The Army Reserve's top enlisted soldier is moving on to a new assignment that will give him the chance to influence and shape personnel policies affecting service members and civilians across the Defense Department.
Command Sgt. Maj. Luther Thomas on Jan. 11 will become the senior enlisted adviser to the assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs. This means Thomas' new boss is the principal adviser to top Defense Department leaders on all matters relating to civilian and military personnel policies, reserve affairs, military community and family policy, transition policy, and more.
"In the Army Reserve, I can help 198,000 soldiers plus another 12,000 civilians," Thomas said. "In the position I'm going to, I have the ability to assist approximately 3 million people."
Thomas, who along with senior noncommissioned officers from the other services applied and competed for the DoD job, said he is excited for the new opportunities that will come with his new assignment.
"I do love the opportunity to be in the room and help advise on policy, specifically as it relates to enlisted soldiers," he said. "I think I have a lot to offer with my background, that I can make a major contribution as an adviser to the assistant secretary."
Thomas will transfer the responsibilities of the Army Reserve's top enlisted soldier to Command Sgt. Maj. Jim Wills during a ceremony Jan. 8 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Thomas, who enlisted in the Army in 1984 and is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, has served in that position since April 2013.
During that time, Thomas served as the principle enlisted adviser to Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Talley, the chief of the Army Reserve and commanding general of Army Reserve Command.
Among his key accomplishments is a new policy that ensures qualified soldiers are not overlooked for promotion.
In just four short months, Command List Integration has resulted in promotions for more than 5,000 specialists and sergeants.
The policy is similar to what has been practiced for many years in the active Army, Thomas said, and it automatically puts qualified E-4s and E-5s on the Permanent Promotion Recommended List. The move, which took about 18 months to put into place, is the result of his travels across the Army Reserve, Thomas said.
"I would see soldiers and I'd talk to them, and I'd say, 'hey soldier, how long have you been in the Army?' and they'd tell me eight or 10 years," he said. "I'd think, 'something must be wrong, this soldier hasn't been promoted yet,' but their commanders would tell me nothing was wrong."
This was a problem, Thomas said.
"There's nothing more demoralizing than being ready for promotion and being eligible for promotion, and then not being promoted," he said. "Especially when we have shortages in the NCO corps in E-5 and E-6 [ranks] and you have people who are eligible and, for some reason, it's not happening."
Under Command List Integration, Army Reserve specialists, corporals and sergeants are automatically put on the promotion recommendation list if they meet all the requirements outlined in Army regulations. They also must have 48 months of time-in-service and 12 months of time-in-grade for promotion to sergeant, and 84 months of time-in-service and 12 months of time-in-grade for promotion to staff sergeant at the time of integration.
Command Sgt. Maj. Luther Thomas Jr. (left), the top enlisted noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, awards Staff Sgt. David Alexander (right) with a coin at Camp Henry, South Korea, on Aug. 20.
Photo Credit: Sgt. Moses Howard II/Army
Soldiers must have completed the required Structured Self-Development the NCO education courses and have 90 days of service remaining as of the month of their integration.
Commanders still have the authority to block or delay a soldier's promotion, Thomas said.
The Command List Integration effort also was driven by Thomas' personal experiences.
"I put myself in that soldier's shoes, because I was that soldier about 20 years ago," Thomas said.
After leaving the active Army, Thomas joined the Reserve as a specialist.
"There was a PFC who'd never been on active duty, and fast-forward three years, I was a sergeant and he was a staff sergeant," Thomas said. "I was that soldier, and I know how I wanted to leave the Reserve because I didn't think the promotion system was fair, so I wanted to do something to make it fairer for every soldier."
The Command List Integration policy also helps the Reserve fill its ranks with much-needed noncommissioned officers.
The Reserve is over-strength in its E-1 through E-4 ranks, but short staff sergeants, sergeants first class, master sergeants and sergeants major.
For example, at the end of November, the Reserve had 136 percent of the E-4s it was authorized, but just 65 percent of the E-7s it needed. That's a shortage of about 7,000 sergeants first class.
"In order to grow sergeants first class, you have to have staff sergeants and sergeants," Thomas said.
Due to the high number of junior soldiers in the Reserve, "we have to push that population when they're ready," he said.
An added challenge for the Reserve is the vast majority of its accessions – whether they're new recruits or soldiers transitioning from active duty – are junior soldiers. The Reserve also is home to several training and support commands that require staffs made up primarily of noncommissioned officers and officers.
Since the CLI was put into place, the Reserve has been able to increase its E-6 ranks from about 65 percent filled to 78 percent, Thomas said. The E-5 population grew from about 90 percent to more than 106 percent.
"As more soldiers are eligible for [promotion to] staff sergeant, over time there'll be more staff sergeants eligible for sergeant first class," he said. "We're getting healthier as a result of CLI."
Throughout his tenure, Thomas has actively reached out to his soldiers, and was the first command sergeant major of the Army Reserve to communicate with soldiers and their families on social media.
"I can't be everywhere," Thomas said. "Social media allows folks in the Army Reserve to have access to me."
Soldiers contact Thomas via Facebook "all the time," he said. The command sergeant major himself will respond directly to the soldier or direct someone on his staff to reach out.
"It's actually helped us solve a lot of problems, and it's helped us identify things that were a problem in the field," Thomas said.
For example, after posting information on Facebook about the awards and other items soldiers can receive upon retirement, Thomas heard from more than two dozen soldiers who said they hadn't received anything. Based on that feedback, Thomas said his staff was able to get several soldiers the flag they had earned, a retirement letter signed by the president, and other items.
Using social media also allows him to get a read on what soldiers are interested in, Thomas said.
"We get a lot of uniform questions," he said. "You would not think that the Sergeant Major of the Army saying you can wear black socks [during PT] would get 100,000 views, but it did. That's of interest to soldiers."
Thomas said he views social media like he would a town hall meeting with soldiers.
"I don't like to talk for more than 12-15 minutes because it's more important to find out what's on their minds," he said.
As he prepares to leave his job in the Army Reserve, Thomas said he's proud of what his soldiers do every day, whether at home or in places such as Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, the Pacific, Europe and Africa.
"We have a lot of enabling capabilities that allow the warfighter to do what they do," Thomas said.
Thomas also emphasized the importance of giving soldiers the opportunity to train and be soldiers.
"What I don't like to see is when I go watch a lot of the mandatory training and you've got 19- or 20-year-olds hemmed up in a drill hall watching a PowerPoint presentation," Thomas said. "That's not what they joined for. When I joined, we used to go on a [field training exercise] every quarter, and I used to look forward to riding in the back of the deuce-and-a-half on the way to Fort Bragg. That was exciting. That's what really kept me in, and soldiers like that."
Thomas' advice to Wills, his successor, is simple: "Just take care of the force and make sure our soldiers are ready so when they're called on, they can go and do what the nation needs them to do."