Command Sgt. Major Stephen Helton, who recently assumed responsibility of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, joined the Army in 1990 from Los Angeles.
Like many young people his age, he enlisted because he liked the military and wanted to do something productive that wasn’t college.
“I didn’t have the focus it would have taken to be successful academically in the university environment. So it would have been time wasted,” Helton said.
Instead, he became a scout helicopter crew chief in the Army’s famed 82nd Airborne Division, whose heritage dates back to WWI.
Helton recalled being so dedicated to his job and unit that he turned down admission to West Point’s Military Academy Prep School, which he applied for after he enlisted.
From the beginning, Helton wanted to be an airborne soldier in a special operations unit.
After checking airborne qualification off his list, he later joined the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, where he served for over a decade.
Helton quickly climbed the ranks, taking on rising levels of leadership positions. Reflecting on his experience, he said, “By the time I was 24 years old, I could say, I have a technical skill. I have some practical leadership experience. I have much better interpersonal skills, understanding of the team dynamic and how to be a good teammate.”
Along the way, the prospect of getting a formal education continued to come up.
The Army’s promotion system even incentivized getting civilian education, Helton said.
“As a young NCO, you get promotion points if you do some civilian education,” Helton said.
Nonetheless, Helton’s talent and dedication still allowed him to make it to the Army’s highest grade (E-9) with no formal degree.
However, things changed when Helton showed up to his first job as a senior enlisted advisor. Helton said his commander informally directed him to complete his Associate’s degree.
Helton completed his Associate’s degree and is now near completion of a Bachelor’s degree. “I’m glad he pushed me to do that because if I hadn’t done it, I think it would have been a factor in potential opportunities at higher levels,” Helton said. “Getting a degree proves you have the discipline to sit down and learn and self-study.”
Helton is now the senior enlisted advisor at a high-level Army headquarters with more than 30,000 soldiers and civilians under it.
As Helton reflected back, he said the military gave him a way to focus his energy.
Even though it has been thirty years since Helton enlisted, he believes there are still many young people today who have a perspective similar to his when he joined.
“I think so many young people who are smart and capable don’t want just to do whatever society says is the thing, like go to college right away, and get a job in business. Something about that doesn’t resonate with some of them,” Helton said. “When I talk to my son about setting himself up for the long term, I always use service as an example. Joining allowed me to just get out and get on with my life without having to rely on anybody else but me and my team and the Army.”
The Sgt. Major has held leadership assignments at Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Campbell, Ky.; Korea; Fort Riley, KS.; and Joint Base Lewis McChord, WA and most recently assumed responsibility for the U.S. Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth, KS.
He has multiple combat deployments and has completed some of the Army’s toughest training, such as Survival-Evasion-Resistance-Escape (SERE) School, Special Operations Training Course, Air Assault School and Airborne School.
Helton wanted to share his personal story as the U.S. Army wraps up its National Hiring Days campaign this week as the Army’s 246th birthday approaches, June 14.
During the campaign, the Army offers a special $2,000 incentive for individuals who enlist in one of 11 priority occupations and ship to training by the end of September.
“Set reasonable expectations for what you think you’re going to be doing in the military. Take it seriously. Expect discipline and structure but also expect to have a great time and some great experiences,” advised Helton to young people interested in the military.
Helton grew up in Santa Clarita, visiting his hometown once or twice a year where his mother still resides.
He describes it as a great place to grow up.
“My experience when I go home is always positive,” Helton said. “People always thank me for my service. When people say thank you for your service or they buy you a cup of coffee, it’s from the heart; that’s the cool thing about that place.”
If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Army, visit the website here to see the qualifications, learn about part-time and full-time careers and associated hiring incentives, and connect with a local recruiter.
Ed. Note: Linsey Towles contributed to this article.Do you have a news tip? Call us at (661) 298-1220, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t miss a thing. Get breaking KHTS Santa Clarita News Alerts delivered right to your inbox. Report a typo or error, email Corrections@hometownstation.com
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