WINCHESTER, Va. – Saying farewell to someone whose career counsel and guidance touched three decades of Soldiers is no easy task, so it took much military pageantry, laughter, lots of flowers and most definitely a few tears, for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Division to retire Command Sgt. Maj. John W. Etter Jr. after 32 years of selfless service to the nation.
The ceremony, which took place Feb. 6, 2019, at the Division’s headquarters in Winchester, Va., highlighted Etter’s remarkable journey that began in Army Basic Training in 1988 and ended with the kind of stories Hollywood makes movies about.
Etter earned the trifecta of being a highly effective Soldier, Sapper (combat engineer), and leader. During his career, he was a Jump-Master Qualified Airborne Ranger, and as a Sapper, he spent much of his career assisting front-line infantry divisions by building bridges, laying or clearing mines, demolishing obstacles, building roads, and constructing or repairing airfields.
Speaking to the crowd of family, friends and fellow Soldiers with whom Etter had served over the years, TAD Commander Col. Mark Quander said by developing and mentoring individuals wherever he went, Etter left his mark not only on the 800 men and women serving within the Transatlantic Division, but on Soldiers across the Army.
“John Etter doesn’t direct, he influences. That is the true mark of a leader,” said Quander. “His decades of service embrace Army values and principles, and he epitomizes the Noncommissioned Officer Corps as the backbone of the Army.”
From speaker to speaker, the dual themes that ran throughout Etter’s retirement were his professionalism and his sense of humor, and how he used the two in combination to steer young enlisted Soldiers and officers onto the path to success. The invited guest speaker for the retirement was Col. Jason Kelly, commander of the Transatlantic Afghanistan District. Kelly and Etter have known each other since 1995, when the former was a lieutenant and the latter a staff sergeant instructor at the Sapper leaders course. They have been stationed together on and off for the past 24 years and are friends as well as colleagues.
Kelly mesmerized the crowd with stories of his friend and colleague, including reading a litany of well-wishes from a “who’s who” of Army leadership today – former Soldiers who served alongside Etter and benefited from his leadership, mentorship and wisdom.
Among that list was Brig. Gen. Diana M. Holland, commander of the USACE South Atlantic Division, who wrote: “There is no command sergeant major out there who brings more energy and passion to each and every day! Even on the toughest and darkest of days, he can brighten up a room. That is truly a gift. He made a huge difference in our Army.”
Echoing Holland’s praise, USACE North Atlantic Division Commander Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Milhorn said Etter “epitomizes the very best and inspires others to push themselves to greater heights thought unimaginable by most.”
Kelly finished his speech by highlighting Etter’s capable leadership, keen personal interest, and initiative that “rendered valuable assistance in the planning and execution of every mission performed [by TAD] over the past two years.
“Throughout his career…Command Sgt. Maj. Etter has always given nothing less than his very best. He’s always asked the same of those on his team,” Kelly said. “We’ve all answered the call, and together, we have a host of significant accomplishments for the U.S. Army, the Corps of Engineers, and for our country.”
After the awarding of his third Legion of Merit, a certificate of appreciation from the President of the United States, and the presentation of his retirement certificate and U.S. Flag, Etter took the stage for his final farewell.
“As always, it’s a great day to be an American Soldier,” he said. “Today, as we celebrate my retirement, it is only fitting that I recognize a few of my senior enlisted mentors I had the honor to serve with during my 32 years, two months and eight days of military service – not that I’m counting.
“They say you never forget your basic training drill sergeant and, well, I never forgot mine! My drill sergeant was Command Sgt. Major Ioakimo Falaniko, the single most influential leader I had and someone I wanted to emulate from the time I was a young super-duper paratrooper up until I was promoted to sergeant major.”
Etter said men like Drill Sergeant Falaniko, as well as other leaders along the way, developed him to have the mental toughness, the intestinal fortitude, and the resiliency he needed to survive on the battlefield.
The only somber moment in the otherwise lighthearted ceremony was when Etter spoke of the fallen Soldiers who perished while under his charge as he mentioned each by name. “They will be with me for the rest of my life,” he said. They are: Staff Sgt. Arthur C. Williams from Edgewater, Fla.; Staff Sgt. Andrew Bossert, from Fountain City, Wis.; and, Specialist Michael Franklin from Coudersport, Pa., who were killed in fighting in Ramadi, Iraq.
Etter ended the ceremony in his singularly distinct fashion by alluding to his retirement home in Hawaii. “[My wife] Lori and I are ecstatic for this day to finally arrive,” he said. “It’s bittersweet but it’s time. My surfboard is calling my name, not to mention many, many Mai Tais! Take care and Mahalo!”