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Officer keeps unit going with discipline, humor

NORTHERN KUWAIT—Word spread quickly around camp the other day that the command sergeant major was seriously irritated.

On his rounds, he had spotted tank crewmen atop their rig wearing bandannas on their heads. He'd stopped and cursed them out for not wearing protective helmets.

As the senior noncommissioned officer for 1st Battalion, 13th Armor, based at Fort Riley, Kan., Command Sgt. Maj. Ricky Pring is responsible for getting the unit's 570 soldiers ready to fight.

He disciplines soldiers and oversees training; he makes sure they get food, water, ammunition and mail. He monitors morale. More than anyone else, he keeps the unit functioning, and does it with a mix of sternness and humor, laced with four-letter words and puffs on his cigarettes.

"You want to make guys comfortable, show a human side," he said in his gruff voice.

The 43-year-old, with 25 years in the Army, has more gray hair and wrinkles than his soldiers. He acknowledges that he sometimes acts as a parent to the younger men, but he can't help joking about it. Asked whether he is a father figure, he said, "God, I hope not. They all come from a dysfunctional family, then."

Soldiers described him as brazen, fiery, energetic, motivational and funny.

"He'll joke around with you and have a good time, but he will get very serious in a heartbeat," said Pvt. Robert Rutherford II, a 23-year-old tank loader from South Point, Ohio.

Pring's philosophy of disciplining soldiers is this: "Some guys, you got to get loud with. Some guys, you have to put your arm around."

When he meets each soldier coming into the unit, he tells them there are three things he will never tolerate: drinking and driving; using drugs; and abusing your wife or your children.

He understands how young men get into trouble. He acknowledges being a "party animal" who got cited for underage drinking before he joined the Army at 17, when his hair was feathered and down to his shoulders. Times have changed: He has been married for 23 years and has reared three children.

He credits his first tank commander, a sergeant, for forcing him to finish his high school education. "That's what I mean by taking care of soldiers," he said.

During his rounds one recent day, he visited the men of Charlie Company.

"Ready to do this?" he asked one soldier. Soon the unit would head north into Iraq.

"Been ready," the soldier answered.

Although headlines say the war is essentially over, Pring warned the soldier to watch out for a "fanatic with an RPG," a rocket-propelled grenade.

"Just stay focused," he said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.