Aiton, Wooldridge say goodbye to Knox, surrounding communities

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When Soldiers prepare for leadership or command positions the Army trains them to make sure they are ready for the next step. But Col. Steve Aiton, the Fort Knox Garrison commander, said that’s not necessarily true for commanders of garrison command.

“When you take this job the saying ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ has never been truer when you take command of a garrison,” he said. “Your initial thoughts were how do I get my arms around this huge thing I never experienced or don’t know that much about. You live, work and play on military installations your whole career and you think you know, but when you get in this job you realize you really didn’t have a clue.”

After two years as the commander Aiton will relinquish command to Col. Patrick Kaune in a change of command ceremony 9 a.m. Friday in Waybur Theater.

During his two years Aiton compares his time as the garrison commander to the Disney World experience with regard to the work that’s being done behind the scene to make sure an organization runs smoothly.

“For me that’s what this has been, it’s been a two-year look at so many different programs (and) so many different things I didn’t know that much about,” explained Aiton about his time as the commander.

Command Sgt. Maj. Bobby Wooldridge, the senior enlisted leader of Garrison Command who will change responsibility Friday during the change of command ceremony to Command Sgt. Maj. Garrick Griffin, agreed with Aiton. Wooldridge said things were initially challenging. When a Soldier is working within an organization they have a familiarity because they know how it’s run and they see what other leaders are doing in their positions as a squad leader or platoon sergeant. He added that battalion or brigade command sergeants major don’t always pay attention to what the garrison command sergeant major is doing on a daily basis.

“You don’t truly know what takes place,” said Wooldridge. “What you do know is what different organizations do, but you don’t know how they sync as a whole. That was something that was new to us. Coming in here with the idea of where you truly fit in.

“When you step in here you don’t truly realize (the size of the garrison). That doesn’t set in until the first couple of weeks when you start getting all of the briefs from everybody and you start going to the different meetings. You don’t get that before (you take the command).”

Wooldridge said working in the garrison is unique because garrison leadership works with organizations that provide the services, but Soldiers and civilians receive them as well.

For example, Aiton said that he had no idea what went into military child care such as the microscope the military child care teams are under, the regulations, inspections or maintaining the buildings or roads on the installation.

For the past two years Aiton has gained an appreciation for the people who make things happen. He said on a military installation there are unsung heroes—people behind the scenes who support Soldiers, Families and civilians on Fort Knox.

“Most people have no idea who they are, they have no idea what they do and in a lot of cases we take a lot of those things for granted until you get to look behind the curtain and see it,” Aiton said.

The commander and command sergeant major said they believe they are leaving a tighter team, of what he said was already a good team.

Aiton said he figured out that it’s not really about the two guys who are wearing uniforms in the command group because the building that might get built while they are leading was in the planning five or six years before they arrived. The duo was lucky to cut the ribbon, he said.

The commander has also been impressed by how long some of the civilians have worked in the garrison. He said some would say people work 20, 30 or 40 years in the command because they are comfortable.

“I don’t buy that,” Aiton said. “I think they stay here that long because they believe in the team that they are on, they believe in Fort Knox and they believe in what they do.”

Although Aiton has made difficult decisions in his two years as commander such as making cuts in certain directorates, he said the approach was never about one director, it was about the team and not one person. The discussions were what are the most important programs and services that need to continue on the installation.

“You had to look at what would we keep providing and how we would best posture ourselves to do that,” he said. “If that’s the way you look at it the rest of it kind of falls into place.”

He added that doing so caused certain directorates to take larger cuts than others, but having people believe in the collective mission has ensured everything ran smoothly.

“I don’t think it’s about me or the CSM, it’s about a team coming together to make that happen,” explained Aiton. “Has that been easy? No. … the proof continues to speak for itself in what we have on this installation.”

When Aiton thinks about his two years in command and the impact that he’s made to the installation he reflects on an unpopular decision that had to be made when he had to suspend part-day and hourly child care at Fort Knox’s Child Development Center. He said the staff was in tears because they cared that much about the children under their watch. He added that two months later during the Army higher headquarters inspection of all of the Army posts’ youth facilities, that same team scored higher than any child care facility in the Army Installation Management Command.

“If you can’t be proud of that something is wrong because to me that is resilience, that’s overcoming adversity, that’s all the things we would hope people would do,” said Aiton. “If sergeant major and I had some part in that, that’s awesome. If we did it was a very small part.”

Wooldridge pointed out that one of his proudest moments in command was helping with the formulation of the farming program with students on post. He said what began as a conversation became part of the S.T.A.R. Program with the help of local farmers and Devers Middle School and Teen Center. Teens were able to work hand in hand with farmers and gain first-hand knowledge about farmers and their impact on feeding America.

After two years Aiton and Wooldridge will bid Fort Knox adieu and the commander said he will never look at another Army installation the same way.

“I’m going to have some small sense of what’s going on behind that curtain,” Aiton said. “Walking away with that appreciation is the biggest reward any garrison commander can get after two years in a job like this.”

Wooldridge agreed with the Aiton, but he challenges Soldiers, retirees or those who have anything to do with an installation to stop being critical and look at individuals who work on a daily basis. Since becoming the command sergeant major Wooldridge has read more than 5,700 Interactive Customer Evaluation comments and they haven’t all been positive, but saying “thank you” to those who cut the grass, provide security and educate the children on the installation goes a long way.

“That’s what I think our folks deserve,” Wooldridge said. “Every green suiter is going to come and go off this installation but our folks who have stayed on here for an average of 20 years stay because they enjoy what they do and they believe in it. For those two years … it’s about them, it’s not about us. It’s always bigger than us.” n