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Hard lessons for new Sergeants

Special to the NCO Journal

When given the opportunity, how do you relay a lifetime of experiences to young NCOs? What would be important for them to know today? What would be important to know at the end of their careers?

I recently had the opportunity to discuss those experiences with the 10th Mountain Division, NCO Academy Basic Leader Course graduating Class 04-16 at Fort Drum, New York. Whether it’s a BLC Graduation, an NCO induction ceremony or opening a Leadership Professional Development session, how do you convey these lessons in such a condensed time period?

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to answer this through a series of discussions with five highly successful NCOs, both active-duty and retired, that I had the honor of working with. Though their backgrounds and experiences differed significantly, I discovered a common theme that was woven throughout their experiences and was the single most important factor in their quality leadership: building trust.

The events these senior NCOs have been through cover a vast and impressive period. Those experiences include Special Operations, inspiring a history of family service, deployments in the desert and covert missions closer to home. Whether earning awards through their solitary actions or leading a team under arduous conditions, these Soldiers all became senior noncommissioned officers and achieved an almost unprecedented level of success during their careers in the U.S. Army. Before I share their words with you, context is extremely important. I would like to tell you briefly about these five Soldiers and why I think they are worth listening to.

Sgt. Maj. William Tomlin III grew up in a suburban Connecticut neighborhood. The infantry called to him, and he never looked back. While in Helmand Province in Afghanistan in early April 2007, then-Sgt. 1st Class Tomlin was the acting platoon leader for his scout platoon. After three straight days of fighting, 300 Taliban attacked his 45-man element. The six-hour enemy attack reached within 15 meters of their location and continued to press forward. Tomlin consolidated their remaining ammunition, and his persistence and leadership during their counterattack turned the tide of the battle. He was awarded the Silver Star.

Then- Sgt. 1st Class William Tomlin is awarded the Silver Star by President George W. Bush May 22, 2008, at Fort Bragg, N.C. Tomlin led several counterattacks against an enemy force that outnumbered his platoon six-to-one in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Photo by Sgt. Timothy Dinneen)
Then-Sgt. 1st Class William Tomlin is awarded the Silver Star by President George W. Bush at Fort Bragg, N.C., on May 22, 2008. Tomlin led several counterattacks against an enemy force that outnumbered his platoon six-to-one in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Photo by Sgt. Timothy Dinneen)

Command Sgt. Maj. Mike Cortes, known as “Pup,” was a member of a Special Operations unit. He became part of history as a member of the first High Altitude Low Opening team to jump into Afghanistan to support the Northern Alliance. In June 2003, he was sent on a mission to find two missing Soldiers in Iraq. Then-Sgt. 1st Class Cortes drove upon an enemy force preparing an ambush site. His two-man team, heavily outnumbered, engaged the enemy element at close range, their nontactical vehicle being disabled by enemy fire. Ignoring his wounds, Cortes continued to engage, killing several enemy fighters and forcing the remainder to retreat. His efforts not only prevented the enemy fighters from killing his element, but also reduced their ability to conduct future ambushes. He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions.

Sgt. Maj. Brendan O’Conner was 7 years old when his father was killed in the Vietnam War. Raised in a family with a deep history of military service and surrounded by the valorous actions of his forefathers, he chose to follow in their footsteps and earned an officer’s commission from the Valley Forge Military Academy. In 1994, he resigned his commission and enlisted as a Special Forces medical sergeant. In June 2006, O’Conner’s team was in southern Afghanistan, where it was ambushed by 250 Taliban fighters. During 17.5 hours of intense battle, two of his team members were severely injured and his team leader was killed. He took command of the team. Eventually, he and his Soldiers killed 120 Taliban fighters before withdrawing under the protection of air support. O’Conner was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Sgt. Maj. Tony Pryor, a Special Forces team sergeant, was a good-old boy from rural Oregon. Thick-necked, with hamhocks for hands and the strength of a silverback gorilla, he was often referred to as “Bucket.” While in Afghanistan on a late evening in January 2002, he and his team were clearing al-Qaida and Taliban forces from a compound and conducting site exploitation. In the darkness and the heat of the battle, Pryor was separated from his team and found himself clearing rooms alone. Soon after getting separated, he encountered a charging enemy and eliminated the threat. In the next room, he came upon an additional three fighters. In the melee, a fourth struck him from behind with a board, breaking his clavicle. The enemy then jumped on his back, dislocating his shoulder and knocking off his night-vision goggles. Pryor continued to fight, eventually killing all four. For his pure Soldier instinct, for engaging the enemy and continuing to lead, he was awarded the Silver Star.

Sgt. Maj. Joe Vega is the Hollywood-version of an operator: chiseled physique, a master breacher and a demolition expert. He played key roles in the capture of a South American dictator and the death of a Colombian drug lord, and he conducted operations against a Somali political leader who hindered international relief efforts. The last operation was made famous by the movie Black Hawk Down depicting the 1993 operation called “Restore Hope.” He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions. Later in Iraq in 2003, he was awarded a second Silver Star. Vega’s missions during his time in a Special Mission Unit are not releasable. The award simply states, “For his ability to consolidate and reorganize under extreme duress.” I am grateful for his guidance and friendship.

It was a true honor to serve with them all. The advice below is a combination of the five senior NCOs’ own words of what they think is important for Soldiers today and throughout their military careers:

  • Stay motivated.
  • Volunteer for assignments; don’t ever quit. You will fail — get up and try again.
  • Your reputation, the examples you set, will cast a long shadow. You will either inspire others or de-motivate them by your actions.
  • Be the guy with real experience, not just the theoretical or book knowledge.
  • Don’t go after the wounded, have them push themselves to you.
  • You learn more from your mistakes and misses than you ever will from your successes.
  • Maintain a warrior’s mindset in everything you do.
  • I cannot define what an act of valor is, but I do know what cowardice looks like.
  • Yelling is not an effective training tool; your training should develop solid basics and initiative.
  • Soldiers will do great things if there is trust.
  • Every experience is important to an NCO’s development, and every event is an opportunity to counsel.
  • Good leaders are valued over time.
  • As a leader you must constantly give hard problems to solve — this develops Soldiers.
  • Lead from the front. It’s everything.
  • Focus on the things that matter: fitness, values and training.
  • Humility: Don’t just be the loud guy; it almost always identifies false bravado. Don’t be afraid to bring up your own faults.
  • Remember — it is never about you; it is always about the Soldiers.
  • Never ever be the crab. Don’t go sideways or backward, only move forward.
  • Be honest in everything you do. Grow to hate liars.
  • If more Soldiers did their jobs and demanded a higher level of execution, there would be significantly less need for valorous acts.
  • Take responsibility, take charge and take the initiative. You must make it happen.
  • Wear your body armor!

Soldiers may never experience the extreme living conditions or firefights the aforementioned Soldiers were engaged in. That fact does not decrease the importance of embodying the Army Values on a daily basis. As described above, use every opportunity to build trust with your Soldiers, peers and superiors alike. Nurturing that trust will serve Soldiers well today and throughout their time in the Army. This is especially true in a world of uncertainty that is more chaotic now than at any time in my military career. You will be called upon and, usually, at the most inopportune time. Ensure you and your Soldiers are ready.

Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Hendrex has been selected to serve as the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) command sergeant major. He recently completed his tour as 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division CSM, served as a fellow at the CSA Strategic Studies Group, and is the director of NCO Academy Mission Command recently formed under the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy. He served with the five NCOs mentioned in the article in the Asymmetric Warfare Group and interviewed them in the summer of 2014.

Sgt. Aura Sklenicka, a public affairs officer NCO at Fort Bliss, Texas, contributed to this article.


NCO’s howitzer innovation expected to save Army money, lives

NCO Journal report

Illinois Army National Guard Sgt. Wesley Todd has invented a device for light towed howitzers that improves Soldier safety and equipment longevity. It’s also expected to save the Army hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The device is a tool that allows Soldiers to remove seized muzzle brakes more easily, without the sometimes damaging force previously required. His innovation saves the barrel, which can cost more than $265,000, and preserves its rifling.

“Before, it was difficult to remove the muzzle brake that often can seize up in varying weather conditions,” explained Chief Warrant Officer 2 Steve Murphy, armament supervisor. “To remove it, Soldiers would often take a sledgehammer to the muzzle brake.”

Todd designed and fabricated the removal tool after watching Soldiers struggle with a seized-up muzzle brake. He describes his invention as basically a round steel plug with a notched end that attaches to the muzzle brake. The tool is used to turn it.

“Sgt. Todd has shown how a … Soldier can improve a process for the entire Army, and his leadership has shown us a great example of how to listen to your Soldiers’ ideas and help them implement positive changes,” said Maj. Gen. Richard J. Hayes, adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard.

Sgt. Wesley Todd, of La Porte, Indiana, checks the measurements on the device he invented at the machine shop in the Combined Support Maintenance Shop in North Riverside, Illinois. The device, designed for the light towed howitzer, improves Soldier safety and equipment longevity. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Robert R. Adams / Illinois National Guard Public Affairs)
Sgt. Wesley Todd, of La Porte, Indiana, checks the measurements on the device he invented at the machine shop in the Combined Support Maintenance Shop in North Riverside, Illinois. The device, designed for the light towed howitzer, improves Soldier safety and equipment longevity. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Robert R. Adams / Illinois National Guard Public Affairs)

Todd is assigned to B Company, 935th Aviation Support Battalion at Chicago’s Midway International Airport. He works as a machinist at the Combined Support Maintenance Shop, where he repairs damaged parts and makes new parts for military vehicles and equipment.

His muzzle brake removal invention was the first piece of equipment that he has designed and fabricated himself, but he has also made modifications to automotive tools that allow for the replacement of certain parts and decrease the damage to the parts during repair.

“Various units throughout Illinois contact our department … looking for possible changes to issued equipment that will meet their specific needs,” he said. “And I endeavor to go above and beyond to make that happen for them.”

Born in 1981 in Decatur, Illinois, Todd nevertheless considers La Porte, Indiana, his home. He graduated from Oak Hill High School, Oak Hill, Ohio, in 1999 and earned a bachelor’s degree in the arts and graphic design in 2005 from Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.

Following in the footsteps of his grandfathers who served in World War II and his three uncles who later served in the Army, Todd joined the Army in 2007.

His first assignment was with a combat engineer unit in Ashland, Kentucky. To date, his jobs in the Army have included combat engineer, military policeman, wheeled vehicle mechanic and allied trades machinist/welder.

Todd considers selfless service the most important Army Value.

“Each Soldier needs to be willing to put his own needs and wants last, without seeking recognition for what he does or sacrifices,” he said.

He believes the key to being a good leader is knowing “the ins and outs” of his or her chosen field and having the ability to impart that knowledge. He advises anyone planning to join the Army to have a sound reason and purpose for doing so and “never lose sight of their purpose or desire.”

Todd and his wife, Amy, were married in 2008 and have three girls: Izabella, Marisa, and Alexis. Todd said he admires his father for “setting an example for me to strive to be what I am today.”

Todd hopes eventually to retire as a chief warrant officer and plans, as a civilian, to use his skills to improve and benefit the Army.

He said, “In the future, I would love to work in a position researching and developing various military equipment and systems.”

Career program helps cut Soldier unemployment payments to 13-year low

NCO Journal report

As it turns out, former Soldier Jonathan Quinones has a “knack” for real estate — and he might have never known had he not participated in the Career Skills Program.

“Real estate has been a lucrative field so far,” said Quinones, who is now working for the St. Robert Realtor who facilitated an internship for the Career Skills Program.

The program, which officially started in March 2015, provides Soldiers the opportunity to participate in career internships while finishing up their military careers.

A pilot of the program started in 2014 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.

It “was so successful, it has spread to installations around the country,” said Chevina Phillips, Education Services specialist at Truman Education Center at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

“Today there are more than 76 programs,” Phillips said. “The number of programs will increase because there are many being developed.”

Officials are committed to providing more opportunities for transitioning Soldiers to leave the service career-ready through programs such as this one and others fostered by the Soldier For Life — Transition Assistance Program.

The Army closed out Fiscal Year 2016 with the lowest amount of Unemployment Compensation for Ex-Service members (UCX) in 13 years at $172.8 million, according to the Department of Labor. Fiscal Year 2016 is the first time UCX has dipped below the $200 million mark since 2003, when it closed out at $152 million. The decrease in unemployment compensation is encouraging to transitioning Soldiers and Army Veterans looking to find employment, pursue education, or access other civilian opportunities.

Henry Mare works on an electronics test station at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District Hydropower Branch's Electronics Service Section at Old Hickory Dam in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Mare recently transitioned out of the U.S. Army at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and has been working as an intern. The Corps recently selected him for a position as an electronics technician. The Army closed out Fiscal Year 2016 with the lowest amount of Unemployment Compensation for Ex-Service members in 13 years, according to the Department of Labor. (Photo courtesy of Army Human Resources Command)
Henry Mare works on an electronics test station at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District Hydropower Branch’s Electronics Service Section at Old Hickory Dam in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Mare recently transitioned out of the U.S. Army at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and has been working as an intern. The Corps recently selected him for a position as an electronics technician. The Army closed out Fiscal Year 2016 with the lowest amount of Unemployment Compensation for Ex-Service members in 13 years, according to the Department of Labor. (Photo courtesy of Army Human Resources Command)

Army UCX expenditures peaked in 2011 at $515 million and have been decreasing since that time due to a combination of economic factors and Army efforts to better prepare Soldiers for the civilian sector. Integrating Soldiers back into the civilian world successfully depends on a number of determinants, including civilian industry knowledge of valuable veteran skill sets, dispelling myths about veterans, as well as local economic conditions, according to the Army’s Human Resources Command. Soldiers and Army veterans must also be motivated and prepared to educate themselves on matching their career goals, skills, and location desires with the civilian sector.

“We are excited to see that more Army Veterans are finding careers after they transition off of active duty service and fewer are having to file for unemployment compensation,” said retired Col. Walter Herd, Director of the SFL-TAP, which is based at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

In the past few years, the Army has placed substantial efforts in assisting Soldiers with developing civilian career skills during their transition through a remodeled Army transition program. SFL-TAP is required to be completed by all Soldiers with at least 180 days of continuous active duty service.

The program teaches Soldiers career skills such as resume writing, financial planning, benefits education, job application preparation, military skills translation, and more, which has resulted in Soldiers becoming more prepared for civilian life.

“SFL-TAP works to provide opportunities to Soldiers who are looking to pursue an education, entrepreneurship, or a career,” Herd said. “We provide Soldiers a wide variety of resources, counseling, classes, and skills programs to better prepare and connect them to the civilian sector.”

The Army has partnered with the Department of Labor, Department of Veterans Affairs, Small Business Administration, and various Veteran Service Organizations to offer courses to transitioning Soldiers. The Army also works with major employers across the country to educate companies on the value of hiring veterans and to connect Soldiers to civilian opportunities.

Phillips said Fort Leonard Wood’s program began through the SFL-TAP and is now administered through the education center.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for all transitioning service members to participate in,” Phillips said. “(It) is very beneficial to the service member not just because of the employment opportunity, but it allows service members to explore career areas they are interested in where they normally wouldn’t have access.”

David Holbrook, owner of the St. Robert realty company that provided Quinones’ internship, said the program has provided him with two quality employees.

“I think it’s a great program,” Holbrook said. “When I retired from the military, it’s something that wasn’t available for me. It prepares (service members) for life after the military. It’s like going back to college while still on active duty. It’s worked out great for me” as an employer.

Internship providers work with the education center to provide interns with a course of study and benchmarks to meet while taking part in the program. Soldiers who do the internships in real estate, and successfully complete the program, leave the Army as licensed real estate agents.

Fort Leonard Wood has six approved programs: two real estate programs, programs with the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Geospatial Technical Operations Center, a local investment group and Bunker Labs, Phillips said.

“We are constantly looking for new programs to start and are currently working on four others,” she added.

Timothy Willingham retired from the Army as a sergeant first class. He finished out his career as an intern with the U.S. Geological Survey in Rolla, Missouri.

“I initially was supposed to do a month in different sections of USGS. It turned out I only ended up working in one section because they needed help — the elevation unit,” Willingham said.

After his internship, Willingham went to work for USGS doing quality control.

The Career Skills Program “is a great benefit, and Soldiers should take advantage if they can,” Willingham said.

Quinones said the design of the program helped accelerate the learning curve for becoming a real estate agent.

He said it gave him a path of instruction to follow.

“This program eased my anxiety of not having enough money when I retired from the Army,” he said.

Jeffery Isom became the installation administrator for the Career Skills Program in October. Isom, a retired Soldier, said he has a passion for the program and seeing the impact it can have on the lives of transitioning Soldiers — especially those planning on remaining in Missouri.

“I believe this program affords the transitioning service members the opportunity to gain civilian experience that will increase their chances of obtaining suitable employment,” Isom said.

In the coming months, he hopes to see the program marketed on a larger scale while partnering with more area organizations to create internships, apprenticeships and job-shadowing opportunities.

“This will benefit both the transitioning service members and their families and also the remaining active-duty service members who are deserving of the best equipment and training available,” he said. “All transitioning service members are entitled to outstanding transition services.”


NCOs discuss Army warfighting challenges at professional development session

CECOM Public Affairs

With an eye on 2017 and beyond, Command Sgt. Maj. Matthew D. McCoy, U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, wrapped up 2016 by hosting a professional development presentation for the Command, Control, Communications, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or C4ISR, community.

Open to military and civilian members of the DOD workforce, the professional development session titled, “The Future of Combat; the Army Operating Concept and the Army War Fighting Challenges,” was held at the Mallette Training Facility and addressed a myriad of issues significant to the Army’s number one priority: readiness.

“While this session is designed to be CECOM specific, we wanted to open it up to the greater APG and C4ISR community,” McCoy said. “The purpose of this session was to inform our own workforce on the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s process of developing future Army capabilities. What this is not, is a discussion about the acquisition process and reform. It is not a deep discussion about multi-domain battle, and it’s not a discussion about the transition. It’s an introductory opening to the Army Operating Concept, the Army Warfighting challenges and the future design of combat.”

Those challenges, from Southwest Asia to Europe, make clear the need for a strong and effective force that is capable of employing the complete range of potential operations. Toward that end, Army officials say TRADOC Pam 525-31-1, “U.S. Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World,” is a key document in the Army concept framework, and outlines how the Army will employ forces and capabilities in complex environments against increasingly capable opponents. The Army operating concept also describes the Army’s contribution to globally integrated operations, and speaks to the need for Army forces to provide foundational capabilities for the joint force and to project power across land and from land into the air, maritime, space and cyberspace domains.

Joining in the discussion via video teleconference, keynote speaker Army Capabilities Integration Center Command Sgt. Maj. Stephen J. Travers, thanked the CECOM command sergeant major for organizing the session, and went on to provide a brief overview of the TRADOC mission.

“TRADOC is a design-build form, and we’re the design portion of that, Travers said. “It starts with a concept. Every single Army command has its purpose, and we interact as TRADOC’s future force, but we’re also an extension of the Army’s staff. TRADOC is a team of professionals from all different walks of life, all different backgrounds, to help design our future force.”

Also chiming in on the exchange, Soldiers from across C4ISR, Integrated Logistics Support Center, and the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, generated conversations that touched on such topics as gaps between new equipment and training, achieving physical and mental capabilities over adversaries, one-Army integration (multi-component fight), collaboration between centers of excellence; future force development, what winning really means, and the ability to define the winning conditions more clearly.

That future force, as Army leaders continue to point out, will have to confront a number of new strategic realities. Laying the groundwork for further discussion, McCoy said, “The Army operating concept has changed in how it defines our future challenges. What it says is that the future is unknown and even more so, it is unknowable. The Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Mark A. Milley, has made it clear that the number one priority of the total Army is readiness, and there are no other number ones. That readiness is individual. It’s collective. It’s at the unit level that feeds our nation’s strategic readiness. Readiness is all linked to our daily operations and that helps us prepare for the future of combat in our complex world.”

The professional development session drawing to an end, McCoy said, “As we leave here today, let’s keep in mind these things: the Army is fundamentally designed for a specific purpose — to deter aggression and to fight and win when called upon. Our Army warfighting challenges are operational-needs based. They are concepts that have to be addressed to win. If they were all easy, they wouldn’t be challenges. Readiness is our number one priority. That’s how we accomplish the mission that our nation has given us … and that mission is to win. We have to win in a complex world.”

SMA unveils bonuses, incentives to retain Soldiers for million-strong force

Read more: Questions, answers about the Army’s new talent management program

NCO Journal report

With the total Army tasked to expand by 28,000 troops this year, the service hopes to retain quality Soldiers with incentives, such as cash bonuses up to $10,000 for extensions, the Army’s top enlisted member said this month.

“We need Soldiers to stay in the Army,” Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey said during a town hall meeting at the Defense Information School. “If you’re on the fence [and you plan to get out this year], go see your career counselor. I guarantee you that they have some good news.”

The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017 recently raised the Army’s end strength to just over 1 million Soldiers for all components. Initial proposals had the entire Army slated to draw down to 980,000 by the end of this year. The NDAA increased the active force by 16,000, to an end strength of 476,000, and also bumped the reserve component by 12,000.

The troop surge would represent the Army’s largest yearly increase without using a draft or stop-loss involuntary extension and will double its annual retention mission, Dailey said.

“We’re not in a drawdown anymore; we’re in an increase situation,” he said. “The Army is going to get bigger.”

Soldiers who decide to extend their service for 12 months may receive the cash bonus, up to $10,000, depending on their military occupational specialty, time in service and re-enlistment eligibility, he added.

Choice of duty location, stabilization at duty stations, chances to extend service rather than re-enlist, and incentives such as schools are other ways the Army hopes to retain its own. Assignment and training options vary by MOS.

“There are some very creative things we’re going to do to stimulate all of that,” he said. “The important thing Soldiers need to know is to ensure they talk to their career counselors. They are the experts at the unit level who can tailor options based on a Soldier’s specific situation and MOS.”

Dailey also highlighted readiness, as the Army transitions from an emphasis on counterinsurgency to full-spectrum operations, which will require an adaptable, well-trained, and ready force. Currently, more than 180,000 Soldiers are serving in no fewer than 140 nations around the globe.

Education benefits for enlisted Soldiers are also improving, he said, with “huge systematic changes” to the NCO professional development system, ongoing reviews of common core for all career fields, and possible expansion of tuition assistance.

“We need to change the dynamic in how we train and educate our Soldiers,” Dailey said.

Military training, he said, can help Soldiers obtain college degrees through the Army University’s credentialing program.

Under the NDAA, Congress has authorized the Army to pay for credentials that translate to a civilian occupation as long as it relates to an MOS, a Soldier’s regular duties, and during a Soldier’s transition out of the Army.

“We have permission to pay for your credentials for the job you do in the Army,” he said. “That’s not a bad deal.”

The Credentialing Opportunities On-Line program also informs Soldiers how to use their military training toward certificates and licenses required for civilian professions, such as electrician, plumber, welder, and many other jobs.

In addition, the Army is working toward letting Soldiers use tuition assistance to pay for these certificates and licenses, Dailey said.

These efforts, he said, will allow Soldiers to thrive in the civilian sector once they leave the service.

“We have a responsibility to prepare you for that, just like we prepare you for war,” he said. “Simultaneously, by doing that we’re making you a better Soldier.”

These changes may also convince many Soldiers to keep serving or even persuade potential recruits to sign up.

“It sends a perception across America that we value people,” Dailey said. “We want to stay at a competitive level and make sure that we get the right people to join.

“It’s a reinvestment in the all-volunteer force of the future.”