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Press Release
June 20, 2007
Oregon Guardsman overcomes age, lack of experience to lead Soldiers in Iraq
Never to old to serve your country
Oregon Guardsman overcomes age, lack of experience to lead Soldiers in Iraq

By Staff Sgt. Russell Bassett
115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

FORT DIX, N.J. – Sgt. 1st Class Michael Gholston comes off the firing line and takes off his Kevlar helmet. Large droplets of sweat stream down his face. Gholston wipes the sweat from his brow and looks around at his fellow Oregon National Guard Soldiers.

"Drink water," Gholston says, slinging his M-4 rifle onto his shoulder.

Hearing their squad leader, the other Soldiers drink deeply from the hydration packs they wear on top of 30-plus pounds of body armor.

Earlier this month, Gholston and the rest of Oregon's 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment fired their weapons at the Short Range Marksmanship range. While here they were only firing at targets, in two short months they could be shooting to save their lives.

The 90-degree New Jersey heat makes the training tough, as evidenced by the sweat pouring off the Guardsman, but it's nothing compared to the 130-degree days they will face once they arrive in Iraq later this summer.

At 52 years of age, Gholston stands out from his fellow Soldiers, all of which are in their 20s or 30s. His hair is several shades greyer and his face is more lined, but as the other Soldiers take a short respite from the day's training by sitting in the shade of a tree, Gholston remains standing.

He goes from Soldier to Soldier asking them how they did on the range. He offers words of congratulations to those who shot well and words of encouragement to those who did not.

Iraq will not be Gholston's first war experience. Many of his fellow Oregon Soldiers had yet to be born when Gholston deployed to Vietnam in 1975. Gholston was sent to Vietnam with the U.S. Navy as a combat videographer, and he filmed the fall of Saigon and the evacuation of refugees from that war-torn country.

Thirty years after the Vietnam War, Gholston decided it was time to once again serve his country.

"We are at war, and by watching the news it became very apparent that troops were needed to support the war effort," Gholston said. "I think going to Iraq is a chance of a lifetime. It's the biggest story out there right now, and I feel privileged to be able to report on it."

Going from Navy to Army, especially after taking a 15-year break in service, was not easy for the Portland resident. He experienced many growing pains during the transition.

"It's a totally different mindset between the Navy and Army," Gholston explained. "In the Navy we just went out and did our job, but in the Army it's about being a total Soldier. You have to shoot and qualify on your weapons, do ruck marches and everything else that infantry Soldiers do. I had that Navy mindset and plus I'm getting older, so I had to really train and focus to keep up."

When Gholston first started with the 115th two years ago, his leadership didn't know what to make of the new staff sergeant with no Army experience.

"He scared the hell out of us because of his lack of Soldier skills" admitted 1st Sgt. Michael Cummings, the unit's top non-commissioned officer. "We had to teach him how to shoot an M-16. He had never fired one before."

Gholston's first real test was being sent to New Orleans to help with the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

"New Orleans was a real eye-opener," Gholston said. "My experience is with the Navy, but I was really submersed in the Army. We got the job done though. I shot over 18 hours of footage documenting the devastation and interviewing Soldiers of the Oregon National Guard."

After that "eye-opener," Gholston applied himself to becoming a good Soldier and good NCO.

He started working out everyday, doing push-ups, sit-ups and running. He also took every Army class he could, successfully graduating the two phases of Basic Non-Commissioned Officer Course, both of which are two weeks in length, and then completed the month-long Warrior Training Course. During this time, he lost 25 pounds and honed his soldier skills.

‘Because of my prior service, I was put right into a leadership position, so I've had to not only pull my own weight, but set the example," Gholston said. "I couldn't just sit at a desk and tell people what to do. I had to be out there leading the way."

His fellow 115th Soldiers noticed the improvement.

"When Sergeant Gholston first arrived, I was like ‘uh-oh,'" said Staff Sgt. Kevin Hartman, a 115th team leader. "The first time I saw him handle a rifle I thought, ‘Oh, geez, I don't want to be on the line with this guy.' But now I think he's awesome. A fire got under him somewhere, and he has done everything he can to be a good Soldier, NCO and leader."

Hartman said Gholston is a good leader not only because of how Gholston prepared for the role, but because of who he is as person.
"You can train a good person to be a good Soldier, but you can't always train a good Soldier to be a good person," said Hartman, a Eugene resident. "He is probably one of the most humble NCOs I have every met. He has gone to school after school, doing it all so he can be prepared, but he has kept his good attitude. He hasn't lost track of who he is as a person."

Cummings said he is now confident of Gholston's ability to lead troops in Iraq.

"He has applied himself to becoming Army rather than Navy," the first sergeant said. "He has done everything he can to be the best Soldier he can. … He has been a sponge for knowledge, and it has been phenomenal just to see the way he has worked at it. His (physical fitness) improvement speaks for itself."

The unit's commander, Maj. Don Troxell of Bend, said he feels privileged to serve with Gholston.

"I've been impressed with his adaptability and his ability to acquire the knowledge and skills he needs to become a successful NCO," Troxell said. "I feel privileged to serve as a commander with someone who served with Public Affairs in Vietnam. He was standing on the deck of the U.S.S. Hancock when they evacuated the refugees from Vietnam. I remember watching that on the news as a kid and Sergeant Gholston was actually there."

The 115th leadership was so impressed with Gholston's improvement that they promoted him to sergeant first class in May.

Gholston said squaring himself away was challenging but rewarding, and he had these words of wisdom for other aging, prior-Navy personnel who are considering joining the Army.

"Be prepared for challenges," he said. "It won't be a cake walk. You have to get in shape and you can't be complacent. Don't expect to automatically be successful just because you have lots of experience. Seek out challenges and learn. Don't just say, ‘I'm in charge.' You have to earn the respect."

Gholston and the other 20 members of the 115th MPAD are scheduled to arrive in Iraq in August. They will be stationed at Camp Speicher, in the Northern Iraqi city of Tikrit. Gholston will lead a team of print and broadcast journalists throughout the theater of operations, telling the Soldiers' stories for Army and civilian media outlets.

Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Russell Bassett

DSC_0110.jpg: Sgt. 1st Class Michael Gholston, a squad leader with the Oregon National Guard's 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, talks with his fellow Soldiers after coming off a range earlier this month at Fort Dix, N.J. Gholston, a 52-year-old Portland resident, rejoined the service after serving in the Navy when he was younger. Gholston and the rest of the 115th deploy to Iraq in August.