AFGHANISTAN - With two uncles that served in Vietnam and one that served in World War II, you could say that Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Coston, the senior enlisted soldier for the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, was destined to serve in the military. While it wasn’t right after he graduated high school, shortly thereafter Coston joined the U.S. Army and began a career that’s approaching 30 years built on taking care of the Army and its soldiers.
“After doing one year of college and not doing very well I said, ‘let me join the army,’“ said Coston. “I’m getting to do what my family wants me to do, be a member of the armed forces and I’m going to get free college when I come out.”
So, in January 1984, Coston joined the Army. Having grown up in Teachey, N.C., there was only one place he wanted to go: Fort Bragg, N.C.
“Being from North Carolina, the 82nd Airborne Division was the greatest place to serve,” he said. “Who would not want to be a paratrooper, so I immediately came in and went to jump school.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t in the Army’s plan for Coston. After graduating as an infantryman from infantry one station unit training and the U.S. Army Airborne School, he was assigned to Fort Campbell, Ken. But he wouldn’t stay there for long, as he quickly graduated from Air Assault School and volunteered for the 75th Ranger Regiment.
“I figured if I can’t go to Fort Bragg, I can take the next unit down,” Coston said, recalling the logic of his decision with a laugh. “But I didn’t know it was the next unit up.”
So, in May of 1985 he joined the 1st Ranger Battalion. By December, they had sent him to Ranger School. During Ranger School, he was promoted to specialist, and when he returned to his unit he was promoted to team leader. Years later, he found himself a squad leader and deciding on his future, with or without the Army.
“I had passed the state patrol test in North Carolina, but you have to be 5’8”,” he said. “Even though the Army says I’m 5’8”, I’m actually 5’7.8 or .9, so I could only work administration.”
“I want to be with the troops. I want to be where the danger is and they said ‘No, you can be an administrator in the North Carolina State Patrol,’ so I stayed in the Army,” he said.
That decision to stay in the Army would be the last time he ever questioned his desire to remain a soldier. As his career continued and he became a non-commissioned officer, he found himself growing into the role of an NCO and concerning himself with the welfare of his soldiers. A lesson he learned growing up on his father’s farm in North Carolina.
“I wish I could say I picked it up in the Army, but I didn’t,” he said. “My father has a 200 acre farm and you have to take care of the people, you have to make sure they have water, you have to make sure they have some lunch.”
“So, going into the Army, when I became a sergeant, instead of a plow or a mule, it was a M4 and a vehicle that we had to pull maintenance on to ensure we could accomplish the mission,” he said. “I learned that early as a child living on the farm and the Army just fine tuned it.”
With a career that has taken him to some of the most storied units in the U.S. Army, there was one that has eluded him his whole career until recently.
“While I was in the Ranger Regiment as a staff sergeant and the 82nd Airborne Division, they kept talking about this unit in Italy,” he said. “I just heard so much about it and the Italian people and their alpine soldiers, I had to see it.”
“Every time I put in for Vicenza, which was seven times, I was seven times denied, no slots available,” he continued. “The Department of the Army called me during my last deployment, in Kandahar city, April of 2011 and they said ‘We have three available assignments for you.’”
“The answer is the 173rd, I’ve been wanting that unit since I was a staff sergeant in 1989,” he answered.
After taking the position as the 173rd’s senior enlisted advisor in January 2012, he quickly got to work preparing his soldiers and himself for their deployment to Afghanistan. As he approaches his 29th year in the Army, taking care of his troops is a responsibility that Coston takes seriously and it’s a responsibility that has kept him going, despite his ability to retire after 20 years.
“What kept me going past 20 was soldiers,” he said. “Sometimes I call them Joe and when I say Joe, Joe can be a second lieutenant to a lieutenant colonel or a private to another sergeant major.”
“Just mentoring and talking to young soldiers, about the way the world really is and the way the Army really is,” he continued.
“Convincing some that your best bet is to not to serve in this organization and convincing some It is best for you and your family because you have the right attributes, leadership and attitude to be a good soldier and as a sergeant major with 20-plus years in, I’m able to do that.”
If taking care of troops has kept him in the Army, it is his loyalty to them that helped him return to Afghanistan after an injury earlier this year. During a patrol in August of this year, the unit Coston was with was attacked and he was hit by shrapnel from an enemy 203 round that hit his left foot and cut one of his toes in half.
He was taken to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he was told that they wanted to put pins in his right leg.
“Can you wait until we return from deployment?” he asked. The doctors, shocked at his request, simply replied and reminded him that they could relocate him to another duty station where he could heal and continue his career.
“I said no,” he said. “I joined ‘The Herd,’ the 173rd, the sky soldiers, to finish a combat tour.”
“Three operations later and 65 days later I’m back in Afghanistan,” he added. “There’s a little bleeding in my foot still, but it’s OK, I can walk so I’m back with the team.”
While the possibility to not return to a war zone would be tempting to some, Coston never wanted to be anywhere else but back with his men.
“I was offered a couple of jobs while I was recovering,” he said. “But, you’ve got to remember your loyalty to your unit, whether your unit is the 173rd, the 82nd Airborne Division, the 1st Ranger Battalion; your loyalty to the unit is loyalty to the soldiers.”
“If you don’t want to set the example, you don’t have the leadership attributes and attitude to be a good leader in the Army,” he said.
“The thing about the legacy of the NCO’s in the 173rd is that they have never quit and even while wounded they continued the mission. So as sergeant major, your legacy is ‘how did you perform in combat?”
This work, Why we serve: Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Coston, by SSG Michael Sword, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.