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Sgt. Maj. David Merritt of East Peoria retired from the Illinois National Guard on Friday, July 22, with more than 30 years of Army service, but he’s not done serving.
His next assignment, as a retiree, will be to teach Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) cadets within Pekin Community High School District #303. “Now he will pass on 30 years of Army knowledge to our youth,” said Illinois Army National Guard Chief of Staff Col. Lenny Williams.
“There’s a difference between leadership and authority,” Merritt said. “If you want to be a leader, you must do more than exercising your authority.” That includes caring for your Soldiers, he said. “Always be the leader who you want leading you.”
Merritt served as the Plans, Operations, and Training (G3) Sergeant Major for the Illinois Army National Guard, the “pinnacle” of noncommissioned officer (NCO) positions for “operators,” Williams said. “He took hard key assignments and every single one of them he did the right way.”
“I never had a down time. I always loved being in the Army,” Merritt said. “There was never a day that I didn’t want to go to work. Even if we made a mistake, we fixed it and we learned from it.”
The Pekin JROTC “Dragon” Battalion will benefit from Merritt’s experience that includes a 14-month tour in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 with Peoria’s F Company, 1st Assault Helicopter Battalion, 106th Aviation Regiment based in Peoria. Merritt was also a key NCO leader during training rotations at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif.; the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La.; and the Joint Maneuver Training Center in Fort Chaffee, Ark. He conducted training with Poland’s Territorial Defense Forces in both Warsaw and Rzeszow, Poland.
The Illinois Army National Guard’s State Aviation Officer Lt. Col. Jason Henderson, who worked with Merritt for more than 20 years, said the cadets will also benefit from Merritt’s honest and empathetic leadership. “He takes the time to sit down with Soldiers and explain what they did right and discusses areas where they can improve,” Henderson said.
As Henderson got to know Merritt outside the military, he realized how much he applies his leadership within the community, coaching multiple sports and opening his home to those less fortunate. But those Merritt lets into his home must be willing to work hard. “He helps them with a plan of action to get back on track.”
Merritt thanked his spouse, Wendy, and his two adult sons, Gunner and Tavin, for their support throughout his military career. “Here we are today, 30 years later, and there were a lot of missed birthdays, anniversaries and ball games.”
Merritt was a star athlete leading the East Peoria High School football team as quarterback, including the Raiders’ 1990 historic 35-34 win over Washington High School. He enlisted in the Army in January 1992 through the delayed entry program and would spend five years in the active Army, most of which was as a petroleum supply specialist with the 29th Signal Battalion based on Fort Lewis, Washington.
After his initial tour in the active Army, he came home to East Peoria enlisting in the Illinois Army National Guard’s 1-106th Aviation based on the General Wayne A. Downing Airport in Peoria. He would serve most of his career – more than 20 years - as an Active Guard-Reserve (AGR) NCO within easy commuting of his hometown. With the 1-106th Aviation he would serve as a fuel handler, supply sergeant, readiness NCO, aviation operations sergeant, senior aviation operations sergeant, and operations sergeant. From 2010 to 2012 he served as the first sergeant of the aviation battalion’s headquarters company. From 2018 through 2021, he served as the operations sergeant major for the 65th Troop Command, also based in Peoria.
Capt. Bryce Greenwood, now the deputy chief of the Officer Training Branch at the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, Fort Rucker, Ala., served with Merritt for more than a decade in the 1-106th. He called Merritt “a mentor, a coach and a friend” with “confidence that is contagious and assuring.”
“I don’t have a particular moment in time, but rather several moments over the course of our friendship, where David has mentored and guided me,” Greenwood said. “Applying the principles such as trust, integrity, effective communication, and Soldier care, David has always been the anchor of any organization that has had the pleasure of having him in it.”
Lt. Col. Jason Celletti, the Commander of the 1st Assault Helicopter Battalion, 106th Aviation Regiment, served with Merritt for more than a decade.
“His dedication and knowledge of training within the Illinois Army Aviation Units has postured the Soldiers of the 1-106th Assault Helicopter Battalion for multiple deployments and missions over the years,” Celletti said. “Sergeant Major Merritt has had outstanding leadership qualities that mentored and prepared the junior leaders for the success at everything they do. His exceptional leadership over the past 20 years will truly be missed, but he has set the standard for the junior leaders to follow. Just like a good Soldier; he has balanced life, family, and the Army for multiple years and this retirement is well deserved. The 1-106th Assault Helicopter Battalion will always be his home, full of great stories and mentorship moments that will live on from his legacy.”