PHOTO: Brett and his wife, Jessy are pictured with their children and Brett’s mom, Millie Kenzy. Brett is a Veteran. He and his brother, George raise cattle and operate a feedlot near Gregory, South Dakota.
By Lura Roti for South Dakota Farmers Union
Gregory rancher Brett Kenzy is many things. He is a husband, a father, a business partner with his brother, George, in their family’s fourth-generation crop and cattle operation, a South Dakota Farmers Union member and the national president of R-CALF USA (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America).
Kenzy is also a veteran. At 17 he enlisted in the Army. He served as a mechanic in the 25th Infantry Division.
“I have no stolen valor. I was a mechanic. The way I look at it, I sat on the bench of one of the greatest teams the world has ever assembled – being the U.S. military. I was a support role for the war fighters,” Kenzy explained.
In this support role, Kenzy served as an acting Motor Sergeant, he was responsible for maintaining Humvees, 5-ton trucks, generator sets, water trailers and cargo trailers. He also managed the Prescribed Load List for deployment and driver training and licensing.
“I didn’t see any combat, but the guys in my division were the war fighters. As light infantry, they packed everything on their back and were dropped in or marched their way into battle. They do the heavy lifting,” Kenzy said. “So just being with those guys, not being one of them, but being with them and supporting them, I take a lot of pride in the support role I had.”
Kenzy initially enlisted in the Army to pay for college. “My dad knew I wanted to go to college, but with the economics of the ‘80s, he and Mom were still crawling out of the high interest rates, and he didn’t want me to burden myself with a bunch of debt.”
Reflecting on his years of service during the first Gulf War, Kenzy credits his time in the Army for doing much more than pay for college. He said it taught him a lot about people, leadership and advocacy.
“Freedom isn’t free. I know this is a cliché statement, but it’s really true,” he said. “I just think we all have a duty to pitch in and do what we can. We just can’t be quiet, but we need to stand up for what we think is right. You don’t have to be in the military to fight for your country.”
In Kenzy’s case, he makes time to stand up for the rights of cattle producers to access fair and transparent markets.
“It started with the Farmers Union Fly-In. The next thing I know I was asked to testify with Farmers Union against fake meat when the USDA and FDA were fighting over jurisdiction over who would regulate it,” he explained.
His advocacy led him to become involved in R-CALF. In 2018, Kenzy was asked to serve on the R-CALF national leadership team and in 2022, he was nominated by the board to serve as president.
“Silence is consent. If you don’t stick up for yourself and speak your mind – you don’t have to be provocative, but it is important to firmly and respectfully stand your ground,” Kenzy said.
Before the Army, Kenzy said his life experiences and the people he knew did not extend much beyond South Dakota. He said his experience in the Army changed all that.
“Getting to meet people from different backgrounds and ethnicities and just learning that people are people and there’s good people from everywhere, every setting in this country, urban, rural, you name it – there’s good and bad everywhere,” he said. “Getting to know the people – that is what I enjoyed most.”
Because of timing – Kenzy enlisted at the start of the first Gulf War – when he reported for duty at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, even though he had limited experience as a mechanic, he was put in charge of maintenance.
He tells the story of an awkward discussion between the Company Commander and the Executive Officer.
“I was introduced, and the Commander turned to the Executive Officer and asked, ‘What is this?’ They were supposed to get an E-6 Motor Sergeant, somebody with 12 to 15 years experience, but instead, with the Gulf War going, they ended up getting me. A brand new, fresh recruit with some mechanical skills.”
Finally, the Commander asked Kenzy about himself and learned he grew up on a farm in South Dakota.
“The Commander said, ‘well, Upper Midwestern farm boy – all the work ethic, none of the attitude. We will make it work.’ That was my welcome to being a Motor Sergeant.”
During his time in the Army, Kenzy had many opportunities to observe leaders and leadership styles. “I’ve always appreciated the leaders that were up front with you, not behind you.”
After serving for three years, at 20, Kenzy followed through with his initial plan, enrolling at South Dakota State University. He said his time in the Army had a positive impact on his career as a student.
“I would not have been a good college student right out of high school. I needed to grow up a little bit,” he said. “Also, I was a better college student because I knew how hard I worked for that tuition money…. those three years in the Army put a value on that education, and shaped my perception of the importance of an individual’s rights and responsibilities as a citizen.”