With the tables cleared, chairs folded and the floor vacuumed, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel Dailey was among the last people still inside a banquet hall after a ceremony at this secluded Mojave Desert training base.
About an hour before, he had given the keynote speech for the command’s NCO/Soldier of the Year ceremony. In his speech, he praised the winners and underscored the importance of readiness and other Army priorities to the hundreds of people in attendance.
Shortly after, bands of Soldiers, family members and civilians flocked to him like moths to a bright light. He shook their hands, cracked jokes and shared laughs. Anybody who wanted a selfie with him got one, even if that meant staying well after the event.
“I’m just trying to live up to my own expectations of what the sergeant major of the Army should be,” Dailey said, when he finally left the banquet hall around midnight his time.
As the 15th sergeant major of the Army, Dailey’s role is to put an enlisted voice inside the Pentagon to place concerns of Soldiers directly in front of the military’s most senior leaders, including the Army’s secretary and chief of staff.
Duties also extend to shaping NCO development, being a spokesperson for military families, and a sounding board for Army senior leaders regarding new standards, policies and programs under development.
Created in 1966, the role of sergeant major of the Army is so unique amongst Soldiers that the person in the position wears special rank insignia on their sleeves and even has their own official Army flag. The SMA also serves as a role model to the more than 1 million Soldiers across the total force.
Because of that, adherence to physical standards has not just been something Dailey talks about since taking the position in January 2015, he has also lived up to it. Before leaving for his Fort Irwin trip in early June, for instance, Dailey ran 7 miles as part of his routine physical training.
Not long after his run, he hopped aboard a cross-country flight from northern Virginia to the California desert. Seconds after landing, he jumped on a Black Hawk helicopter from the airport to the remote installation, where he was briefed on the National Training Center, one of the Army’s premier training areas.
With no signs of jetlag, an energetic Dailey capped off his 18-hour day by interacting with Soldiers at the ceremony. The next day, another full itinerary awaited him.
“We put Soldiers through a lot of grueling times [and] long hours,” Dailey said. “It’s not too much to come out and tell them ‘thank you’ and shake their hand. You got to be on your ‘A-game’ when you’re out there, because that’s what they expect. They’re tired, too.
“The bad part is that my guys can never keep me on schedule. It’s always my fault,” he said, smiling.
At just 44 years old, Dailey is the youngest sergeant major of the Army. After he enlisted in 1989, he rose through the ranks and has held every enlisted leadership role in the mechanized infantry.
In 2008, he fought in Baghdad with the 4th Infantry Division during the Battle for Sadr City, a two-month fight where he earned a Bronze Star with Valor for his leadership. The next year, he was chosen to be the division’s senior enlisted leader.
He then was selected to be the command sergeant major of the Army Training and Doctrine Command, where he helped shape new policy before being picked for his current position.
At a young age, Dailey was ingrained with a strong work ethic while growing up in a low-income family in Palmerton, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania. Throughout his humble childhood, his parents often showed him how to fix or make things on his own.
“We didn’t have a lot,” he said, “but we were taught the right way.”
Paying for college and other opportunities, though, were still out of reach for Dailey. That’s where the Army came in. He joined as an infantryman and tackled tough courses, earning a Ranger tab and becoming a master gunner for the Bradley fighting vehicle. He also graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree from Excelsior College.
“The Army is the land of opportunity,” he said. “They don’t care who you are or where you’re from; it’s all about what you do and what you contribute.”
When not working — he averages one or two days off a month — he transfers his energy to home projects. He digs deep into his interest of carpentry and has built handmade cabinets and furniture. He even sews and upholsters chairs and is a certified car mechanic, helping his family while also teaching them what his parents passed on to him.
“It’s really a cross between love and frugalness,” he said, laughing.
Dailey’s sense of humor is another enduring trait of his. Once he wakes up until he goes to bed, he can be heard singing or telling a joke. “He’s funny all the time,” said his wife, Holly Dailey. “That’s one of the main reasons I married him.”
When either stressed from a demanding job or deployed overseas, humor was one thing that made it easier for the couple and their son, Dakota, now 21, to get through the challenging times.
“You learn as a couple, especially being a military couple, it’s the quality of time you spend together, not the quantity of time,” Holly said. “You have to learn to maximize that time when you have it.”
Early in his 28-year career, Dailey traveled back to Palmerton before moving onto his next duty station.
One day, he went to pick up his best friend to go fishing and then saw Holly, his friend’s sister. Holly, a brunette who Dailey once went to school with, had finally caught his eye. “I gave her a big hug and the rest is history,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.
They married in 1993 and Holly was thrusted into the military lifestyle with her husband, a newly-minted sergeant. Holly embraced the family readiness groups, led and even leaned on them when her husband deployed.
She calls it “an honor” to be able to advocate for Soldiers and their families at the Department of the Army level. Almost every day, according to Dailey, she does something for the Army, whether that’s attend board meetings, events or research ways to improve quality of life in the Army.
“The Army Family is my family,” she said. “That’s a benefit you never have to worry about being cut off the budget.”
The Daileys are invited to attend many events — at least a few of them each week are for Holly’s projects and the SMA attends them as his wife’s spouse, he said. With their busy schedules, the couple jokes that those evening events double as their date night. “If there’s dinner and music, it counts as a date,” he said.
In a recent interview, Holly carried with her a thick binder full of budding initiatives, many of which she works on with her battle buddy, Hollyanne Milley, wife of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley.
One such idea is a progressive and sequential training system for spouses of all enlisted Soldiers, which would teach them the touchpoints that commensurate to their Soldier’s level of responsibility. Currently, on the enlisted side, only spouses of sergeants major receive the training, which may cover rank structure or etiquette at ceremonies, acronyms, or how to get involved in the local community.
“It’s all part of readiness,” Dailey said. “It’s building a family that’s ready and resilient for when the separation is eventually going to occur when we deploy that Soldier.”
When Soldiers deploy, spouses are often expected to volunteer and be leaders of local organizations at the installation. To reward their efforts, according to Dailey, the Army is considering the idea of giving credentials to spouses who pass leadership training or other courses already offered by the Army. Those certificates could then bolster a spouse’s resume when searching for their next job.
“Just like what we’re doing with our Soldiers, let’s find a way to credential the spouse when that opportunity exists,” he said. “We have this great gift in the Army and that’s the spouse network that does literally millions of volunteer hours a year. It’s well worth its price in gold in giving them some training.”
A large amount of Dailey’s time is concentrated on educating Soldiers. Army leadership predicts younger Soldiers will someday guide dispersed units in highly-contested domains, so smarter Soldiers could prove pivotal in future warfare.
“I’m not saying we don’t need our officers,” he said. “They’re an educated force that requires them to be educated at a specific level to do the complex operations. But we also need a trained and educated enlisted force so we can decentralize those operations.”
There are upcoming plans for the Army University to hand out college degrees to Soldiers after they graduate professional military education courses and take a few core curriculum classes. Under this proposal, a graduate of the Basic Leader Course, the first step in the NCO Professional Development System, could earn enough credits for an associate’s degree after finishing just four college-level classes.
As NCOs progress in their career, they could then earn a bachelor’s degree after completing the Senior Leader Course and even a master’s degree following the Army Sergeants Major Academy.
“The intent there … is to give you credit for the work you’re doing,” Dailey said.
Plans to expand access to tuition assistance are also in the works. Dailey wants to eliminate the 1- and 10-year rules, which limit Soldiers from using tuition assistance until they’ve served at least a year or restricts them from applying it toward a master’s degree before 10 years of service.
If approved, Soldiers could use the benefit once they’re qualified in their military occupational specialty, and be able to use it for a master’s after they finish the Advanced Leader Course and Structured Self-Development Level 3 training.
“Tuition assistance is not a right,” he said. “It’s really a retention tool, so we should tie it to an outcome.”
Besides college degrees, Dailey believes tuition assistance could also be used for credentialing. That means Soldiers could use it to get qualified as a plumber, electrician, mechanic or in other skilled trades once they get out of the service. A one year pilot to test this idea for Soldiers — who must earn a license or certificate recognized by a U.S. state — is currently awaiting approval.
“We’ve got to change the way we think and expand our opportunities,” he said. “Times change so we don’t need legacy policies to continue to train and educate our force. We’ve got to adapt to the future.”
As a former TRADOC command sergeant major, Dailey said he worked closely with former Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler and would email him multiple pages of updates each week on various issues. One such issue, which continues to be a priority, was shaping the NCO Professional Development System, or NCOPDS.
Under Chandler, Dailey helped codify and solidify NCO education and pushed for a lifelong learning approach for leader development. This includes the Master Leader Course, which would fill in the training gap for master sergeants. There’s also the Executive Leader Course, which prepares command sergeants major and sergeants major for their initial nominative-level assignments.
“Those are all initiatives that were pretty much started during my tenure, but were carried over the goal line by Sgt. Maj. Dailey,” Chandler said.
Chandler also touted Dailey’s efforts to ensure NCOs complete leadership training before they can be promoted, as part of the Select-Train-Educate-Promote program, or STEP. “I think he’s done great things,” Chandler said. “Some things as simple as tying promotion to education.”
Dailey has also carried on former Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston’s work in the NCOPDS by striving to produce well-rounded senior NCOs.
Because of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during his tenure, Preston said, many senior NCOs were disadvantaged since they were being held at positions for continuity purposes with limited opportunities to move up. “It’s always been a challenge,” Preston said of developing senior NCOs. “At war, it became a significant challenge.”
In late June, Dailey had leaders from the enlisted force travel to Fort Bliss, Texas, to discuss plans on creating and sustaining upward mobility for senior NCOs during a weeklong training and development conference, which he holds each year. “There’s a lot of things that have to occur to make that [happen] and truly utilize the best talent across the Army,” he said.
While input on Dailey’s ideas mainly come from those in uniform, he often solicits advice from those who were once in his shoes. He’ll typically send past sergeants major of the Army quarterly updates on what he’s doing as a way to generate discussion and ideas.
“Every once in a while, someone will come back and ask, ‘What the hell are you doing?!” Dailey said. “They are not shy on giving me their opinion on what they believe is the right thing to do for the Army.”
Younger NCOs have also been asked by Dailey to step up when taking care of their Soldiers. In March 2015, Dailey rolled out the “Not in My Squad” initiative as a way for first-line leaders to be more accountable in ridding their ranks of sexual harassment/assault and other harmful behavior.
Before Dailey came on board, the Army wasn’t seeing the results it expected from its Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, or SHARP, according to Chandler.
A grassroots approach was then proposed by Dailey.
“Not in My Squad was really the next iteration of how we reinforce and reinvigorate our profession, our professional responsibilities and the Army’s intent to change the culture of the Army, specifically when it came to the SHARP program,” Chandler said.
As vice president of the Association of the U.S. Army’s NCO and Soldier programs, Preston will often promote Dailey’s initiatives. He described “Not in My Squad” as a very much-needed program that’s now making a difference in the Army.
“[Senior leaders] can say things and post policies on a bulletin board,” Preston said, “but until a first-line leader takes ownership of it and takes responsibility for it, you’re not going to see very much of a change.”
Listening to soldiers
More than halfway through his term as sergeant major of the Army, Dailey has discovered that four years is a short time for ideas to bloom and flourish as official programs.
There is a natural resistance to change, he said, adding he has to be systematic and thorough when completing initiatives, which can sometimes take years. “It is a little bit frustrating, but the good thing is that you get to take credit for somebody else’s great idea from five years ago,” he said, smiling.
Leadership changes, he said, can breed new ideas and revive older ones. “The great thing about the Army is that they’re going to make me leave this job. That’s good,” he said. “Someone is going to come in here and have a whole different view.”
Until he leaves, Dailey will continue using his outgoing personality to speak with Soldiers and hear their concerns, which help guide Army initiatives. He averages five trips per month outside the Washington, D.C., area to visit Soldiers and has already shook thousands of hands along with countless selfies.
Listening to Soldiers has resulted in several recent changes from allowing black socks to be worn with a PT uniform, to wearing earbuds inside the gym, to a more relaxed tattoo policy.
“Soldiers will tell you how they feel,” he said. “They’ll tell you what’s wrong, what’s broken, what makes them happy or sad.”
He said he’s fine with those sorts of changes as long as they don’t hurt Gen. Milley’s top priority — readiness.
As the chief of staff’s personal enlisted advisor, Dailey frequently reports to Milley about what Soldiers in the field think about issues. He also receives guidance from Milley so he can reinforce and relay the general’s strategies to the enlisted force. But often, it’s up to Dailey on how to do that.
“Sir, you got any guidance this week? Yeah, go and make the Army better,” Dailey said of his typical conversations with Milley. “He trusts us.”
Not all wishes Dailey hears from Soldiers will necessarily be granted, though. Take beards, for example, which the Army is currently studying to see if they could affect readiness. While many Army special operators have had them to better blend into local populations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the facial hair may prevent a Soldier from properly putting a gas mask on.
“Every Soldier’s opinion matters,” Dailey said. “Does that mean we’re going to change everything? No. But it does matter. Listen to them, give them the opportunity [to voice their concerns], and then be honest with them.”
And who knows, the next concern to be raised to Dailey could spark an Army-wide change.