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Military Times Soldier of the Year: Staff Sgt. Fontenot

July 20, 2015 (Photo Credit: Daniel Woolfolk/Staff)


FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — At 31, Staff Sgt. Joseph Fontenot seemingly had it all.

The native of Larose, Louisiana, was a bass player in a metal band that had been signed by the same record company as Pantera.

Jacknife was busy touring the country, playing gig after gig.

On one of those tours, as the band traveled through New York, it stopped at a truck stop.

Fontenot, whose nickname at the time was Grandpa Gumbo, spotted a National Guard soldier and some of his fellow soldiers.

"I went up to him and I said, 'Hey, man, thank you for doing what you do,' " he said. "He said, 'No need to thank me. I do what I do for my family.'"

The young soldier made an impression on the road-weary rocker.

Fontenot during his metal days.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Fontenot

"This kid's probably 19 years old and probably has more direction than I did when I was 30 years old," Fontenot said. "When we got home, I decided I wanted to join the Army."

Fontenot called the record label the next day and told them of his plans. His manager offered him "a bigger gig," Fontenot said.

"I said, 'No, I'm going to join the Army,' " he said. "I went to the recruiting station the next day and joined."

After his seemingly snap decision, Fontenot, who before Jacknife was a member of a band named Acid Bath, hasn't looked back.

Staff Sgt. Joseph Fontenot works out at his unit gym at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Photo Credit: Daniel Woolfolk/Staff

In less than 10 years, Fontenot has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, lost friends in combat, served as a drill sergeant and later at the Drill Sergeant Academy, and volunteered countless hours to give back to his community. Earlier this year, he saved the life of a young man whose car had flipped off the interstate and crashed into a canal.

For his service and dedication in and out of uniform, Fontenot is the 2015 Military Times Soldier of the Year.

He was nominated by his chain of command at the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant Academy, where he served until this spring before returning to the 101st Airborne Division.

"To me, having the respect of my peers means a whole lot," Fontenot said. "That just tells me I've got to be doing something right. It's validation that the last 10 years of spending an ungodly amount of hours trying to do the right thing, it was not in vain."

Fontenot was an easy choice, said Command Sgt. Maj. Lamont Christian, commandant of the Drill Sergeant Academy.

"He's definitely one of the quality individuals we try to bring here," Christian said. "He's just one of those guys that you want in every formation, the quiet professional, a source of information you can go to."

Sgt. Maj. Edward Roderiques, the deputy commandant at the academy, agreed, calling Fontenot an "outstanding" NCO.

"He's just got an amazing level of presence. He's extremely physically fit, very committed and dedicated, all those really great adjectives that we look for," Roderiques said. "That just creates a truly phenomenal package as far as a noncommissioned officer is concerned."

Fontenot, now 41, is a field artilleryman assigned to 3rd Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, the famed Rakkasans.

He joined the Army in January 2006, completing one-station unit training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, before being assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea.

Fontenot didn't know much about the Army when he enlisted.

"I couldn't tell you anything about Army life," he said. "All I knew was I was joining the Army, and it was going to be alright."

When he arrived at Fort Sill for basic training, Fontenot said his drill sergeants "set the precedent for me for my whole career."

"That was my first impression of what an NCO was supposed to be," he said.

That's not to say his first taste of the Army didn't come as a shock.

"Right out of the cattle truck, while we were getting yelled at, and our bags were thrown on the ground, and we were getting called every name under the sun, I was like, 'Man, what did I just do?'  " Fontenot said. "That first day was pretty serious."

Staff Sgt. Joseph Fontenot joined the Army at age 31, deciding to leave his career as a bass player in a heavy metal band.
Photo Credit: Daniel Woolfolk/Staff

As he adjusted to basic training, his drill sergeants advised him and his fellow trainees to take the "opportunity to start developing yourself as a leader right now," Fontenot said.

"I took that and I ran with it," he said. "I did everything I possibly could to become a leader."

When he arrived in Korea, Fontenot benefited from another mentor, Staff Sgt. Milo Metz, who pushed him to be the best he could.

"I was watching a lot of my friends getting into trouble in Korea, so I started going to the gym, and the gym became a way of life," he said. "And it's just stayed with me the whole time."

After Korea, Fontenot was assigned to 2nd BCT, 101st Airborne Division, where he stayed from 2007 through 2012. He deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, in 2008 for a yearlong tour. He deployed again in June 2010, this time to southern Afghanistan's deadly Arghandab River Valley.

While his deployment in Iraq was fairly quiet, his time in Afghanistan was starkly different.

Fontenot and his soldiers suffered their first casualty just a few weeks after arriving in country.

Not long after that, another soldier, who was on guard duty, was shot and killed.

"Shortly after that, I lost one of my best friends," Fontenot said.

Sgt. Kyle Stout died July 30, 2010, from wounds he suffered from an improvised explosive device.

"In my eyes, he was one of our best," Fontenot said, adding that his friend died trying to save another soldier who had stepped on a mine.

As the soldiers' deployment wore on, the casualties mounted. Fontenot himself helped carry three severely wounded soldiers to safety after their vehicle was hit by a bomb.

"All of those things, they just made me realize there's so much more to what we do than what people see," Fontenot said. "At some point or another, you realize you do all the things that you do, but you keep going because the guy next to you keeps going and you don't want to quit."

In March 2012, he began duty as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He was picked up about a year later to be a drill sergeant leader, responsible for training future drill sergeants at the Drill Sergeant Academy.

Fontenot said he wanted his soldiers to have passion, drive, resilience and the will to succeed.

That drive also led him, as a drill sergeant leader, to spearhead the creation of the Drill Sergeant Academy's prep program, designed to better prepare soldiers preparing to attend the nine-week Drill Sergeant Course.

The program stemmed from a conversation Fontenot had with Roderiques.

"I felt there's no reason candidates, as NCOs, should be coming to that course unprepared," Fontenot said.

Plans call for the prep program to be available online soon, including on an app that is accessible on mobile devices, Roderiques and Christian said.

A fitness buff, Fontenot also regularly conducted physical fitness training with fellow soldiers who needed some extra training. He would design training plans for those who'd ask for help, and he would get to work before sunrise to exercise alongside them.

Fontenot himself exercises twice a day.

"Being 41 years old, I don't like being outdone by other people, and I don't really want to grow old gracefully," he said. "I want to stay in shape where I am capable of doing my job as an artilleryman, or if I'm called to be an infantryman, I can do that."

During his time at Fort Jackson, Fontenot also started an Adopt a Highway effort and volunteered at the veterans hospital, a homeless children's shelter and Camp Kemo, for kids fighting cancer.

Fontenot also volunteered to attend the funeral for Richard Culliver, a boy who spent a day at the Drill Sergeant Academy as an honorary drill sergeant but died in August from cancer.

"I didn't get to spend a whole lot of time with him, but the little bit of time I did, it was pretty impactful," Fontenot said. "Even though he was struggling, he was positive, and you could see it in him."

In February, Fontenot was driving in Columbia when he saw a car flipped on the side of the road.

It was below freezing and water and mud were rushing into the car.

"I ran up to the car and I could hear the young man screaming," he said. "I knew he was alive, but the engine was smoking really bad."

Fontenot jumped into the canal and began pulling against the rising muddy water before prying the car door open, pulling the young man to safety. He stayed with the young man until the paramedics arrived, and later received a phone call from the man's teary and grateful parents.

Fontenot has been nominated him for a Soldier's Medal, the highest award for non-combat bravery. The award is still in the approval process.

This April, Fontenot returned to Fort Campbell for his second tour with the 101st Airborne Division.

He will soon be joined by his wife, Stephanie, who joined the Army last year and is finishing her advanced individual training to be a radiology specialist.

The couple has been married for six years, after Fontenot met her in a bar and realized before even knowing her name that he wanted to marry her.

Fontenot's extensive accomplishments are driven by his son, Brayden, who is 15.

"I don't get to see him nearly as much as I want to, so I want him to know the time I spend away from him isn't all in vain," Fontenot said. "I've been working really hard, and I've been trying to do the best that I can for him."

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