MADISON, Wis. — When he was five, Rafael Conde’s family left communist Cuba for the United States. When he was in high school, a coach told him he would never amount to much in life.
“Opportunity sometimes comes in our direction disguised as challenges or problems,” Conde said. “With hard work, I stand in front of you as the eighth state command sergeant major for the great state of Wisconsin.”
Conde spoke during a formal change of responsibility ceremony Wednesday (June 1) at the Department of Military Affairs in Madison, Wisconsin. He assumed the mantle of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s senior enlisted advisor to Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, and Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for Army, from Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Shields, who concludes a 43-year military career.
Dunbar noted that the two command sergeants major represented a combined 76 years of military experience between them, a pool of knowledge ideally suited for the job.
“At the end of the day, the command sergeant major’s job is to make sure our Soldiers are ready,” Dunbar said. “To do what? Two core missions of the National Guard — we’re the primary combat reserve of the United States Army, and we’re the first military responders at home. So we must be ready to meet our responsibility.”
The change of responsibility ceremony involved transferring a military sword from the outgoing command sergeant major to the incoming. Dunbar spoke of King Solomon’s use of a sword to demonstrate not just strength and courage, but wisdom.
“A command sergeant major has to be tough enough to drive the Soldiers and lead them to do the things we must do for our state and for our nation to meet our responsibilities,” Dunbar said. “And at the same time must have enough of a heart to understand that these men and women that we are entrusted with, that build our Army and our Army National Guard, have to be protected and know when too much is too much and get them ready to fight on another day. It is a tough line that the command sergeant major has to walk.”
Conde spoke of a sergeant first class who encouraged three young enlisted Soldiers to transfer to another company in order to take advantage of advancement opportunities — to “take their military careers seriously.” Conde was one of those three young Soldiers, and another would replace him as the top enlisted Soldier for the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team — Command Sgt. Maj. Joel Rothbauer.
“I challenge all of us to give opportunities to our Soldiers,” Conde said. “They are our future commanders and command sergeants major in our ranks. It is our responsibility to make them better than they are today.”
Conde said the component of the Warrior Ethos that compels Soldiers to never leave a fallen comrade applies to leaders with Soldiers struggling to meet standards.
“Do not give up on them,” Conde said. “These Soldiers at some point in their military career raised their right hand and took an oath to protect and defend our constitution. This is why I ask you to give them an opportunity to understand their shortcomings and make a plan to fix those issues. We must not give up on our Soldiers —we must not leave them behind. This is part of our Warrior Ethos and who we are as leaders.”
Shields joined the active Army at age 19 — “People like me come from the pre-8-Track era,” he quipped — and served for a time in the Korean Demilitarized Zone. He spoke with the breadth of scope that more than four decades in uniform allows.
“Throughout the last three years and a couple months, I’ve traveled throughout the nation representing Wisconsin, and I will tell you that the quality of Soldier and Airmen that we have in this state is absolutely the best that we have in this nation,” Shields said. “That really has nothing to do with what Command Sgt. Maj. Conde or I do — it has to do with the spirit and professionalism of our organization. That is a tribute to the next level of NCOS we have in our organization — the brigade command sergeants major, the battalions, the first sergeants — they’re the ones who make things happen.
“Wisconsin is well-respected throughout the nation,” Shields continued. “Wisconsin has a history of great leadership, and it has been an honor to work with so many professional leaders working toward a common goal.”
Shields said he has seen the perception of the National Guard swing from the unflattering “weekend warrior” optic to that of a fully trained and competent fighting force equal to, if not superior, to active duty Soldiers performing the same missions.
“That’s a tribute to the traditional Soldier who has a civilian job, a civilian skill set who on the other hand has the military occupational specialty,” Shields said. “They live in a different world, they become flexible or they’re not successful. That’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve seen.”
Both Shields and Conde spoke about the sacrifice family members make for their Soldier’s service, and the commitment traditional Guard members make as they assume greater leadership responsibilities.
“The traditional Soldier makes a tremendous commitment as a leader in our organization — balancing family, civilian employment, the National Guard and friends,” Shields said. “Our operational tempo continues to challenge our Soldiers to meet the organizational goals.”
Conde said time is precious and limited, and work-life balances are difficult.
“How do you achieve that balance in your life? Make time for your families, make time for your significant others, and make time for your kids,” Conde said, “because before you know it, your youngest son will be graduating from high school. Take the time to spend with your family, because it matters.”
Conde thanked his children for their love and support over the years.
“You are the reason that I serve this great country,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “I hope that I have given you the same opportunity to succeed as my parents gave me.”
Shields, at age 63, struggled to identify what he planned to do next.
“I want to work for a few more years, and I’m open to any opportunity,” he said after the ceremony. “It’s about doing something different now. I’ll still be part of the National Guard in my own way, and contribute when and how I can.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet day, to be honest,” Shields said. “To be part of something that long and the camaraderie you build in an organization like this, it’s hard to step away. But it’s time to let some of our younger Soldiers move up, and that’s what it’s all about, is opportunity. Part of my responsibility is to make sure we have Soldiers developed, ready and experienced to take those positions — that’s part of being a senior leader.
“I am very confident that Command Sgt. Maj. Conde will do a fantastic job,” he continued, “and quite honestly there’s another six or seven right behind him that are just chomping at the bit for the opportunity.”
Conde echoed that sentiment.
“Don’t be afraid to take a few challenges, don’t shy away from a problem,” Conde said. “Those may be the opportunities you have been waiting for.”