Meet the West Virginia National Guard’s new Senior Enlisted Leader

By Capt. Holli Nelson | West Virginia National Guard Public Affairs | Jan. 29, 2019

CHARLESTON, W.Va. —

At first glance, Command Sgt. Maj. Phillip Cantrell epitomizes the image of a command sergeant major in the United States Army. With myriad patches, qualification badges and accouterments, his uniform offers a small glimpse into his storied 28-year career with the Army. He is stoic and professional, a leader of refreshing candor who has a driving passion for the West Virginia National Guard (WVNG) and the Soldiers and Airmen who make up it its ranks.

On Feb. 2, 2019, Cantrell will officially assume responsibility as the State Enlisted Leader for the West Virginia National Guard, a title he never thought he would hold in his career.

Cantrell is a native West Virginian who proudly hails from the coal mining area of Buffalo Creek. He joined the U.S. Army in 1988 as a combat infantryman and was sent to his first duty station at Ft. Bragg, where he joined the ranks of the 82nd Airborne Division. Cantrell stayed at Ft. Bragg for five years before he returned home to southern West Virginia to work in the coal mines and drive an ambulance.

“It was then that I decided civilian life was not my life,” he said. “So every day, I wanted to go back into the Army and I later did.”  

Following his short break of service, he returned to Ft. Bragg where he stayed until 1996. While assigned to the All American Division, he participated in Operation Just Cause and Operations Desert Storm/Desert Shield.

For a brief portion of his career, Cantrell trained the future generation of U.S. Army warriors as a drill sergeant at Ft. Leonardwood, Missiouri, then deployed for a period of time on a peacekeeping mission to Kosovo. As first sergeant of D Company, 2/505th Infantry Regiment, Cantrell deployed for a year in 2006 as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He was promoted to Sergeant Major in 2008 and was assigned as the 8th Army Operations and Protection sergeant major in Yongsan, Korea. Following his overseas tour, Cantrell returned to the United States to serve as the 3rd Infantry Regiment (Old Guard) brigade command sergeant major, then as an Army Congressional Fellow in the office of Senator Joe Manchin III and as a Congressional Legislative Liaison in the Army Senate Liaison Division to round out his active duty career.

A happenstance meeting with Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, the Adjutant General of the West Virginia National Guard, changed the course of Cantrell’s career in 2016.

“Up until 2016, my plan was to retire,” Cantrell recalled. “Then I met General Hoyer and he told me all the things about the [West Virginia National] Guard he was working on, and it made me want to stay in the Army.”

Cantrell noted that he grew up in Southern West Virginia, and it was very appealing for to have an opportunity to come back and to use the Guard as a vehicle to make this state better.

Upon joining the ranks in West Virginia in, Cantrell assumed responsibility as the state command sergeant major for the West Virginia Army National Guard in 2017, where he advised the Assistant Adjutant General – Army on all matters pertaining to the more than 4,000 Soldiers of the WVARNG.

He stepped into his newest role, the highest enlisted rank a Soldier can achieve in the WVNG, on Nov. 1, 2018, as the State Enlisted Leader for the West Virginia National Guard. In his new role, he serves as an advisor to The Adjutant General on all matters pertaining to the enlisted force in West Virginia for more than 6,400 Soldiers and Airmen.

Cantrell has been a change agent in the WVNG since taking the helm, providing hands-on leadership, training and professional development for the NCO corps.

His leadership vision is simple: He believes every Solider and Airman who joined the military did so because they wanted to do something good and that if our people focus on maintaining the basic standards and holding each other accountable, we will be able to face any challenge our organization comes across.

“I just think that if every Soldier and Airman learn the basics and do what they are taught from the beginning, everything else will just come second nature because that’s what they’re trained to do it,” he said when explaining his vision.

While he represents the entirety of the enlisted force of the WVNG, he most enjoys working with these Soldiers and Airmen on a daily basis and seeing them succeed.

“I truly care about their success and I want their families to be a part of their service and success in West Virginia, too,” he said. “I want our Soldiers and Airmen to be proud to serve in this organization. It’s my hope that they can become leaders inside their own communities and by doing so, we can continue to make a positive impact in West Virginia and show the future generations that there are possibilities in the National Guard both inside and out of the communities where they grew up.”

Cantrell plans to continue his support and provide leadership guidance to the many endeavors of the West Virginia National Guard, and to make the organization the “center of the universe,” as The Adjutant General has said publicly on numerous occasions.

He’s a firm believer in the National Guard family construct stating, “As a National Guard family, we can work together to make West Virginia better and to be a positive change in the lives of people across this great state.”