By The Associated Press
VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — Jeff Riggs is back home — again. Back home with his wife, Sherry, back to being father of four and grandfather of five, back to his job as undersheriff of Warren County.
“The military is the world’s largest leadership training opportunity,” said Riggs who, in 31 years with the Mississippi National Guard, and four years before that with the U.S. Coast Guard, has served overseas five times and risen to command sergeant major, the second highest rank an enlisted man can attain.
Riggs returned in July after a year in Afghanistan with the 184th Expeditionary Command, where he had charge of logistics and was the ranking noncommissioned officer.
Still, his military-issue BlackBerry is always on.
“You are the eyes, ears and voice of all the enlisted soldiers under you,” he said of his role, which is not limited to deployments and monthly drills.
“I’ve really enjoyed the challenges and the new aspects of the job as I’ve moved up in the ranks — helping soldiers with soldier issues, making sure that their health, welfare and morale are taken care of.”
Sherry Riggs said there have been stresses along the way but to his family, he’s a hero.
“There have been times when I wished he wasn’t in the military, but I’m proud of him,” she said. “He’s fighting for our country. We need more men like him.”
Jeff Riggs, 53, enlisted in the Guard in 1980 and has formally deployed four times, plus a six-week assignment in 1989 to Panama with the 114th MP Company in support of Operation Just Cause. He recalls that as “the time I met (Gen. Manuel) Noriega,” the former military dictator arrested by and tried in the United States.
That day, Riggs and two friends took a short jeep jaunt and accidentally strayed into Panamanian territory. They were immediately stopped by a military detachment that included the general, and spent an uneasy few hours detained under suspicion of being spies.
Panama is, he said, “the hottest place I’ve ever been.” He’s been to some scorchers.
In September 1990, Riggs began a 10-month stint in Saudi Arabia with the 114th in support of Operation Desert Storm. There, he was a platoon sergeant in charge of about 32 soldiers.
He went to Germany for a year in 1996, also with the 114th, as part of a military police platoon that “backfilled” for other units that had been sent to Bosnia for Operation Joint Endeavor.
In 2003, Riggs began a 13-month deployment to Iraq with the 168th Engineer Brigade for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“We provided command and control of engineer battalions that performed engineering and construction missions in Balad and around Baghdad,” said Riggs.
They built a health clinic, repaired water well pumps and put up recreation facilities for the Iraqi people, in addition to other projects.
In his most recent deployment in Afghanistan from August 2010 to July 2011, Riggs was charged with making sure millions of gallons of fuel; supplies of food, bottled water and ammunition; and other items were where they were supposed to be each day.
“Our role over there was the joint sustainment command of Afghanistan — in addition to Army soldiers, we had Navy, Air Force and Marines assigned to us to help with logistics and functions,” he said.
Riggs was raised in Virginia and enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1976, serving as a boarding officer, with responsibilities such as checking for child safety and enforcing boating laws. He also was involved with search and rescue.
“That’s what really hooked me for law enforcement,” he said.
His parents moved to Warren County in 1978 and when Riggs got out of the Coast Guard in 1980, he moved here, too, and, soon after, joined the 114th Military Police Company and signed on at the Warren County Sheriff’s Office. As a deputy, Riggs and Martin Pace were partners and shared a patrol car “for years,” said Pace, now sheriff.
In 1987, Riggs was elected justice court judge in Warren County. He served on the bench nine years, resigning when Pace was elected sheriff and asked him to become undersheriff, the job he’s held since Jan. 1, 1997.
“He deals with policy issues, training issues, implementation of state and federal grant programs,” Pace said. “We obviously — both the community and the sheriff’s office — have benefited not only from his law enforcement experience but his military command experience, as well.”
Along the way, Riggs also found time to earn a degree in criminal justice from Mississippi College and a master’s in business administration from William Carey University.
And he raised four children, though he deflects the credit for that to Sherry, a respiratory therapist at Promise Hospital.
“My children were young during these deployments, especially during my first deployment,” he said.
Sherry Riggs said his first deployment was the toughest.
“We didn’t have things like cell phones and computers then,” she said.
And during his stint in Germany, she had the four children and was attending Hinds Community College to get her degree.
“I couldn’t have done it without my parents. They were always there to help.”
The Riggs’ youngest daughter, Kayla, is 19 and a sophomore at the University of Mississippi. The others are grown with families of their own — Stephanie, 31, lives in Fort Collins, Colo.; Jeremiah, 28, lives in Vicksburg; and Ashlie, 27, lives in Ocean Springs.
Riggs said his priorities shift continually. They have to.
“You have to be very conscientious and be a good time manager when it comes to these three — family, work and the military,” he said. “You have to be multifaceted, the higher you go, in managing your time.”
It’s hard to know how long it will be before Riggs is off to the next deployment or assignment. He plans to re-up for six more years in the Guard in December 2012.
“As long as my health maintains — and I don’t see any issues there — the next enlistment will be my last because at the end of that, I’ll be eligible to retire, and I’ll go on out.”
As always, he’s thinking ahead.
“He’s a go-getter,” said Pace. “Jeff’s just always had this incredible drive to accomplish the next thing.”