On some mornings, Phil Blaisdell works out with a run by some of the most familiar landmarks in the world. He passes the Iwo Jima monument near Arlington, VA National Cemetery, crosses Memorial Bridge into Washington, DC, and continues along the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol. Sometimes he pauses to feed squirrels.
Blaisdell, 50, is a 1991 Bedford High School graduate who lives with his wife Lea in the most secure military post in the country, Fort Myer, VA, not far from the home of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Over almost 30 years, Blaisdell has advanced to the highest Army enlisted rank of command sergeant major. He is senior enlisted advisor to Lt. Gen. James Rainey, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for operations, plans, and training. Command sergeant majors are “the guys that can tell the officers, ‘That’s not going to work.’ And they listen,” Blaisdell laughed.
“I can’t believe I’m where I am at right now,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I wasn’t a good student. I didn’t know what I was going to do in life. I just found this. But these leaders cared for me. And I knew what I had to do.”
Blaisdell hopes to be in Bedford on Veterans Day, as he will be on a recruitment tour of the region, including a visit to the Massachusetts National Guard headquarters at Hanscom Air Force Base. “I still wake up at 0415 — I have to keep up with the soldiers. That has always been my role,” he said.
After BHS, Blaisdell did some work with a landscaping firm and helped out his grandfather Philip Ballou, a building contractor. “I really didn’t have a whole lot going on, a vision of what I wanted to do. I looked at the military but I didn’t know if I wanted that.” Then he saw a video of “guys jumping out of airplanes.” Before that, “I didn’t even know what Airborne was.”
Blaisdell said the Marine Corps made it easy for him to join the Army – “they told me six months; the Army said three weeks.” He enlisted on Sept. 30, 1992.” Looking back, “The structure, the discipline, the cohesion, and the leaders that I had are really what kept me in.”
Basic training at Fort Benning, GA, was followed by a concentration on Airborne at Fort Polk, LA. Among Blaisdell’s decorations—Basic, Senior, and Master Parachutist Badges; Air Assault Badge; and German Parachutist Badge.
As his enlistment started to wind down, he contemplated re-upping. “I enjoyed it. I wasn’t a bad soldier – actually I was a really good soldier.”
Early on, he said, he learned “the Army values you have to live by, to treat everybody with dignity and respect. Everybody is part of the team, regardless of where you came from. It really works. That has been consistent over 30 years.”
“What kept me in was I met my future wife, a student at McNeese State in Lake Charles, LA. I said, ‘I really like this girl, and I decided to re-enlist and go to Korea for a year while she finished her senior year.” They’ve been married for 28 years.
There, “my sergeant motivated me to go to Ranger school, the most elite Airborne you can be,” Blaisdell related. “I looked up to that guy so much – he was a role model, tough as nails. A guy like that I would have followed to hell. It was a very close-knit organization — even when you screwed up, my sergeants had empathy. You know you have good leadership when they don’t have to punish.”
Blaisdell’s first overseas deployment – as a squad leader with the legendary 82nd Airborne Division – was to Albania in 1999 during the Kosovo campaign. “When we saw the destruction, the mass exodus, it was really an eye-opener for us,” he said. He later went to Egypt’s Sinai region as part of a peacekeeping mission under United Nations auspices.
Blaisdell was a platoon sergeant in the 101st Airborne during the 12 months he spent in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. “That was a rough one. Every day was a fight, whether small arms, indirect, IEDs,” he recounted. “My platoon leader got hit with an IED the first day.”
“We lived out in sector,” he said, and his 32-34 soldiers “were my family. The hardest part of being in an environment like that as a leader is making sure they are there to represent the American people. No matter what the situation, we treated everybody with dignity and respect. We did the right thing because that’s what our country expected us to do.”
“My goal always has been for every soldier to feel like a valued member of the team,” Blaisdell stated. “In Iraq we built that team and it carried over into combat. Everything we did, we did for each other. My men did a wonderful job. We did our mission – we caught and killed a lot of bad people,” mostly foreign infiltrators.
In a 2006 fight near a small town called Rushdi Mullah, “My platoon of 34 were awarded one Silver Star, four Bronze Stars with Valor, three Army Commendation Medals with Valor, and six Purple Hearts.” Blaisdell was among the recipients of the Bronze Star.
Later he did a second tour, training with the Iraqi Army. “Every mission I did I took Iraqi soldiers with me. The biggest thing for us was to build the NCO (non-commissioned officer) corps.” In Iraq, “that was hard. It’s hard to break old habits. Culture takes time to change.” Blaisdell was also deployed to Afghanistan in 2012.
When he was selected to attend the Army’s sergeant majors academy, Blaisdell said, “I never thought I’d be able to do it. I thought I would retire as a master sergeant after 20 years.” He was promoted to sergeant major in August 2014.
He described his first position as a battalion sergeant major, working alongside the operations officer, a lieutenant colonel, at the basic training center, Fort Jackson, SC. “I had never been in that environment before –it was drill sergeants and soldiers,” he said, adding, “This is where we change the kids off the street.”
“Every day was different – the rifle range, the gas chamber, always training going on,” he continued. “But my favorite day was family day. I told the drill sergeants, ‘When these soldiers’ families come, we’re going to talk to them. They are going to see a completely different person – they’re going to be crying. They’re going to go home and tell people how awesome it was.’” Blaisdell was inducted into the Fort Jackson Hall of Fame in 2021.
As command sergeant major for the U.S. Army Alaska, he was in charge of 12,000 soldiers. Blaisdell said his approach was the same one he learned from NCOs at Fort Polk: “We are a people organization. You can give us the best weapons systems, but if the people aren’t happy coming to work, then we are not going to win.”
Blaisdell says occasionally he considers retirement. – in Florida. “Because of my position I can go past 30 years,” he explained. “I always say, ‘Focus on the job you’re at; don’t worry about the next one.”
Lea Blaisdell is a teacher. Their son Phil is a sergeant in the 101st Airborne and recently re-enlisted. Daughter Brooke, 19, is working as a lifeguard. “She says she has been in the Army for 19 years,” he laughed. “I think we’ve moved 14 times in 30 years.”
Blaisdell’s military education credentials range from Air Assault School, Combat Lifesaver Course, and Jumpmaster School, to Battalion and Brigade Pre-Command Course, Legal Orientation Course, and the National Defense University’s Keystone Course. His associate’s degree is in applied science and he is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
He has received the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, and the NATO Medal.
“I have a good way of reading people – company commanders, battalion commanders, general officers,” Blaisdell reflected. “If I wanted to be an officer I could have gone to school. But I didn’t — I chose to be an NCO. I have constantly been with soldiers my entire career.” He said he mentors young officers and offers this advice: “When you get your turn to command soldiers at any level, you embrace it and have fun.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763