SPRINGFIELD, IL (11/24/2013)(readMedia)-- A prototypical sergeant major in the Army is rough around the edges, crotchety when he speaks, and usually appears older than he is due to the hard life of a career Soldier.
You would not notice those traits when Command Sgt. Maj. Howard Robinson of Olympia Fields, Ill., is making his rounds visiting Soldiers.
"He doesn't get excited too easily, but it's probably because of the stress he had growing up as a kid," said Brig. Gen. Richard Hayes of Chatham, Ill., the Assistant Adjutant General, Illinois National Guard.
Hayes said Robinson gets his strength from his mother, whom Hayes has met on several occasions.
"She was a single mom in the projects trying to bring him up in abject poverty and to look at her and see the strength in her, you'll see it in him," said Hayes. "If you meet his mom, you'll see a lot of the demeanor in him is a reflection of his mother."
Robinson retired from the Illinois National Guard Nov. 30 after 30 years. He served for the past two years as the senior enlisted advisor, the principle advisor to the Adjutant General on all matters related to Soldiers and Airmen.
"It's bittersweet," said Robinson. "The thing I'm going to miss most is the interaction with our Soldiers and Airmen."
Robinson entered the Illinois National Guard in 1983 as a fire support specialist with 2nd battalion, 122nd Field Artillery. At the time, Robinson was finishing his bachelor's degree in healthcare administration and wanted to serve the Guard in a medical-related capacity.
"I was told there were no slots in the medical field and the only military occupational specialty available to me was fire support specialist in the artillery," said Robinson. "So, I joined the artillery and I started to enjoy it because I wasn't doing medical stuff during drill weekends. It worked out for me. I always tried to turn a negative into a positive."
Robinson's positivity is one of the first things Hayes noticed when the two began serving together in the early 1990s.
"He is very personable and he was totally dedicated and motivated to do the best he could," said Hayes.
Robinson also had thoughts of becoming an officer when he first enlisted, but abandoned the idea because of the demands of school, a budding family and a full time job.
"It was taking a toll," said Robinson. "I felt the only way I could make a difference was to be part of the solution and I had to place myself in a position where I could do that."
Hayes said Robinson was instrumental in making improvements to the enlisted promotion system, which he said Robinson did not believe was a fair system.
"Whether you like the current system or not, he was passionate about making it better; throughout his career he was passionate about making it better," said Hayes.
Robinson said the camaraderie and the opportunity to mentor Soldiers are moments he reflects on often.
"I think I've done a great job, at least I hope I did a great job, at being able to mentor young men," said Robinson. "The feedback I get from them is 'if it wasn't for you' and 'thank you.' The joy of seeing these guys doing what they do and looking at me as a staff sergeant back then, and they're taking over and doing it now, I can't help but be proud. That makes me feel good."
The list of Soldiers who credit Robinson with mentoring them might rival the list of individuals Robinson says mentored him. At the top of Robinson's list of mentors is his mother followed by his extended family and his Army family, including Command Sgt. Maj. (Ret) O'Darrell Pennington of Chicago.
Pennington began serving with Robinson in the early 1990s and said Robinson was studios and mild mannered.
"He knew how to take care of business and was good at getting Soldiers to do what needed to be done," said Pennington. "Stay focused and shoot for the top. Those are the two things he always did that I would encourage other Soldiers to do. It worked for him."
Staying focused is exactly what Robinson plans to do in retirement. He plans to complete the seven remaining classes toward a Master's Degree in healthcare administration and continue to serve Soldiers and Airmen.
"My desire would be to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs. My background in healthcare administration and my service in the Guard, interacting with Soldiers and Airmen, veterans and their families, I think that would be a perfect fit."
Robinson's mentors and peers alike would suggest his nurturing style of leadership and mild demeanor has been a perfect fit for the Illinois National Guard.
"He cares about what he does and he cares about those that he does it with," said Hayes. "He is organized and methodical in the way he approaches everything."
Opposite of what you may expect from the prototypical sergeant major, Robinson said he always found the good in everybody.
"You have to make everybody feel good about their service, no matter what they do," he said.