An American Story: Army Command Sgt. Major Charles Tobin

By Chris Erbe

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The surface of the table in the office of Army Command Sgt. Major Charles Tobin is almost hidden by challenge coins he has collected since 9/11. Each of the hundreds of coins represents an accomplishment, a visit to or from a senior leader or some other personal engagement.
Besides reminding Tobin of his many experiences in the military, the coins also show that he is a people person, a trait he exhibited frequently and naturally while the senior enlisted leader at DLA.

Tobin will retire in July after a 33-year Army career. He has served as DLA’s senior enlisted leader since May 2015 and is the agency’s sixth SEL since Army Lt. Gen. Henry T. Glisson established the position in 1997. His rise to the top of the enlisted ranks is a uniquely American story.

“My ceremony will be a celebration of service, not a retirement,” Tobin said. “I have no idea who wrote the script of my career, but it’s written well and I could not have asked for a better outcome.”

Tobin’s early assignments were with the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he made 86 jumps. He served tours overseas in Korea, Germany and Afghanistan as well as several domestic tours. His joint assignments included the US European Command Headquarters in Germany, the 8th Theater Sustainment Command in Hawaii as well as contingencies in operations Uphold Democracy, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Along the way, he served in every noncommissioned officer leadership position possible.

When he arrived at DLA, he found himself in a unique and challenging joint environment. Traditionally, the senior enlisted leader advises the commanding officer on all matters pertaining to enlisted personnel, but Tobin’s mission was to advocate for the agency’s entire workforce. Of the agency’s more than 25,000 employees, most are civilians. Only about 5 percent are military, either active duty or reserve.

“I experienced culture shock when I got to DLA, because the mostly civilian environment is completely different from a traditional service command and even most joint assignments,” Tobin said. “In addition, DLA’s customers include all the services, the combatant commands and many non-DoD government agencies. I had never dealt with organizations like the Department of State or the Federal Emergency Management Agency in my past assignments. Working at DLA gave me a completely new perspective.”

Tobin hit his stride at the agency, working well with former DLA Director Air Force Lt. Gen. Andy Busch. The two shared speaking time at employee town halls all over the world. At those events, audiences remember Tobin’s heartfelt appreciation for employee support of the warfighter, as well as his enthusiastic promotion of DLA values and the resiliency program. He often brought out personal examples of his resiliency challenges, which allowed employees to see him as a down to earth human being.

“I try to stay approachable,” Tobin said. “I credit my parents, especially my mom. My mom was my mentor, and everybody loved her. When she passed away, I said to myself that she was the person I wanted to be like.”

Tobin’s parents figured strongly in his American story. They were from the tiny island of Western Samoa, located in the vast stretch of Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and New Zealand. Over several years while starting a family, his parents migrated from Samoa to Hawaii to California, and back to Samoa. Charles was born in Hawaii, the sixth of nine siblings. By the time Charles was four, he was living in Samoa without much recollection of the United States. There he attended school and grew up surrounded by his large family. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we were happy,” he recalled.

When he was 19, Tobin’s father bought him a one-way plane ticket to Houston, Texas, where his older brother lived. “My dad said I needed to get out of the house so I could figure out what life looked like,” Tobin said. “Looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Tobin took a job as a janitor at a Toys R Us. It was hard work, but it was his foothold into a responsible life in America. Tobin talked about his first job frequently with DLA audiences. “I never forget that I was once a janitor at Toys R Us,” he said. “I tell people not to forget where they came from, to be humble and to care about others.”

Tobin did not stay with Toys R Us for long. While biking to work, he noticed an Army recruiting station nearby. One day, he walked in and signed up.

From his early days as an Airborne soldier to his time at DLA, Tobin readily accepted challenges and grew through his experiences as he moved through the enlisted ranks. “I’ve had an incredibly diverse experiences in my career,” he said. “I’ve completed assignments at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels; I’ve been a Reservist; I’ve done the joint piece. I feel like I’ve experienced the total package.”

As if to continue the family legacy, Tobin’s son, Charles Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps, though in a different capacity. He earned his commission as an officer from West Point and is now a Black Hawk helicopter pilot stationed in Korea.

“To me it’s an American story,” Tobin said. “Serving in the Army is like a family affair. I’m grateful that we could both serve in our different capacities.”

When speaking to DLA audiences, Tobin frequently brought up his son as an example of the customer at the other end of the supply chain. “I remind my son that everything he wears, the fuel that goes in his aircraft, the parts used to maintain his aircraft, the food that he consumes – is procured by you, the hard working employees at DLA. And that’s how what you do is personal for me. Everything you do affects me either as a soldier or as a father. The passion you bring to the mission affects a lot of sons and daughters out there. You play a part in their success. I want to thank you as a warfighter and as a father for what you do.”

Tobin departs just as DLA senior leaders have made changes to the senior enlisted leader position. The assignment has always been an Army billet, but it will be a joint assignment from now on. The incoming SEL is Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Shaun Brahmsteadt, who most recently served as command master chief of Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Maryland.

As Tobin departs DLA with his reputation as a “people person” fully intact, he leaves a few parting words for the workforce. “Take care of yourself and take care of the most important thing you have in life – your family. Make sure you thank them every day for supporting you as you support our warfighters. And I want to thank you for the opportunity to serve side by side with you. Whatever success I’ve had, I share with many others. It’s been a wonderful experience and an amazing journey.”