SOUTH BOSTON, Va. –
SOUTH BOSTON, Va. — Seventeen years after 1st Sgt. Donnie Brizendine enlisted a young Michael Clay into the Virginia Army National Guard, he removed the first sergeant rank from his chest and attached it to Clay’s uniform. That act was Brizendine’s last as a first sergeant, one he completed just before passing responsibility of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion’s Alpha Company to Clay in a ceremony held Oct. 20, 2021, at the armory in South Boston, Virginia.
“I’ve mentored this Soldier over the years, gave him advice that he wanted and gave him advice that he did not want,” Brizendine said. “Michael Clay was one of my first enlistments and it’s only fitting that I close this chapter with passing my diamond on to him.”
Clay said boredom is what first led him to the National Guard. He talked with a family member who was in the National Guard about the opportunities available and then sat down with Brizendine to learn more.
“He changed my life,” Clay said about Brizendine. Convinced by what Brizendine told him about the National Guard, Clay enlisted as a 13B Cannon Crewmember, eventually transitioned to an 88M Motor Transport Operator, deployed and returned home to take advantage of the benefits his National Guard service awarded him. As Clay moved through the early years of his military career, Brizendine kept trying to convince him to join the recruiting team. Finally, in 2012, he did.
“He kept calling and calling,” Clay said. “Finally, I accepted. I said, ‘why not?’ He had a good life.”
First, Clay served in a temporary position helping the recruiters with miscellaneous tasks. Then he was hired on permanently as a recruiter in South Boston. From there, he moved up the ranks, serving in various roles throughout the battalion, including a stint on the operations team and as an on-campus recruiter at the Virginia Military Institute.
“I watched him serve as a recruiter in South Boston and at VMI, watched him transition to operations and come out to be a section chief,” Brizendine said.
Finally, as Brizendine’s career wound down, Clay was selected to replace him as first sergeant. Taking over that role wasn’t something the two planned for, according to Clay, it’s just how things turned out. Brizendine had spent years mentoring Clay and helping him build his career step-by-step, until that final step was into Brizendine’s shoes.
“It felt amazing,” Clay said of taking on Brizendine’s role. “He’s the epitome of what right looks like.”
During the transfer of responsibility ceremony, the two men stood facing each other as Capt. John Hemby, master of ceremony for the event, explained the significance of what was about to transpire. He explained that the War Department adopted a unique noncommissioned officer sword in 1840. Used for more than 70 years, the sergeant’s sword was used in combat in the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. The passing of the sword, Hemby explained, is an ancient tradition, with the sword symbolizing the heart of the company.
“The passing of the sword symbolizes the relinquishing of responsibility and authority from the outgoing first sergeant to the incoming first sergeant,” Hemby explained. As Hemby spoke, the sword passed from the sword bearer, Sgt. 1st Class Dustin Haislip, to Brizendine, then to the company commander, Capt. Keith Agee, and then to Clay, who returned it once more to Haislip for safe-keeping.
“I can’t follow behind Donnie Brizendine, never could,” Clay said. “All that advice he said I didn’t want is what got me here today, those hard talks about struggling in South Boston, having to make that move, leave home, leave my comfort zone. We put everything into position to be here today and here we are 17 years later. I’m taking over his diamond and I couldn’t ask for more.”