ARLINGTON, Va. – As a 17-year-old, the world is full of possibilities and there isn't much that you can't do. You're invincible and have the answer to everything. That's what a young Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kepner, a recent high school graduate and cook at the International House of Pancakes, thought: he was sure of his life and his future.
He could not have known that his enlistment into the Army 37 years ago would lead him down a path of growth to become the top enlisted member of the National Guard—a role that advises Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, on all enlisted matters from the Army and Air National Guard.
Joining the military, however, was not something Kepner had planned.
"It was on a whim. The Army recruiting station was just across the street from the IHOP I worked at and I thought: 'Let me check this out.' "
He was 'sure of the future' and turned down college benefits. But looking back now, Kepner credits the Army for giving him the direction he needed.
"I don't know where I'd be without the military. I didn't have a mentor to provide me with direction and was sure that I would never go back to school again. The Army offered me this great opportunity to go to college and I said, 'I don't want it.' What the Army did was give me that structure and purpose. It was really responsible for giving me that growth period to mature before going into the civilian life."
The seven years with the 82nd Airborne and 10th Mountain Division provided Kepner with a lesson about concept of service before his enlistment into the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
"The reason people join is fundamentally different from the reason they continue to serve. You begin to understand, and adopt, this concept of service. It's something that is nurtured and developed over time as you get to different levels."
It was through the Guard that he was able to continue to serve.
"When I got off active duty the second time, I needed to continue to serve in some capacity and the Guard provided that ability for me. I think I'm the classic Guardsman. I wanted to pursue things from a different avenue from a full-time perspective in the civilian world and the Guard gave me the opportunity to continue to serve to meet both of those goals."
Kepner's previous duties in the Guard include serving as command sergeant major of the Pennsylvania Army Guard's 28th Infantry Division and as the 11th command sergeant major of the Army National Guard – and have prepared him for his new role as the senior enlisted advisor to the chief of the National Guard Bureau.
"Being the Army National Guard CSM opened up my aperture about collaborating with a strategic staff to impact change through policy, regulation or funding. Now, as the senior enlisted advisor, my focus on the Air National Guard is the same as it was for the Army National Guard.
"I'm looking forward to understanding the challenges faced by our Air brothers and sisters. I believe, and recognize, that I need to be concerned with Air and Army issues even if it is just within their services."
In addition to supporting the chief of the National Guard Bureau's vision and strategy, the senior enlisted advisor helps the chief of the National Guard Bureau stay connected to the enlisted force and to make sure Citizen-Warriors are prepared.
"I believe that our junior noncommissioned officers are going to make the difference for our Air and Army National Guard and we have to make sure that our Soldiers and Airmen ready for the warfight, homeland and partnerships."