FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Times were different 36 years ago when an 18-year-old Pvt. Thomas Capel, a North Carolina native, enlisted in the U.S. Army.
The country had only just recently emerged from conflict in Vietnam and was locked in the midst of the Cold War, a couple of guys incorporated a computer business and called it Apple, and snow fell for the first and only time in Miami.
“I was looking around trying to figure out what I wanted to do and how I was going to pay the bills when I walked into the Rockingham [N.C.] recruiter’s office,” said Capel. “After that, all I ever wanted was to do was jump out of planes and serve soldiers.”
Capel, a former 82nd Airborne Division command sergeant major, retired from the U.S. Army on Nov. 14 (nearly 36 years to the day) with thousands of Division Paratroopers rendering honors at Pike Field on Fort Bragg.
“Command Sgt. Major Capel is a mentor of mine. His career has exemplified professionalism, demonstrated leadership, and epitomized resilience,” said his friend and current Division Command Sgt. Maj. LaMarquis Knowles.
Commander United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command, U.S. Forces Korea Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, a former commander of the 82nd, served as the reviewing officer alongside current division commander Maj. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., and the division senior enlisted leader, Command Sgt. Maj. Knowles.
Community leaders and distinguished guests from around the world joined the All American Division in the celebration.
“The NCO Corps is what makes the United States Army the best in the world,” said Scaparrotti. “As a commander, the value of his insight in all matters was sought and valued, and was always right.”
Although the joyous occasion marked the finish line for Capel’s extensive career, it began with far less pageantry.
As Scaparrotti said, Capel was from the small rural town of Ellerbe, N.C., and probably couldn’t have dreamed he would become Command Sgt. Maj. Capel, a senior enlisted leader (SEL), who would lead and mentor troops and commanders around the globe in some of the world’s most dangerous places.
Capel spent the majority of his career, which spanned parts of five different decades, leading paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division.
From squad leader to division command sergeant major, he served nearly 27 years as a Paratrooper at Fort Bragg.
“There’s something special about knowing you belong to an elite group of men and women,” said Capel. “These paratroopers are so highly trained, and ready to perform any task anywhere in the world in defense of their country.”
A capability he proved time and again leading division paratroopers into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan six times.
The world underwent significant changes in the 1980s as Capel was jumping out of planes and learning how to lead troops. The U.S. had outlasted the Soviet Union and the future began to look like science-fiction with advances in technology and industry. As things like the Internet, cable television, and multinational corporations grew, the world appeared to get smaller.
“During the eighties we focused on developing what it meant to be a professional noncommissioned officer in the United States Army,” said Capel. It was important to reestablish the value and the responsibility of the NCO. “As a corps we lacked the trust and discipline we needed to be the kind of leaders the Army was going to need in an uncertain future.”
Emulating the best NCOs around him, Capel became both a drill sergeant and later an instructor at the newly formed XVIII Airborne Corps Noncommissioned Officer Academy. It was in these roles he felt he could refine and define what it meant to be a professional soldier.
“Mentoring, training, and taking care of soldiers is an NCO’s currency,” said Capel about what makes the noncommissioned officer a unique asset in the U.S. Army. “Officers value our experience and trust in our abilities.”
The 1990s began with Desert Storm and brought the country and the Army new challenges in the form of environmental catastrophes and the conflagration of anti-American terrorist networks.
Capel progressed through the senior noncommissioned officer ranks serving in various positions of responsibility in the 82nd Airborne Division, U.S. Army Europe in Ramstein, Germany, and again as an instructor, this time at the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
Now a command sergeant major and recognized for his leadership skill, Capel returned once again to Fort Bragg to lead Paratroopers in the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment and 1st Brigade Combat Team in September 2001.
“9/11 changed everything,” said Capel.
Looking back at that time, people were scared. The American people were afraid to fly and travel freely about the country. They didn’t know if it was safe to attend sporting events or worth the risk of another terrorist attack, said Capel.
“Today, people are free to move about, and flights for the holidays are booked weeks and months in advance,” said Capel.
Capel credits the discipline, courage, and resilience of the U.S. service member with answering their nations call and securing the freedom citizens enjoy today.
“If we didn’t have a force ready to act, or resilient enough to follow through, I’m afraid we would have seen terrorism expand and more terrorist attacks on our soil,” he said.
Following two tours leading 82nd Airborne Division Paratroopers and coalition forces in Afghanistan as the Regional Command East SEL, Capel went on to lead soldiers serving with United States Army in Europe.
In addition to advising the commander and improving readiness and quality of life for soldiers in Europe, Capel focused on liaising with partnered nations and promoting the value of the noncommissioned officer corps. While there, Capel organized the Conference of European Armies for noncommissioned officers. Leaders from more than 40 countries participated.
“Most, if not all, future conflicts are going to be either joint or partnered, and establishing and maintaining those relationships with our counterparts in other armies and even among our own sister services is essential to maintaining readiness,” said Capel.
In January 2012, Capel received a call from Marine Gen. John Allen, the International Security and Assistance Force commander. Allen asked him if he’d be willing to come back to Afghanistan and serve as the ISAF command sergeant major.
As the ISAF SEL, Capel led service members from more than 50 countries in the efforts to promote the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), defeat the enemies of Afghanistan and ensure security for the Afghan people. Capel traveled around the battlefield, and even the world, in support of the ANSF.
He developed a unique personal relationship with many of the senior Afghan leaders to include the sergeant major of the Afghan National Army (ANA), Sgt. Maj. Roshan Safi.
“Command Sgt. Maj. Capel is one of my closest friends and a friend to all Afghanistan,” said Safi. “He is famous here; everyone knows and loves the sergeant major.”
Together, Capel and Safi championed one another’s cause to create a more professional ANA noncommissioned officer corps and foster relations between the coalition troops and the ANA soldiers. Safi was a featured speaker at the 2012 Conference of European Armies for noncommissioned officers in Zagreb, Croatia, as well as the U.S. European Command’s International Senior Enlisted Leader Seminar, adding legitimacy and building collateral confidence in the future of the ANSF.
Their relationship proved crucial throughout a series of crises in 2012 and 2013 which tested the coalition’s public image and threatened security.
Following one such incident, the ISAF headquarters and other coalition compounds in and around Kabul were besieged by frustrated and potentially angry citizens; Safi called Capel and put himself and his troops between the compounds and the citizens, diffusing the situation.
“Roshan called me and told me I could not go outside the wire,” said Capel. “I told him, I had troops out there and that I was going. He said it’s not safe for you right now sergeant major. But, if you insist, I’m going to go with you.”
Capel left Afghanistan confident in the ANSF progress and capabilities.
“The ANSF is more than 360,000 strong and is growing and developing into a professional force,” said Capel. “I have every confidence that patriotic force is capable of protecting the Afghan people for long into the future.”
Even as his career comes to a close, he hopes to continue serving soldiers.
“For now, I plan on remaining in the Fort Bragg, Fayetteville area and would do anything that’ll let me support soldiers,” said Capel.
Capel and his wife, Marissa, are proud members of the Fayetteville community and credit the area for its unwavering support for the soldiers and their families who call Fort Bragg home.
“Everyone in this town, from business owners and civic leaders, to law enforcement and emergency responders shower our soldiers and their families with security and support,” said Capel.
“Although the U.S. Army lost one of its finest noncommissioned officers, we recognize the thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of leaders Capel mentored and be confident that he left the Army stronger and more professional than ever before,” said Knowles.