He never planned to be a career soldier, but his service left an indelible print on those he served with and led.
His soldiers remember him as a salty, tough leader, but one who always took time to ask even the newest private how they were doing. He lived the ethos of the Army but still made time to be a loving husband and father.
Command Sgt. Maj. Noel Foster, the senior enlisted soldier for U.S. Army Garrison Fort Campbell, Kentucky, died Sept. 1 at his home. Army officials have not released information on the cause or manner of his death, saying it is under investigation. He was 48.
A teenage Foster joined the Army in 1988 and landed in the infantry. He expected to do his tour, maybe a second one to get him stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, back near home. From there he would become a state trooper.
But on Dec. 1, 1990, he was at a country bar near Fort Campbell where he and some friends bumped into girls near the music stage. He asked a girl named Lanette to dance.
Two weeks later, they were married. On Dec. 31, he deployed to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm with the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade.
It was the first of multiple combat deployments, his wife said in a recent phone interview with Army Times, that he didn’t talk about.
“He said there were things I didn’t need to know about,” Lanette Foster said.
The couple would move from Fort Campbell to drill sergeant duty at Fort Benning, Georgia, to assignments at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and Fort Irwin, California. Foster rose in the ranks but stayed at the heart of the infantry, working his way through air assault school, jumpmaster school, French commando school and Ranger school.
He would receive numerous awards, including the Bronze Star Medal with two oak leaf clusters, the Meritorious Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and the Army Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters.
The couple’s four children are all now in their 30s. Those children led to 10 grandchildren to keep the pair busy when he was not training or deployed.
Foster deployed to Iraq multiple times and to Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne’s 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment.
It was shortly before that deployment that then-Staff Sgt. Joseph Camarillo encountered the sergeant major.
Camarillo was coming off recruiting duty and met Foster, who was standing in his office doorway with a cup of coffee in his hand.
“Who are you?” Foster asked.
“I’m Staff Sgt. Camarillo, I’m…” Camarillo began.
“You need to take that combat patch off and put on the 101st patch,” Foster said.
That was Camarillo’s quick introduction to a no-nonsense sergeant major who’d influence the younger NCO and countless others.
Camarillo, who worked in battalion operations, recalled training for the unit’s upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.
Computer screens in the headquarters glowed in the night, showing where the various units were on the battlefield.
Foster walked in and asked where were the maps, the printed information.
They didn’t have any of that, just the computers. Foster nodded, walked outside and pulled the plug on the generator.
“Alright, now tell me where this company is at,” he said.
“Well, we don’t know,” was the response.
“Exactly. You always have to have a backup,” Foster replied.
Months later, while conducting nearly identical operations to those stateside drills, this time near the Pakistan border, the power went out.
Camarillo said soldiers in the tactical operations center breathed a sigh of relief and pulled out their handwritten backups, seamlessly moving along with the mission.
But, Camarillo and Lanette Foster said, the sergeant major’s touch was felt far beyond field training.
Lanette Foster said beyond his family and the Army, her husband’s passions were clear — Harley Davidson motorcycles, John Deere tractors and the Seattle Seahawks professional football team.
“Half of his clothes were Seahawks gear,” she said.
And when he was around soldiers, he couldn’t help but take charge.
Camarillo said whenever there was a unit function, Foster would take over grilling duties, always the father figure.
Word of the sergeant major’s death traveled quickly among the soldiers who knew him and served with him. Camarillo said he talked with some fellow drill sergeants who’d served with Foster, and each of them noted how they mimicked his leadership style, down to some of his words and mannerisms.
On the trail, Camarillo often thought of Foster and asked himself, “Is this how he would do it?”
The sergeant first class said that news of his death came as a shock.
“There’s a lot who still can’t believe it,” Camarillo said. “We’re still expecting to reach out to him. Ask him a question.”
Lanette Foster carries 27 years of memories with her, and she sees how he touched people from his family to the scores of soldiers he served.
“He loved soldiers, period,” she said.
“I loved him more than anything,” she said. “If I had to say anything … it would be how proud I was to be his wife. He was an incredible person, and how truly blessed I feel he chose me to be on this journey with him.”