He laughs easily. He asks questions. He’ll greet you with a smile and a firm handshake, and he’s not afraid to wear a pink polo shirt. His favorite movie is “The Color Purple,” and he enjoys having friends over for cookouts and wine tastings.
He also spent three years as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson and served three deployments in the Army.
1st Sgt. William Paige now spends his days at the University of South Carolina studying psychology and participating in student government.
On the surface, he appears to be a traditional student.
He had a pretty average childhood, too.
He was born and raised on the east side of Detroit, Mich., where he lived with his two parents, two older sisters and two younger brothers.
“We had normal lives. Our parents worked. Nothing lavish. We all got cake and ice cream on our birthdays, and we got toys on Christmas. We all went to public high schools,” Paige said.
Paige’s transition from civilian life to the military was a quick one. He graduated from high school in June of 2003 and joined the Army two months later.
“I applied to West Point twice and I was denied twice, so then I said, ‘Well, I’ll just do college,’” Paige said. “I applied to Eastern Michigan University and got accepted there to shoot on their rifle team. I just made the decision, well, if I’m going to be an officer, I better get some experience first, so I joined in August with the basic training right here in Fort Jackson.”
During his training, Paige went to airborne school, which was one of his favorite experiences.
“I got to jump out of perfectly good aircrafts, so that’s cool,” he said. “Doing Uncle Sam’s business, you definitely get to do a lot of things and meet a lot of people that you may not have done otherwise.”
But Paige had his share of rough times, too. He deployed to Iraq for a year and deployed twice to Afghanistan, serving during a particularly difficult point in the war. The friends he made on the job helped make it bearable.
“Looking back on it, I’ve had an opportunity to serve with some people that are simply phenomenal,” Paige said. “Iraq was very rough back in ’04-’05 because we were at the height of the war, so it wasn’t a very pleasant place to be because of what was going on around you, but the people that you were with helped pull each other along.”
Working with a supportive team greatly improved Paige’s life.
“I’ll put it this way. There’s people that I’ve known since I was a kid, and there’s people that I’ve only met and served with and deployed. And the people that I’ve deployed with, we’re tighter than those people that I’ve known for almost all my life,” he said. “It’s just going through those hard times together and being there for that person or them being there for you that kind of pulls you along and makes it memorable.”
After returning from his deployment, Paige spent three years as a volunteer drill sergeant at Fort Jackson until moving on to teach other drill sergeants for 18 months.
Paige said many people’s perception of a drill sergeant’s job comes from the media, but he said it’s nothing like that.
“Most people when they think of a drill sergeant, they think of ‘Full Metal Jacket.’ That’s true for that era. Do we still do some of those things? Yes, but times have changed. People have changed. Society has changed. I don’t have to beat you to make you do something,” he said.
Paige said that being a drill sergeant is “the most rewarding thing I have done in my 26 years on this planet” and that taking the job changed his way of thinking.
“It gives me a newfound appreciation for people who train our soldiers, airmen and Marines,” Paige said. “You think, ‘Cool, I get to yell at people all day,’ but it far exceeds that. You’re teaching these people everything.”
Paige said the most gratifying part of the job was seeing people grow throughout the training process.
“Being a drill sergeant was a hell of a job. To watch somebody come in who’s rag-bag, no discipline or you know some snot-nosed kid who thinks that the world owes him something. Then you see the transformation over the 10-week process. This boy is becoming a young man, and this young man is becoming a soldier,” he said. “You look at ‘em on graduation day, and it’s almost like a parent.”
Another rewarding experience for Paige was honoring a fallen soldier in his unit.
“I helped put together and process the Medal of Honor for Staff Sgt. Robert Miller, a Special Forces soldier,” he said of the yearlong effort. “It was posthumously awarded. But we worked on that, my team and I.”
Paige is a psychology major at the University of South Carolina, a junior in credit hours. He began his college career by taking classes while deployed in Afghanistan; when he returned to Fort Jackson, he took courses during his lunch break and evenings. Now, Paige is enrolled at USC through the Army’s Green to Gold program, a scholarship program that provides tuition, additional money for textbooks, a monthly stipend and GI Bill/Army College Fund benefits. It’s a selective national program which Paige said he was “very honored” to be a part of.
At USC, Paige is involved with the Army ROTC program and is the candidate relations chair for student government.
Paige said a lot of his classmates have no idea that he’s a veteran.
“It typically doesn’t come up,” he said. “But when it does, people have questions. ‘Have you ever deployed?’ Some of the younger people ask, you know, ‘Have you ever shot anybody?’ You know? Like, get out of here.”
Paige thinks most people’s interest in his service stems from the fact that most people know someone in the military or have served themselves.
“Eight out of 10 people that you meet have either served or know someone that served, especially now that we have this global war on terror. Lots of people are deploying,” he said.
Paige’s goals include graduating on time in May 2014 and commanding a battalion or brigade in the Army. His dream goal, “above all goals,” is to be a general officer.
“Right now, I say I could do another 30 years in the Army,” Paige said.
As far as his educational future, Paige said he definitely wants to get his master’s in counseling and plans to put his degree to use both in the military and the private sector.
“In the Army, it’ll definitely be useful when it comes time to talk to a soldier about his problems,” Paige said. “Once I take off the uniform, I definitely want to have my own practice.”
Paige wants to make an impact on the university and hopes the university makes an impact on him, too.
“Anything I touch, I want to leave better than I found it, including myself,” he said. “You want to leave better than you came.”