The first African-American command sergeant major at Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s I Corps retired Tuesday from the Army with a ceremony that paid homage to the all-black cavalry regiments that once patrolled the American West.
Command Sgt. Maj. James Norman III nodded to the history of the Buffalo Soldiers because one of his ancestors served with them.
Norman’s great-grandfather, Herman, belonged to the segregated 10th Cavalry Regiment in the years before World War I. His grandfather fought in World War II, and his father served before Vietnam.
A century after his great-grandfather’s service, Norman capped a 35-year Army career as the top enlisted soldier for I Corps. The position gave him responsibility for tens of thousands of soldiers at JBLM, in Hawaii and in Alaska.
It also called on him to travel frequently to Asia, where he played a role in boosting Army partnerships with Pacific allies. That assignment was well-suited to him because he had served in Japan from 2011 to 2013.
“I've had opportunities to establish friendships with noncommissioned leaders from several countries, experience some bucket-list moments and also some ‘National Geographic’ moments,” said Norman, an Iraq veteran.
He added that the trips took him to battlefields where I Corps fought in World War II and in the Korean War, places recognized on streamers that decorate its flag today.
“And who can forget the yam festival of Bangladesh?” he laughed, referring to one of his recent trips with I Corps.
Norman is to be followed by Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Grinston, who recently completed a deployment to Iraq with the 1st Infantry Division.
Grinston has served in Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Gulf War and the Iraq War.
He said he planned to focus on developing leaders and keeping soldiers ready for emergencies during his posting at JBLM.
Grinston and Norman began their Army service at Fort Lewis and did not return until becoming its highest-ranking enlisted soldier.
Norman first arrived in 1981 to serve in a long-range surveillance unit. Grinston started out with an artillery battalion in 1988.
Norman’s first unit is still stationed at JBLM. Its soldiers held a position of honor at his retirement ceremony.
So did three men dressed in the all-blue cavalry uniforms of Buffalo Soldiers.
They came from the nonprofit Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle and participated in the ceremony by handing flowers to family members of several local military leaders.
Norman received praise from some of the top Army leaders in the Pentagon as well as medals recognizing his career.
“It’s a bittersweet day, but it’s a day that comes to every single trooper at some point in time,” he said. “The missions will never stop, the taskings will never stop. The Army just keeps going on from generation to generation.”