a thick combat resume, including four deployments to Iraq and two to Afghanistan, with two Bronze stars for valor.

Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston talks to senior leaders at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, about the abysmal conditions of barracks.
Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston talks to senior leaders at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, about the abysmal conditions of barracks. (Steve Beynon/Military.com)

At Fort Bragg, Grinston was followed by a huge group of people, typical for any of his installation visits. It included a sea of senior noncommissioned officers, brass, staff and, in this case, a reporter with Military.com. He typically has others speak first, regardless of rank, and patiently waits for them to make their point, even if the point begins to run afoul of facts. 

His movement on a base resembles a "walk and talk" on "The West Wing," with a constant barrage of people coming in and out of his orbit, sometimes nervous about his visit or hoping to get a piece of his time to float their concerns.

July's tour at Fort Bragg did not go well and was finished with Grinston scolding local leadership for the disarray in the barracks. A week later, soldiers were removed from the barracks.

The Army and Fears of Wokeness

The military lately has found itself in an increasingly politicized culture. Conservative politics often hone in on so-called "culture wars" and lambaste individuals or institutions, using the "woke" shorthand to suggest acquiescence to progressive ideals. The critiques of the Army largely focus on efforts to improve the quality of life or boost the representations of minorities, women or other historically disadvantaged groups. 

For the military more broadly, the criticisms gained new steam when Fox News' Tucker Carlson lampooned the Air Force's new maternity uniforms, using that effort as a cudgel against the Biden administration. During that March 2021 segment, Carlson said, "While China's military becomes more masculine, our military needs to become, as Joe Biden says, more feminine."

Right-wing pundits and lawmakers piled on two months later when the Army released a recruiting ad featuring a real-life soldier who has two mothers and participated in Pride events. LGBTQ rights are considered a major priority among Gen Z, the demographic that the Army needs to court to build its ranks.

With a shrinking percentage of Americans even eligible to serve because of fitness and legal hurdles, the service has prioritized a message that encourages all Americans who can pass entrance tests to join up. 

Meanwhile, the Army has made a series of changes to its personnel policy, such as relaxing grooming standards for women, allowing braids and revamping rules on parenthood and breastfeeding, aiming to boost the quality of life for the 400,000 parents in the Army, 29,000 of whom are single fathers. All of those changes were spearheaded or heavily backed by Grinston, largely quietly behind the scenes, according to multiple Army officials with direct knowledge of those efforts.

Grinston has steered away from political issues or topics in public, always returning conversations to Army needs. But he is sensitive to how that politicization is being absorbed by young soldiers, or potential enlistees. 

"How does a 19- or 20-year-old respond when [they] hear that?" he asked. "That's my biggest fear.

Grinston enlisted in the Army in 1987, at a time when openly gay soldiers were not allowed to serve and women's opportunities were severely curtailed. He still struggles with his racial identity, being the son of a Black man and a white mother. His parents divorced when he was three years old. 

A former drill sergeant and Ranger School graduate, Grinston's resume and personal biography place him at the intersection of valuing diversity in the ranks and emphasizing the need to improve the Army's standards for ground combat. 

"Believe me, we have a kick-ass Army. … Nobody likes criticism," Grinston said. "I don't care who you are. … Personally, it's a little hurtful. I am extremely proud we have the greatest Army in the world."

He paused.

"When people say that we're not as good as we were, or we're not focused on the right missions, when you hear that, you know, I think anybody would be offended."

A More Lethal Army 

During Grinston's three years on the job, the Army has revamped or placed a greater emphasis on core ground combat training: shooting, physical fitness, basic combat tasks and land navigation. All of which arguably set higher standards for troops than during the post-9/11 wars as leaders shift focus to conventional warfare and anticipate a much more challenging battlefield. 

In 2020, the service ditched the half-century-old rifle test in which soldiers were stationary firing at 40 pop-up targets. Now, troops, regardless of their job, must pass a dynamic and fast-paced marksmanship qualification that tasks them to change firing positions, move to cover and reload while targets are still popping up. 

The service has also implemented its new fitness test after a decade of research and skepticism from the troops, Congress and even Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. The previous 40-year-old test, which measured only running, sit-ups and push-ups, was not seen as a good evaluator of overall strength and endurance. Now, soldiers must perform deadlifts, sprints and a plank, among other fitness tasks. Grinston, with fitness a personal priority, told Military.com that test is probably one of the things he is most proud of getting across the finish line. 

Grinston, 54, hits a near-perfect score on his fitness test, deadlifting 340 pounds and running two miles in under 14 minutes. But he admits to needing work on his standing power throw, in which soldiers must yeet a 10-pound medicine ball over their head as far as possible. He's an avid runner, occasional swimmer and recently bought a Rogue Echo Bike for his home. He also likes to end most workout sessions with meditation, something he hopes the rest of the Army will pick up on. For fun, he likes to golf but demands the course to be walked. 

Despite his commitment to the new fitness test, there have been hiccups. Army planners were effectively forced to implement gendered scoring standards after the data showed half of the service's women were struggling to pass the more grueling test. Some Republican critics pounced on that move as evidence the Army is lowering standards to accommodate women, despite the previous fitness test also having gendered scoring. 

Grinston also wants to place greater emphasis on expert badges, prestigious awards soldiers earn after perfecting a gauntlet of combat tasks, something previously restricted to infantrymen and medics. The service recently introduced the Expert Soldier Badge, effectively the same as the infantry badge, but for soldiers in all jobs. The idea is to get all soldiers up to snuff on combat tasks so anyone can take up arms in a future conflict. Grinston also worked behind the scenes to get land navigation back into noncommissioned officer training.

But he didn't always plan a reinvention of the Army and never expected to be one of the Defense Department's most high-profile leaders. 

He is still in awe of his role, coming from a humble background in Jasper, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham and a generally impoverished town. As a private, he went to barracks parties, was scolded by his own noncommissioned officers, and had a small footprint in the world. He said Pvt. Grinston is still a part of him. 

"As a young man, I couldn't imagine [this]," Grinston said. "If you would have said one day [I] was going to meet that president and be in the Oval Office, I would say, 'Nah, not in my family.' I try to remember what it was like living in the barracks for seven years, and what it was like standing in PT formations, and I don't ever want to lose sight of that. When I was a battalion sergeant major and they told me to go meet and have breakfast with the secretary of defense, I wrote in my diary that, 'I can't imagine a young man from Jasper, Alabama gets to meet with the secretary of defense.' I was in awe of that. I was giddy."

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston deadlifts during his visit at Camp Herkus, Lithuania.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston deadlifts during his visit at Camp Herkus, Lithuania, May 3, 2022. (U.S. Army photo)

He's an avid reader and frequently references a book called "Upstream" by Dan Heath, which argues that problems need to be solved before they occur. Grinston took those lessons to heart with how he wants to tackle suicide in the force.  His idea is that if the Army can make a better environment for soldiers, such as higher-quality barracks, mental health will improve, leading to fewer suicides and a more effective fighting force. He believes that most people, including him, can be a suicide risk given a perfect storm of poor conditions. 

"I think we need to rethink suicide. We want to put people in a box that behavioral health will solve," he said. "Maybe we need to look at it that everyone can be susceptible to a suicide thought or event."

He said the next big thing for the service will be its approach to holistic health, which includes physical, mental and spiritual approaches to health for soldiers. Part of that includes a focus on nutrition and upcoming plans on revamps to dining facilities. He said service planners are looking into wearable tech that could immediately identify a soldier's performance, including whether they are dehydrated or sleep deprived. 

But those long-term ideas will have to come after his retirement, which is quickly coming for Grinston, who has effectively spent his entire adult life in the Army. The long list that populates his ambitious agenda for the Army likely won't be entirely crossed off during the waning days of his tenure, and the next sergeant major of the Army will face iterations of these same difficult, at times politically charged, issues. 

As for what's next, Grinston doesn't plan to relax somewhere in a cabin -- though he does expect to take about a month just to sleep. 

"There's a few things I'd like to do to help families," he said about how he wants to spend his retirement. "Something with housing because I've put a lot of effort into making our barracks and family housing better. I know that will come with a lot of work and a lot of headaches. But if it's hard, it's something we need to do. If it was easy, somebody would've already done it."

Despite all the changes he's ushered into the military, there is one difficult question that gets asked of him most often while he's still in uniform: Will the Army let soldiers have beards? 

It's a popular topic of debate on social media and comes up at nearly every visit he makes. Grinston's message to soldiers is to not hold their breath. 

"There's still no movement," he said. "I'm not saying it's not going to happen. I'm just saying right now, it's not going to happen."

Editor’s Note: On Aug. 4, the Army announced that, following Grinston's barracks inspection, some 1,200 troops were evacuated from a dozen buildings at Fort Bragg due to moldy conditions. It's unclear where the soldiers will live, as garrison leaders are still working to find available space in other barracks on post.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

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