By Thad Moyseowicz
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 5, 2009 - The Atomium monument is an iconic landmark of Brussels. Made in the shape of an iron crystal's unit cell, it was built as a centerpiece for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, and has remained standing long after the fair's closing. Army Staff Sgt. Jonathan James, installation provost sergeant for U.S Army Garrison Brussels, first became conscious of the Atomium as a child in Kelso, Wash.
"My grandfather was a career soldier," James said, "and he had this funny paperweight shaped like an atom. I once asked him what it was, and he explained to me that it was part of the Brussels World's Fair, and that he and grandma had seen it when they went to the fair in 1958 from Germany.
"I never dreamed that I'd someday not only see the Atomium," he said, "but that I'd live in Brussels, too."
James credits his grandfather with having inspired his interest in the Army. He enlisted following graduation from high school in 2004, and went through basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
He was drawn to the Military Police Corps after completing a high school law enforcement project with the Washington State Highway Patrol, he said, adding that he figured MP training would give him entry to future civilian employment in law enforcement.
James initially was assigned to the 92nd MP Company in Baumholder, Germany, where his grandfather was stationed, and deployed with his unit to Afghanistan for a year as a gunner. The experience, he said, was incredibly maturing. "I went to Afghanistan straight out of mom's house," he recalled, "and came out transformed."
The Afghanistan experience also cooled his interest in a civilian career.
"I found I really enjoyed the company of soldiers, the sense of mission and pride, the camaraderie," he said. "I especially enjoyed working as a team member."
After his return to Baumholder, James found he was up for orders. He also found himself increasingly involved with his high school sweetheart, Natalie.
"I proposed to Natalie in Paris," he said with a chuckle, "because I figured it would be hard for her to say no. She accepted, we were married, and my first sergeant, who knew I wanted some time to establish my family, talked me into volunteering for orders to Brussels."
James said the Brussels assignment has done everything he expected and more.
"Natalie and I had our first child here," he explained. "Owen is now 2, and we're now expecting our second child in January. We definitely are established as a family now."
Professionally, the assignment has seen James rocket in rank from specialist to staff sergeant. He has occupied every position available for an enlisted MP at the garrison, from patrolman to desk sergeant to installation provost sergeant.
"Sergeant James is, simply stated, a spectacular NCO," said his boss, Army Capt. Antonio Espinal, director of emergency services. "He's transformed what was, frankly, an underachieving MP station for the better in every measurable way. And he's done it through sound, hard-nosed leadership and attention to detail."
Army Sgt. Ryan Cody, the garrison desk sergeant, called James "the best NCO I've ever worked for in the Army."
"He sets very high standards, and we know we have to aim high to reach those standards," he said. "Most important, he really cares about each of us, both on the job and off duty. It's not show with him; he really cares."
James said he prefers to remain modest, even in the face of such high praise. "I find it extremely rewarding being able to positively affect my peers, to influence the lives of larger groups," he said, "but I don't like to talk about it."
James credits two people with his accomplishments: his wife and his drill instructor.
"I would not be where I am without my wife, Natalie," he said. "There were times when I was preparing for boards when she knew the material I was going to be boarded on better than I did. I'd come home tired, and she'd tell me we were going to start reviewing the material.
"She loves the Army," he added, "and has told me she wants to go back to school when we go back to the U.S. to study physical therapy -- so she can take care of wounded soldiers."
James said he continues to draw inspiration from his basic training drill instructor. "I'll never forget him," he said. "He really set me on the path to success in the Army."
The James family has orders to report to Fort Leonard Wood in October. James' request for drill instructor duty will bring him full circle to where he started his career. "This is something I really want to do," he said. "The circle keeps getting bigger. I'll be able to do for others what my drill instructor did for me."
Espinal said James will leave Brussels having made it a better place.
"Sergeant James lives the NCO core leadership values of 'Be, Know, Do,'" Espinal said. "I'm happy he's going to a position where he'll touch lots of soldiers with his example."
(Thad Moyseowicz works in the U.S. Army Garrison Brussels public affairs office.)