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Command Sgt. Maj. Ray Harding retires after 37 years serving National Guard
Command Sgt. Maj. Ray Harding retires after 37 years serving National Guard

Command Sgt. Maj. Ray Harding
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Nov. 19, 2009) — Command Sgt. Maj. Ray Harding, a Saint Robert resident, was called “a soldier’s friend” and assured that “he will be missed” during his recent retirement ceremony at the Missouri National Guard’s 35th Engineer Brigade.

Harding, who has more than 35 years of service in the Missouri National Guard and two in the Kansas Guard, was honored by the presence and praise of several current and former senior officers and enlisted soldiers, as well as tokens of appreciation that ranged from a bronze de Fleury Medal to the first three of the brigade’s newest unit coins.

“This is an opportunity to reflect on a long career,” Harding said. “The Guard has meant great people and great times in my life.”

Brig. Gen. David Irwin, the 35th’s commander for more than a year, called Harding a valuable source of knowledge that will be missed.

“Whenever I need to know what soldiers think about something or the impact of a decision on the soldiers of this unit, he’s a great voice for that,” Irwin said of Harding. “He’s always got their interests first. He’s a great resource for me, a great noncommissioned officer and a trusted advisor.”

“He’s been in 37 years and a lot of those years were in the engineer brigade. I can’t say enough about what a privilege it was to serve with him,” Irwin said.

Irwin said one of Harding’s best attributes is that he leads by example.

“Just last month, his last drill in uniform, we’re taking the Army Physical Fitness Test here,” Irwin said. “If there ever was a time when someone would say he doesn’t need to take a physical training test, it would have been then. Command Sgt. Maj. Harding was at the front of the line and took the test with his soldiers, because that’s just the kind of guy he is. He’d never ask his soldiers to do something he wouldn’t do, so he represents them well.”

Harding thinks honesty and open-mindedness are two of the components that have made him a soldier’s friend.

“I try to shake a hand and try to resolve issues. I let the soldier know that the support is there,” Harding said. “As a brigade command sergeant major, you don’t have anybody who works for you directly — you’ve got them all. The kid in that company in Iraq from Virginia has to be just as important as that specialist in Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 35th Engineer Brigade. To me, you have to have the ability to make them understand that — that you are going to give them the support that they need.”

The two primary influences on Harding’s leadership style, he said, were retired Command Sgts. Maj. Skip Rich and Chris Baker.

“They both had their own personality and style,” Harding said. “I was able to learn from them and develop the style I thought was important. I learned the focus and patience that you have to have from them. They both used their own abilities to get things done in very different ways. Sgt. Maj. Rich was very intense and aggressive; while Sgt. Maj. Baker got things done by making sure he saw the big picture. The combination of the two was very good to me.”

The key to Harding’s success in the Guard, however, has revolved around three components of family — immediate family, extended family and the Guard family.

“To me there are three different parts of the puzzle,” Harding said. “Without all three of them fitting together, it would have been difficult. It took a lot of support to do that.”

Married for 38 years, Harding said the support he required to maintain that balance started with his wife, Cindy.

“We were married when I enlisted, so she’s been with me every step of the way and understood whatever it took for me to do what I needed to do,” Harding said. “She was our Family Readiness Group leader during our deployment, so she’s been right there the whole way in understanding what needs to be done.”

Harding counts his Iraq deployment from June 2007 to June 2008 with the 35th among his best memories and said he learned a lot there working with Command Sgts. Maj. Philip Johndrow and John Gioia, of the 1st Calvary Division and 4th Infantry Division, respectively.

But Harding said it’s been the people he’s met and worked with that have been the highlight of his career.

“A Guardsman is a special creature in that to balance a civilian career, a family and the military, it takes work,” Harding said. “That’s what makes the people in the National Guard so special.”

Retired Brig. Gen. Michael Pace, the immediate past commander of the 35th Engineer Brigade, said he had a lot of admiration for Harding.

“The man is a true professional inside and out — he always has the soldiers’ best interests at heart,” Pace said. “I probably don’t know everything he did to make my time in command better, because he shortstopped a whole bunch of those things before they ever raised to my level. That’s what a good sergeant major does. He was always there and you could always count on him to say the right things at the right time.”

Pace said Harding was honest to himself.

“He walked the walk and talked the talk,” Pace said. “The Guard is going to miss him, but I congratulate him on his retirement. It’s well deserved. He and Cindy have been stalwarts in family readiness. She was one of those folks that you could always get back to here in the states and know that what you asked of her would be handled correctly. She was very much a part of the Harding Team.”

When Harding came to the 35th, Pace charged him with improving the unit’s noncommissioned officers.

“When he came here, the Noncommissioned Officer Development Program needed some work,” Pace said. “I put Ray in charge of that immediately in developing the up-and-coming noncommissioned officers. He took that by the horns and actually made it the best in the state in my eyes.”

Harding was praised for his soldier care by his junior noncommissioned officers.

“He’s one of the best noncommissioned officers I’ve ever met, someone I look up to a lot,” said Staff Sgt. Sherryl Burrus, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 35th. “Anytime I had any questions or problems that arose, I’d go to him and he’d always have an ear available.”

“There’s too many times I’ve seen him help soldiers; I can’t really name one that stands out. He’s always just been there. I always know that if I needed someone to talk to, I could talk to him, even if it wasn’t military related,” Burrus said.

Sgt. Michael Melton, now with Company A, Training Support Battalion, was part of the personal security detail team for Harding and Pace in Baghdad during the deployment to Iraq.

“He has one of the greatest backbones I’ve ever seen in a noncommissioned officer,” Melton said of Harding. “That really sums up everything about him. A lot of people have lost that nowadays, but that’s what a noncommissioned officer is — backbone. He will stop at nothing to take care of his soldiers.”

Harding said it has been a pleasure to serve with the various state command sergeants major and the commanders he’s had, including Irwin, Pace and then-Col. Stephen Danner, who is now a brigadier general and the adjutant general of the Missouri National Guard.

“They are quality people,” he said. “I’ve had very good commanders — I’ve been very lucky.”

For the last four years, Harding has been the brigade command sergeant major after moving over from his position as the command sergeant major and commandant of the 140th Regiment Missouri Regional Training Institute, also at Fort Leonard Wood. Before that, Harding was with Company B, 203rd Engineer Battalion in Joplin.

In his civilian career during the week, Harding works as a contractor for Battelle Corporation. Before that, Harding spent 24 years as a teacher and head football coach or athletic director at Carthage High School.

Harding recalled that his own balance of his three families was often a challenge.

“I was at a football clinic where John Robinson (former Los Angles Rams and University of Southern California head coach) was talking,” Harding said. “He made the comment at that clinic, ‘In order for you to succeed as a football coach, you have to be totally committed and can not have any distractions.’ As I listened to him, I thought, that’s not going to be me. I know I’m a head football coach and I want to succeed, but I also know I’m a member of the Missouri National Guard and that has to succeed, as well. That was part of what I had to juggle.”

Cindy Harding also was recognized at the ceremony by the 35th with some retirement awards and gifts of her own as she will now step down as the unit Family Readiness Group leader. She was surprised by how emotional the entire retirement ceremony was.

“The soldiers mean a lot to me, and being the Family Readiness leader, they are my Family through more than 37 years of the military life in the Guard,” she said. “It meant a lot. The awards, the accolades, my goodness that is so humbling that you just can’t imagine. I love these soldiers. They are family and they will always be family.”

During the Hardings’ time in the Guard, Cindy Harding has spent about 15 years as a Family Readiness Group leader, including the last five with the 35th.

“At the brigade is the first time I really threw my heart and soul into it, and it was a deployment, so what better time than during a deployment to support the soldiers,” Cindy Harding said. “I met a lot of great families.”

She has found her involvement with the Guard to be very rewarding.

“Mainly it’s the support you have to give your soldier to understand what his commitment is to the military and to the National Guard life,” she said. “Whether it is a deployment or a disaster, you just kind of prepare yourself and your family. My kids grew up knowing that their dad went to the Army — he was a weekend warrior. It’s the closeness of supporting your husband and understanding what he does.”

“You just have to buy into it and learn more. I ask questions. I try to understand the military lingo. I just wanted to be involved and I wanted to understand what his world was. I think that is the role of a supporting military wife,” she said.

The son of a retired master sergeant who served 28 years in the active Army, Ray Harding is a 1968 graduate of the Tehran American School in Tehran, Iran. He went on to graduate from Missouri Southern State College with a bachelor’s in social studies in 1972. He also was the Lions’ starting quarterback for more than two seasons.

Harding enlisted in the Guard during his senior year at Missouri Southern — in October of 1972 — and was later assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 203rd as a water purification specialist.

Then he spent two years as the company clerk for the 137th Infantry Battalion in the Kansas Guard before he returned to the 203rd in Company B’s communication section after he took the coaching job in Carthage.

Harting’s military honors and awards include the Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Achievement Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Iraqi Campaign Medal with Campaign Star, six Army Reserve Component Achievement Medals, two Armed Forces Reserve Medals with “M” Device, two Army Reserve Component Overseas Training Ribbons and the Missouri Long Service Ribbon for 35 years of service.

The biggest advancements Harding said he’s seen since he’s been a part of the Guard have been how it is utilized.

“The National Guard, in my opinion, changed a lot for the better after Desert Storm,” he said. “A lot of the old stories and jokes you heard about the Guard prior to that might have been true to an extent. But once Desert Storm hit, the Guard became more focused on that active mission as much so as that local, state mission. It doesn’t matter what state you are from, when the Guard deploys, you can take it to the bank that whatever job is requested will get done.”

Along with his wife, Ray Harding is supported in his military career by their son and daughter-in-law, Matt and Janel Harding, and their daughter and son-in-law, Stacey and Marine Corps Master Sgt. T.J. Manor, as well as their grandson, Hayden, 4.

“I’ve never ever had any issues with my family support. It’s been tremendous,” Harding said.

In retirement, the Hardings plan to spend more time with family and to take trips.

“We like to travel, visit friends and go to warm destinations in Florida. Our daughter and son-in-law live in Hawaii, so we’re going to Hawaii to spend Christmas with them,” Cindy Harding said.

“I’ll do whatever my wife tells me to do,” Ray Harding added.

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