Soldier earns rare battlefield promotion during ISIS fight
When Jeremy Penderman joined the Army, he wasn't quite sure what his job would entail.
"I'm not even sure the recruiter knew what the job was," he said.
But Penderman, a multichannel transmission systems operator/maintainer, said the job hasn't disappointed.
Now serving in Iraq with Fort Bragg's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Penderman has an undeniable impact on his unit and the ongoing fight to retake the key northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State terrorist group, officials said.
So undeniable that Penderman, who has spent nearly seven years in the Army, was the recipient of a rare battlefield promotion last month.
In an impromptu ceremony near Al Tarab, Iraq, Sgt. Penderman became Staff Sgt. Penderman when Maj. Gen. Joseph M. Martin pinned the new rank to his chest.
Penderman, who was at the base repairing communications equipment, said the visit — and the promotion — were unexpected.
U.S. Army Col. Pat Work, deployed in support of Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve and commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, provides an operations update for Paratroopers at a patrol base near Al Tarab, Iraq, March 30, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Hull)
Martin, the commander of Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command — Operation Inherent Resolve and the 1st Infantry Division, was able to promote Penderman after determining that the soldier "demonstrated an extraordinary performance of duties" while filling a job that's typically held by someone of a higher rank.
It was a special recognition for Penderman, who had spent nearly two years awaiting a promotion but still lacked the requirements for a typical bump in rank.
"It was a complete surprise," Penderman told The Fayetteville Observer from Iraq last week. "I didn't know anything about it."
Penderman, 25, is a Durham-native who oversees communications for the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute infantry Regiment, which has about 700 soldiers in Iraq and deployed late last year.
In that role, he leads a small team of soldiers who work to ensure troops can communicate across the battlefield, keeping a network in place to spur a constant flow of information from advise-and-assist teams embedded with Iraqi forces and between unmanned aerial vehicles and soldiers on the ground.
The job often sees him working with complex communications equipment, tapping into satellites and generally maintaining a tactical communications network in an austere and ever-changing environment.
Not bad for someone who knew little to nothing about his career when he joined the Army.
"I didn't even know what an IP (address) was," Penderman said. "I didn't know anything about computers."
Instead, Penderman had high hopes that baseball would be his future.
"I played everywhere," he said of his time at the Durham School of the Arts. "But I went to college as an outfielder."
That college was Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, where Penderman received a scholarship to play baseball.
But after being redshirted his freshman year, he began to reconsider another dream.
Penderman always wanted to join the military. He wanted to follow in his brother's footsteps as a Marine, although his parents urged him to try college instead.
He made a promise that he would give college a year, and, if that didn't work, he'd be free to enlist.
Today, Penderman might have been a Marine if it wasn't for one more discovery.
"I found out about the airborne," he said.
Over spring break his freshman year — March 2010 — Penderman walked into a recruiting center and enlisted in the Army.
At first, he wanted to be an airborne infantryman, but a recruiter instead guided him through a list of available jobs.
He described Penderman's current military occupational specialty, known as a 25Q, as "half infantry, half radios" and promised he could still become a paratrooper. Also, the job came with an enlistment bonus.
Since enlisting, Penderman spent more than four years in Germany with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team before joining the 82nd Airborne Division about two years ago.
He has seven years in the Army and plans to apply to become a warrant officer in the Signal Corps. While he wants to stay in the Army as long as possible, he said the skills he's learned have opened the door to a bright future no matter if he wears the uniform or not.
"It's really set me up for success, whether I stay in or get out," he said.
Penderman is noncommissioned-officer-in-charge of his battalion's S6, or communications, shop.
Typically, that organization would have upward of a dozen soldiers, including an NCOIC and an officer. But Penderman's shop has three soldiers and no officer.
That shows the faith and trust that leadership has in the soldier, officials said.
In training while preparing for the deployment, the battalion trained with the smaller force. But Penderman said little could have prepared him for another aspect of the deployment -- a constant leapfrogging of the battlefield.
When Penderman's battalion arrived in country, they set up more than 20 miles from Mosul to partner with the 9th Iraqi Armored Division, one of the local forces looking to take back the city.
"And we moved six times," Penderman said. "As they gain ground and they move forward, we move forward with them."
Today, he's based out of a tactical assembly area near the village of Bakhira. From there, he's near the border of the city and close to the fighting.
"We can hear them shooting off mortars," Penderman said.
He's also seen forces treating wounded. And he said that knowing he has played a role in the march into the city has been humbling.
"It's fulfilling work," Penderman said. "I get to impact the battalion on a daily basis... It definitely feels like I'm making a difference in my battalion and helping to make a difference in the fight in Mosul."