When Command Sgt. Maj. Ken Lopez walked across the stage at Fort Drum and received his Army retirement pin on Dec. 31, 2002, he knew in his heart that his time serving Soldiers and Families was far from over. Shortly after hanging up his Army service uniform and putting away his combat boots, Lopez donned a new uniform – complete with the fedora-style hat and bowtie that have become his signature trademark.
Now, after more than 42 years of service to his country – half of which he spent at Fort Drum – Lopez says he is ready to see where life takes him – provided that the first stop along the way is the beach.
From ‘Army brat’ to Soldier
Fort Drum is almost a world away from the place Lopez calls home. Growing up in the sunshine and surrounded by beaches on Oahu, Hawaii, Lopez and his three older brothers decided to follow in their father’s footsteps.
Gilbert C. Lopez Sr. served 24 years as an Army infantryman. All four Lopez boys served in the military as well. The five veterans contributed more than 100 years of service to the Army.
“My father was in the military, so we traveled (around) the world … and then went back to Hawaii,” Lopez said. “He went to Vietnam three times.”
“I joined because of tradition, and I grew up in the military life,” he continued.
Lopez enlisted in the Army at 17.
“I actually had to get Dad’s and Mom’s signatures (to enlist). I had just graduated, and I wanted to go and make something of myself, so I joined the military,” he explained.
In 1995, Lopez received a call from the Department of the Army, and he was told that he was being assigned to the 10th Mountain Division.
“I had to call them back and ask them where exactly that was,” Lopez recalled. “I reported to Hays Hall – straight to the division command sergeant major in January of 1996.”
Lopez assumed responsibility as 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment’s command sergeant major before becoming 2nd Brigade’s senior enlisted adviser. The 9/11 attacks occurred a short time after Lopez became 10th Mountain Division (LI) senior enlisted leader.
Although Lopez had planned to retire, he said he put his plans on hold because of 9/11.
“I went to Bosnia with 2nd Brigade and had just gotten back, had the change of responsibility and then 9/11 happened; it was back to back,” he said.
At the time, there were only two brigades located at Fort Drum. Many of the division’s Soldiers were stationed in Sinai, Egypt, Lopez explained.
“We took (the troops) we had left to Uzbekistan for combat operations (before) moving into Afghanistan,” he recalled. “We kicked out 1-87 (Infantry) first, and then (division) followed to Uzbekistan.
“We pushed in 1-87 Infantry with the Special Forces into Afghanistan to get a foothold; then we went in with the division cell,” Lopez continued. “We immediately started conducting combat operations in the Shah-e-kot Valley (in Afghanistan).”
From Soldier to DA Civilian
In 2002, Lopez decided to retire from active-duty service. Originally, he had envisioned himself retiring in Hawaii, but after more than 27 years of service, he decided to stay in the North Country.
When his Family had arrived here in 1996, his two youngest children were in 4th and 7th grades.
“Staying here after retiring was one of the best decisions we ever made,” Lopez said. “This state has the best education system that I’ve seen in all my travels. My wife told me when we were heading up north that we’d (stay) two years.
“After the first year, seeing the education system and the North Country people, they just welcomed us with open arms,” he added.
Lopez said that he also felt “embedded” within the community by that time. Having spent his entire life as part of “the Army Family,” he said he wanted to continue to support Soldiers and Family Members of the 10th Mountain Division. When he accepted a position with the Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation just after retirement, Lopez said he knew it was the perfect fit for him.
“I loved being a Department of Defense Civilian, because it allowed me to continue to be a part of this great division and also continue to work with – and for – our Soldiers and Families,” he said. “It’s the best transition any Soldier could go through – going from military service to working for the Army as a Civilian.”
Lopez served in many different leadership roles during his time with FMWR. As superintendent of Remington Park, he oversaw the construction activity that doubled the size of the facilities at this location. Later, Lopez served as Youth Services sports director, garnering the first commendable rating for the Fort Drum program.
In 2006, Lopez was promoted to chief of community recreation. In this role, he was responsible for overseeing op-
erations at several post facilities, including McEwen Library, Monti Physical Fitness Center, Magrath Sports Complex, Parks and Recreation, Auto Craft Center and Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers Center.
Lopez, who had been charged with caring for Soldiers while on active-duty status, said he took great pride in being a part of ensuring that Family Members also had a positive experience here at Fort Drum.
“I know what Soldiers go through during their career, but I understand what it means to be a dependent too,” he explained. “I was born at Tripler Army (Medical Center, in Honolulu) and raised on military installations.”
He not only was a military child and served on active duty, but he also was a part of a dual-military Family. His wife, Mildred Lopez, served in the Army for four years.
“I’ve lived in government quarters and was raised on a military installation,” Lopez added. “That helps (me relate to Soldiers and Families) a lot.”
During his time as a DA Civilian, Lopez also served with the Equal Employment Opportunity’s Special Emphasis Program.
Hawaii has a culturally diverse population, Lopez said, adding that his father is a fourth-generation Hawaiian. In addition to native Hawaiian, he also is of Portuguese and Japanese descent.
Lopez said that he is proud of his heritage and of the part that he was able to play in representing ethnic minorities and in highlighting their important contributions to our nation.
“The military is made up of different cultures and people from all walks of life. That’s why I’m glad EO has special observance days to make the community aware of other cultures in both the military and civilian workforces,” he said. “In the civilian workforce especially, (sometimes) people have a tendency to not put down their ethnicity because they’re afraid that they could be overlooked due to stereotypes.
“We want people to understand that being different is OK. It’s OK to be proud of your nationality.”
Back to the beach
At an awards ceremony held in his honor on Friday in Memorial Park, Lopez reflected on the 21 years he has spent at Fort Drum. He looked up at the statue of the Military Mountaineers, then pointed to Hays Hall, “where it all began.”
“It’s been a good ride – 21 years,” he said. “To see our great division headquarters in the background today – that is just perfect.”
Surrounded by friends, members of the command team and members of the civilian workforce – some of whom had served under him and still fondly referred to him as “sergeant major” – Lopez said he felt grateful for relationships he had developed with so many “wonderful people” over the years.
“It’s the people of the North Country and the division that make this a great tour for any Soldier – from a private all the way up through the commanding general,” he said.
Lopez said that he and his wife Mildred look forward to moving to “warmer climates” and to having more time to spend with their Family.
“My grandparents lived across the street from the ocean,” he said. “We will be living on the Atlantic, not the Pacific, but we will be on the beach. I want my grandkids to have that same close relationship with me that I was fortunate to have with my grandparents.”
Lopez said that the 10th Mountain Division would forever be in his heart and that he looks forward to coming back to visit and to seeing the “continued growth” of Fort Drum in the years to come.
“I’m going to join the ranks of our alumni – our retirees – and hopefully you’ll set a table for Mildred and me in the future.”
Adapted from an article by former staff writer Michelle Kennedy.