All posts by szapata

Educational Shifts within the United States Army: Changing the Perception of Education at the Unit Level

By Staff Sgt. Adam E. Wahl

Winner, NCO Writing Excellence Program (July 2016)

The United States Army is on the doorstep of many significant changes as we transform from a large force, operating at a high tempo, to a smaller force that is prepared to fight on the battlefields of tomorrow; a critical aspect to how we make this transition will find its roots in education.  The debate between civilian versus military educational systems should instead seek answers on how we can best integrate these systems as a two-pronged approach to learning.  Leaders at all levels must overcome challenges in funding, time and mission requirements to set all of their subordinates on a path that will ensure their success as well as those around them.  According to government data , only six percent of our enlisted force has completed a bachelor’s degree.  By fiscal year 2025 the Army should strive to have a rate much closer to the national average of thirty four percent.

While most believe that a post-secondary education is a critical component to long-term success both in the military and in the civilian world, views differ significantly on which route is best to obtain this education and how it would be best put to use.  As members of the military, we find ourselves in a unique position to obtain, at no cost to us, civilian education that will ensure our competiveness both in and out of uniform.  Far too many of the Soldiers in our ranks fail to take advantage of the benefits afforded to them.  The responsibility for this failure starts and ends with the Non-Commissioned Officer Corps.

One needs to look no further than the NCO Creed to find the importance of “remaining tactically and technically proficient.”  We, as Soldiers, are also reminded of the importance of education when it comes time to review our own, or rate a subordinate Soldier’s duty performance.  Over the course of the last fifteen years, a demanding operational tempo has shifted focus away from traditional education as our force required low-density MOS training to ensure battlefield success in the multiple areas of operation, around the globe, that the United States Army has found itself in.  As our Army transitions yet again, leaders must make education a priority.

The diversity that is found in the United States Army is an important part of who we are as an organization.  With Service Members from every walk of life, it is important to make mention that not each one is perfectly suited for the rigors involved with obtaining a bachelor’s degree.  Recognizing long-term goals as well as strengths, weaknesses and areas of interest should be the responsibility of every First Line Leader.  How can we ask a First Line Leader to develop an education plan, when he or she holds little value in education?  Regardless of academic aptitude, a variety of educational opportunities exist for us to take advantage of.  It is our responsibility to make subordinates aware of these opportunities.

Many Soldiers enter active military service as an alternative to the traditional educational path of entering college immediately upon graduating from high school.  It takes these Service Members very little time to get out of a proper education-focused mindset.  By the time these Soldiers are in the NCOES pipeline, their academic ability has diminished to a level that is not compatible with the higher education standards of their peers in the civilian sector.  By the time these Soldiers approach their ETS, the likelihood that they will continue with education after separation is very low.  In fact, a Pew Research study  concluded that veterans without a college degree are statistically more likely to encounter difficulties when they transition.  This cycle must be broken early in their military career.  As fiscal resources continue to be scarce, the downsizing of the military is sure to catch many soon-to-be separated Soldiers, without the skillsets necessary to flourish in the civilian world.

Many career Soldiers elect to delay starting their education until the later portion of their careers.  Civilian education is too often viewed as a tool to transition to the civilian world rather than a potential force-multiplier within the Army.  When Soldiers do not place a priority on furthering their education while still wearing the uniform, the Army is losing out on having these educated soldiers in their ranks.

In 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor  Statistics puts the national unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree at almost 2.8 percent.  Those whose education consists of only a high school diploma average 5.4 percent.  Likewise, the difference in earning power is significant; the median weekly wage jumps from $678 to $1137 as a result of obtaining a four year degree.  Over a lifetime of working, this difference is staggering.  Civilians have the unfortunate necessity of analyzing the cost versus benefit for obtaining a degree.  As members of the military, our only cost is our time.  Soldiers are their own worst enemies when it comes time to elect to make that sacrifice.

With the standard retirement age in the United States currently at sixty five, most working adults will spend forty five years in the workforce.  Even if a Service Member spends a full twenty year career in uniform, it is likely that a second career will be needed to sustain a livable wage that will provide a more comfortable lifestyle.  The fact that the unemployment rate for veterans in 2015  stood at 5.8 percent speaks to the need for educational reform within the military. Focusing on civilian education during a Soldier’s military career will result in more post-military career opportunities and a much higher overall earning potential.

Professional Military Education has undergone significant changes in recent years.  Leaders, at all levels, recognize the importance of continuing to develop our internal education systems.  Early in FM 6-22 , the premise behind leader development is addressed.  “Leader development is achieved through the life-long synthesis of the knowledge, skills, and experiences gained through the training and education opportunities in the institutional, operational, and self-development domains.”  The force needs to take a much more serious look at this concept and diligently develop a plan that encompasses this theory.

In the fall of 2015, the Army took significant steps to overhaul the Professional Military Education System, otherwise known as PME.  The changes that were implemented are exactly what the PME needs to legitimize itself with academic institutions that cater to military members.  Class rankings, GPA, and a renewed focus on writing will show all Soldiers that the Army does place an importance on furthering one’s education, and it also has high expectations of its Soldiers’ academic performance that are in line with the historical standards of the larger institution.  Additionally, these changes will also help prepare junior Enlisted Members for the civilian academic arena.

The Select, Train, Educate, and Promote (STEP) program sends a very clear message to everyone that education will no longer take a back seat when it comes to promotion and career development.  As of February, 2016, fourteen thousand Soldiers throughout the Army had yet to complete their required NCOES to be eligible for promotion.  According to CSM David Davenport, the Senior Enlisted Soldier for TRADOC, many of these Soldiers simply are not ready to attend these schools.  He goes on to say that unit level leaders must do more to prepare soldiers for the challenges that they will face when they arrive at training .

One way to reduce the backlog at PME courses is to waive some requirements for those Service Members who have already obtained a bachelor’s degree. The Army could still utilize STEP, but should allow promotion for those who have civilian education credentials.  A twenty four month waiver process would allow these Soldiers ample time to complete the requirements of the Professional Military Education System.  These Service Members would also stand greater odds of success because they are familiar with types of challenges that will be encountered in their upcoming NCOES course.

Furthermore, the Army could institute civilian educational requirements for Enlisted Soldiers.  By requiring all leaders with a pay grade of E-8 and above to have a bachelor’s degree, the Army would align itself more closely with the educational requirements of the civilian world.  It would be realistic to ascertain that the quality of leadership would improve by these senior leaders developing themselves by furthering their education outside of military doctrine.

The best way for NCO’s to drive change in how education is viewed is to start at the lowest level.  First Line Leaders should, during the Soldier’s initial counseling upon arrival at their new unit, articulate the expectation that furthering one’s education, in one way or another, is a requirement of the organization.  Leaders should be tasked with helping a soldier to develop and implement an education plan.  Quarterly counseling should follow and progress will be closely monitored.  Leaders should also be evaluated on how their subordinates perform academically and on the progress that they make throughout the rating period.

The gap between civilian education and PME can best be bridged with an overhaul to how the American Council on Education assigns credit recommendations on the Joint Services Transcript, or JST.  Army leadership should continue to work with this organization to diversify the category of credits, thus making them more transferable to common degree programs.  This will encourage Soldiers to have their JST evaluated by local schools and take steps towards pursing their degree.  A recent Rand Corporation study  suggests that only fifty seven percent of Service Members attempt to transfer credits earned in the military to outside academic institutions.  Forty seven percent of those that did, were not satisfied with the number of credits that were awarded.

The Army should also encourage education by offering an Army War College style education to Enlisted Members who have a desire to pursue a graduate degree.  This can be used in conjunction with the current STEP system for NCOES.  Other lessons learned from the Officer Corps can be utilized to encourage education amongst Enlisted Soldiers.  It is common for Senior Officers to require reading, discussion and report writing for subordinate Officers.  NCO’s should incorporate this style of learning via Company-level NCODP.

A common theme exists with Enlisted Soldiers who fail to take advantage of educational opportunities.  Typically, these Soldiers cite the lack of free time to complete college level studies.  This obstacle can be tackled at the lowest level of Army leadership.  A top-down approach to encouraging education starts with allowing Soldiers who are pursuing a certain credit threshold to be relieved of some additional duties which are counterproductive to their studies. If an increased focus on academics can be achieved without compromising military objectives, it is the responsibility of the leadership to encourage its Soldiers to develop themselves by furthering their education.

The GoArmyEd Portal, which Soldiers at all levels utilize to request tuition assistance and track degree progress is in desperate need of an over-haul.  The system is antiquated and very cumbersome to use.  The customer support staff has difficulty assisting in even the most basic functions, as the approval process for courses is typically done at the state or installation level.  Upgrading this system will show the force that the Army is serious about making enrollment as easy as possible.

When debating the merits of civilian versus military education, it is important to recognize the different purposes behind each form of education.  Military education largely exists to meet current operational requirements of the force.  Recent changes in PME have done a fantastic job in fostering a climate of educational excellence.  Continued development and monitoring of the PME changes will be required to ensure that Service Members are benefiting from this exposure to education.

When Service Members rely solely on the PME system to fulfill their educational needs, they risk not being properly prepared for reintegration into the civilian job market.  No matter how long an individual Soldier serves within the ranks of the Army, civilian education will set the stage for increased earning power and a higher standard of living throughout one’s life.  At every level of leadership within the Army’s ranks, lies the responsibility to assist subordinates with developing and implementing an educational plan that will ensure long-term success.  By changing the mentality on how education is viewed, the Army can make the two-pronged approach to education a reality and will be better prepared to accomplish the mission and provide for the welfare of all Soldiers.


U. S. Census Bureau. (2015). Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015.  Accessed June 29, 2016.

Morin, R. (2011). The Difficult Transition from Military to Civilian Life.  Pew Research Center Social and Demographic Trends.  Accessed June 29, 2016.

U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. (2016). Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment.  Accessed June 28, 2016.

U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. (2015). News Release- Employment Situation for Veterans 2015.  Accessed June 29, 2016

Headquarters, Department of the Army. (2015). Leadership Development (FM 6-22). Accessed June 28, 2016.

Tan, M. (2016). Army reduces PME backlog, but classroom vacancies remain an issue.  The Army Times.  Accessed June 28, 2016.

Li, J. (2010). How Military Veterans Are Using the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Adapting to Life in College.  Rand Corporation Research Brief.  Accessed June 27, 2016.

Staff Sgt. Wahl is a Recruiting and Retention NCO with the MN ARNG Recruiting and Retention Battalion. He has been assigned as a production recruiter for the past 7 years. Wahl previously deployed to Taji, Iraq in 2004 and Kosovo in 2007-2008. He is currently a student at the University of Minnesota, where he is studying corporate tax accounting with a projected graduation date of May 2018.  His life-long passion for learning spawned an interest in Soldier development as it relates to education. Many soon-to-be separated Soldiers are not prepared academically for reintegration into the civilian world. This paper aims to raise awareness, at the unit level, about educational opportunities for Soldiers.

Commander, May I Engage?

Winner – NCO Writing Program

By Staff Sgt. Christopher Rance

In stability operations1, there are no enemy lines to speak of. The enemy blends in with the general population. When faced with having to engage targets with direct fire while avoiding collateral damage, the commander should regard his or her snipers as a vital asset. Using their precision weapon systems, snipers can effectively eliminate targets while minimizing the collateral damage associated with other weapon systems or maneuver elements. The solution seems fairly straightforward, yet snipers still struggle with successfully employing precision fire when it matters the most. The culprit lies in the fact that bottom-line rules of engagement (ROE) do not work when snipers act on pre-event indicators to disrupt an enemy action. The sniper uses his/her ability to observe and understand the pre-event indicators that suggest that a critical incident is about to occur. One significant perceived problem with current ROE is their restrictive nature. Often, such ROE will specify enemy personal as only those presenting a direct threat to friendly forces, which may be engaged only to prevent compromise of the sniper team’s position. The paradox is that a sniper’s modus operandi is to engage targets that are not a direct threat to him or her, or their unit at the moment, but which might later be. The intent of this essay is to examine the variables that will help commanders construct the rules of engagement for snipers in irregular war and against state-sponsored hybrid war2 as seen today in Ukraine and Syria. This essay will also provide snipers a method to assess pre-event indicators to assist them in making a quick and accurate decision to engage or not to engage.

Specific Rules of Engagement Developed for Sniper Operations
Issuing the proper rules of engagement is one of the most central and critical areas in successful sniper operations. ROE specifically developed for sniper operations are needed. The greatest utility can be gained from snipers if they have distinct and separate ROE that are both sniper and mission specific. These ROE should be written as a collaborate effort between the commander, the brigade legal officer, and the sniper employment officer. If a sniper team is sent out to observe and engage an IED (improvised explosive device) emplacer or triggerman or an enemy mortar team and its equipment at a POO (point of origin) site, the sniper team should be authorized to engage these targets without recourse to a sometimes complex and time consuming “Commander, may I” sequence of radio conversations with the battalion or brigade tactical operations center. Restrictive ROE prevents the sniper team from accomplishing their dangerous mission. The commander needs to:
o Evaluate the variables
o Assess sniper capabilities
o Develop ROE and execute the sniper operation

Evaluate the Variables
Within a sniper operation, there are two serious errors that leadership needs to avoid. These errors are:
o Error that results in the death of a non-combatant individual.
o Error that results with the targeted individual escapes the situation and the threat or potential threat remains active.

After establishing the errors to avoid, the Commander and Sniper Employment Officer (SEO) will assess the operational environment, the social and political context of the operation, the risks within the operation and the individual capabilities of the sniper.

The Operational Environment
The environment is critical to a complete understanding of the proper execution of a sniper shot. Command needs an accurate assessment of the:

A. Physical Environment
The two principal components of the physical environment that the enemy will use in their favor are terrain and weather. The enemy knows that less complex and open environments, such as Afghanistan, favor U.S. forces, especially snipers with their long-range, precision weapons and sophisticated reconnaissance capability. So they will try to avoid the types of operations and environments for which such U.S. forces are optimized. The enemy will attempt to conduct operations in urban areas and other complex terrain3 and in weather conditions that may adversely affect U.S. military operations and mitigate technological advantages.

B. Relational and Cultural Environment
The use of media, especially social media, can make sniper operations transparent to the world, especially if that sniper team causes any civilian casualties, which are highly mediagenic. The enemy will seek out and exploit any mistake that the United States Military makes and use that propaganda to sway the local population to support their cause.

The Social and Political Context of the Operation
Every sniper operation has a social and political reverberation, the point being that these results can and will affect the operation, where it is in a positive or negative context. The social and political effect can place a tremendous amount of pressure on the conduct of the operation.

The Level of Risks Within the Operation
The stakes of the target have a distinct impact on the operation as a whole. The importance or popularity of the targeted individual can drive the nature of the operation. This variable plays into the perceptions of individuals that are looking or observing the operations from the outside inwards.

Assess Sniper Capabilities
Commanders and SEOs can assess a sniper’s probability of successfully hitting the intended target by using the zone confidence table and the snipers training and qualification records to establish the snipers baseline of performance.


Crosswind Estimation +/- 1 mph +/- 2.5 mph +/- 4 mph
Range Estimation +/- 1 meter +/- 10 m +/- 50 m
Rifle Estimation 0.5 MOA 1.0 MOA 1.5 MOA
Velocity Consistency 10 FPS SD 15 FPS SD 20 FPS SD

o The crosswind confidence level is defined as High (Experienced sniper, great downrange wind indicators) Medium (easy environment i.e. flat range) and Low (challenging environment i.e. valley in Afghanistan).
o The Range estimation confidence level is defined as High (sniper using a laser range finder) Medium (expert use of ranging reticle) and Low (average use of ranging reticle).
o The rifle estimation is represented by the mean group size that the sniper is capable of at close range (100 meter zero) expressed in Minute of Angle.
o The variation in Muzzle Velocity of the ammunition is characterized by the standard deviation. This metric can be obtained by the sniper using a chronograph for his respected rifle/ammo.
By testing the sniper in crosswind estimation, range to target estimation and by assessing his rifles precision (grouping ability) and ammunition velocity consistency (Chrono-graphing current lot of ammunition), you’re now able to put that sniper in one of three confidence zones.





Example: Sniper can read wind and range estimate with Medium confidence. He can maintain a High confidence for rifle estimation (.5 MOA group when zeroing) and by chrono graphing his ammunition, he annotates that current lot has an SD in the Low zone (20 SD). Sniper would be assigned a MEDIUM CONFIDENCE LEVEL.
Commanders and SEOs can use the confidence table to address the various uncertainty components. This approach can show what element(s) of the environment or system (sniper/rifle/ammo) is most limiting the sniper to hit targets. Leadership can also do a comparison of several systems under the same condition in order to see what sniper weapon system they should employ.

Develop Rules of Engagement
Commanders and SEOs can analyze certain questions that will assist in selecting the right sniper and establishing an ROE;
o Is deploying a sniper team the right course of action for a particular operation?
o How far a sniper weapon system may be successfully employed against specific targets4?
o Do the variables limit the sniper team?
o Can the sniper be expected to a high degree of confidence, eliminate a threat without incurring civilian casualties5?

Left-of-bang principles help snipers observe, analyze, and decide before the enemy acts. This is called “left-of-bang” thinking. Snipers look for indicators after an incident occurs so that they can prevent the next occurrence—that is, acting before the next bang.

Left of Bang
Pre-Event Indicators
For the sniper to act, he or she must be able to understand and observe the pre-event indicators that would suggest that a critical incident is about to occur.
Examples of what the sniper can do, left-of-bang:
o Sniper creates a baseline of what he or she perceives to be “normal” for the area of operation
o The sniper observes potential suspects to help establish their daily patterns
o The sniper conducts a recon of possible locations of enemy activity
o Sniper detects anomalies from the baseline
o Sniper identifies behaviors from the population that is out of place
o Identify suspicious environmental signs (e.g., stack of rocks, marking material hung)
Examples of what the sniper can do, right-of-bang:
o Sniper can identify tracks leading away from a scene
o Sniper can identify behavioral anomalies of nearby people
o Sniper can identify environmental effects, such as odd crowd reactions
o Sniper can analyze a site for clues to the enemy’s tactics or motivations

In conclusion, two priorities need to be established. First, snipers need to be selected based on their confidence zone when planning for a sniper operation. Second, commanders need to provide the sniper with specific, lawful ROE that describe acceptable conditions for engaging enemy personnel who are participating in defined hostile activities; the snipers should be trusted to follow the commander’s guidance and the ROE and take a shot.

1 United States Army FM 3-07 states stability operations encompass various military missions, tasks, and activities conducted outside the United States in coordination with other instruments of national power to maintain or reestablish a safe and secure environment, provide essential governmental services, emergency infrastructure reconstruction, and humanitarian relief.
2 Hybrid forces can be characterized by their capabilities. Hybrid forces such as the ones operating in Ukraine and Syria have the same characteristics of irregular forces, such as small formations, but they also have additional capabilities such as anti-tank guided missiles, man-portable air defense weapons, and longer-range, larger-caliber rockets.
3 United States Army FM 7-100.1 states complex terrain is a topographical area consisting of an urban center larger than a village and/or of two or more types of restrictive terrain or environmental conditions occupying the same space. (Restrictive terrain or environmental conditions include but are not limited to slope, high altitude, forestation, severe weather, and urbanization.)Complex terrain, due to its unique combination of restrictive terrain and environmental conditions, imposes significant limitations on observation, maneuver, fires, and intelligence collection.
4 When going from relative sea level to 10,000 feet in mountainous terrain (higher the altitude; the better the muzzle velocity is retained), a system (sniper/rifle/ammo) and the combination of high altitude and long line of sights, can make sniper employment in mountainous terrain a much more efficient tactic. The higher elevations extend the effectiveness of a sniper weapon system substantially. The effect can be on the order of 10% increase in hit percentage for every 5,000 ft. gained from sea level.
5 A sniper with a high confidence rating can be expected to deliver a more accurate shot than a sniper with a low confidence rating. Commanders must assess their snipers on a routine basis to successfully gauge their effectiveness.

Staff Sgt. Christopher Rance

“I have been serving the United States Army as an Infantryman (11B) for almost twelve years, and I have had the privilege to work in a variety of positions. I served as a sniper team leader when I was assigned to the 4th brigade, 10th Mountain Division. During my tenure, I successfully led a sniper team during a 15 month combat operation in Iraq, from 2007 to 2009. My next assignment was a volunteer assignment to the prestigious 3rd Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard. While there, I served as the Presidential Color Bearer on a variety of missions, to include President Obama’s 2012 Inauguration. My essay discusses the restrictive nature of contemporary Rules of Engagement and how that can hinder a sniper from performing his or her mission. I offer a sound solution for the commander that he or she can employ, especially in stability operations. This essay arose from past experiences and from After Action Reports from other snipers serving in recent combat operations.”

Achieving Leader Development through Strategic Broadening Seminars: The Red Team NCO Education Experience.

Winner – NCO Writing Program

By Sergeant 1st Class Edrena R. Roberts and Master Sgt. Jorge A. Rivera

According to the Army Operating Concept (TRADOC Publication 525-3-1)1, the Army must “develop agile, adaptive, and innovative leaders who thrive in conditions of uncertainty and chaos, and are capable of visualizing, describing, directing, leading, and assessing operations in complex environments and against adaptive enemies.” One way the Army is achieving this is through Strategic Broadening Seminars.

For decades the Army has developed leaders through a variety of broadening opportunity programs, fellowships and scholarships. Since 2009, the “Year of the Non-Commissioned Officer,” many of these programs have been made available to non-commissioned officers (NCOs). In January 2016, 44 senior NCOs were selected for the HQDA Strategic Broadening Seminar (HQDA SBS). MILPER Message Number 15-219 2 describes HQDA SBS as an “approved broadening opportunity with the purpose to educate and enhance an appreciation for the complex contemporary security environments. The diverse curriculum and unique characteristics of each SBS host challenge attendees to think critically and creatively.” There are multiple SBS opportunities for which NCOs may compete that include: University of Kansas, University of California- Berkeley, University of Louisville, Executive Counter- Terrorism Studies in Israel, Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies at Fort Leavenworth, and the Institute for Defense and Business (IDB) conducted at University of North Carolina and Indiana University.  Selectees participate in these seminars as part of a diverse cohort which include officers, warrant officers, enlisted, and civilians.  Each cohort studies and interacts with world class academics, senior Army leaders, international and interagency partners and business executives in a team-based, small group environment.

In the Army’s “Human Dimension White Paper”3, Michael D. Matthews, PhD. describes the Army’s goal as the education of “Soldiers and systems that outthink the enemy, [through] enhanced situational awareness in Soldiers and leaders in order to facilitate rapid and accurate decisions under stressful conditions with limited decision-making time.” The University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS) Strategic Broadening Seminar is designed to enable soldiers to make these rapid, accurate and enhanced awareness decisions.  The UFMCS program provides a unique, tailored approach to education focused on decision support. The program borrows best practices from many disciplines to create a curriculum rich in Red Teaming tools. Students, through experiential and learner-focused education, participate in discussions to develop good decision processes that are essential to improve mission outcomes.

UFMCS defines Red Teaming as a function executed by trained, educated, and practiced team members that provide commanders an independent capability to fully explore alternatives in plans, operations, concepts, organizations, and capabilities in the context of the operational environment and from the perspectives of our partners, adversaries, and others.  Throughout the Red Team course, participants are taught essential tools that can assist the command during the decision making process. Red Teaming is a skill that must continuously grow and expand in the individual.   Self-awareness, applied critical thinking, groupthink mitigation, and cultural empathy are the four pillars of Red Teaming; these topics lay the foundation of understanding how and why an individual makes decisions and opens the mind to see different possible solutions to a given problem.

Decisions are made at every level, from how early a private shows up to formation, to the plan of attack of the combatant commander.  An individual must understand their biases and frames of thinking to fully understand a problem.  Whether known or unknown, everyone has biases in their thinking.  Likewise, everyone has their own frame of thinking.  For example, vision is limited when looking through a window, even when close to the glass. Knowing this and bringing in other individuals with different frames is important to incorporate different ideas.

The seminar began with an introduction by Colonel Steve Rotkoff, USA, Retired, UFMCS Director.  Mr Rotkoff provided an overview of the Red Team program and provided historical examples when alternative analysis, or “devil’s advocates,” changed the course of an operation or history. The rest of week one was devoted to self-discovery.  The guest speaker, Judah Pollack, who is an author, speaker, and partner at Riverene Leadership, spent three days discussing Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), self-awareness, and Jungian Typology. The class looked at how bias and structured frames limit the ability to think critically.  Attendees discussed how to be aware of frames and bias as they interpret the world and make decisions.  At the end of the first week, the class took a trip to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, where participants not only discussed how frames and bias affect the way people interpret art, but experienced how individual frames and bias affect the way participants make decisions, solve problems, or plan a mission.

The second week started with guest speaker, Mrs. Trish Carson, UFMCS lecturer, as she led the class to discovering temperament as an extension of self-discovery and self-awareness. The group learned to identify different personalities within working groups and effective ways to interact with them.  Bringing in people with different personalities allows for different perspectives when facing problems or creating courses of action. The week continued with guest speaker Dr. Kate Stewart’s lectures on negotiation and mediation. These discussions focused on the importance of understanding what the opposing person or group is saying by avoiding the creation of an argument or rebuttal while someone else is talking.  The participants learned methods to use active listening to identify the real interests of the other party in order to know how to best approach the problem.  Outcomes learned were the positive results of negotiation which are empathy and open mindedness. The remainder of week two was devoted to readings and discussions of mental models, intuition, and decision making. Understanding the contributors to, and effects of, intuition and patterns in behaviors or activities helped with problem analysis and decision making.

The third week of training was focused on complexity and systems thinking with discussions on cognitive biases, mitigating groupthink and argument deconstruction.  In systems thinking, participants learned that everything is connected.  When a decision is made it can affect multiple aspects of a mission that may seem to be unrelated to the issue.  A small village, for example, is having problems with the sparrows that are destroying their crops and causing severe food shortages. The unit that deploys to the area with a humanitarian mission must think in terms of systems in order to help solve the problem. If they kill off the sparrows in order to save the crops this could cause an imbalance within the food chain that ignites a plague of locusts and destroys the remaining food supply.  Everything is connected, so a leader must be able to think in terms of systems in order to understand everything that will be affected by a future decision.  In this way, negative effects can be averted or mitigated.

Throughout the course methods to mitigate groupthink were discussed. Examples were shared when, after a meeting at least one person thought, “I should have said something,” or in the aftermath of a bad decision someone thought, “I knew that would happen,” but in the moment did not want to go against the group’s consensus.  In this context we reviewed examples of group-think. In the case of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, newly elected President Kennedy is briefed on the plan to invade Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro via “Bahia de Cochinos” (Bay of pigs).  As it turns out the invading force of about 1400 was outnumbered, lacked air support, ammunition and an escape route.  Planners assumed the invading force could easily maneuver into the mountains from which they could conduct guerrilla operations.  Miles of swampland and other factors led to mission failure.  At least one person, presidential advisor Arthur Schlesinger, expressed his concerns on the plan, but was admonished for not supporting the group; other advisors also had doubts but did not voice their concerns for various reasons.  Many lessons were learned and as a result “President Kennedy later revised his group decision-making process to encourage dissent and debate. The change helped avert a nuclear catastrophe” 4 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

To mitigate groupthink a leader should be able to depend on the opinions of others within their staff or section to assist in making decisions.  A leader needs to foster an environment that allows for others to explain how a situation or problem can be perceived differently.  In this way, a better decision could be found that is not based on one individual’s biases.  A leader should have the right people in the right place, not the people who think like they do in order to give the answer that is wanted. A good way to see examples of groupthink and how it can sway decisions is in The Abilene Paradox, and The 12 Angry Men. Additionally, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a visual example of seeing things in only one way while rejecting the views of others.

The fourth week was focused on cultural awareness and religious studies.  The class examined culture and religions beyond the generalities and level of awareness that usually lead to stereotypes and incorrect assumptions.  Dr. Andrew Salzmann, Assistant Professor of Theology, hosted the class at Benedictine College and facilitated a seminar discussion where participants used a variety of frameworks to analyze different religions.  Using frameworks allowed the group to raise consciousness of cultural differences, understanding that it is appropriate to have several differences, and know when they may or may not apply. Participants achieved the ability to examine a culture without being a regional expert.  Understanding the enemy and their culture is critical to winning any battle.

In the fifth and final week, guest lecturer, Dr. Rob B. McClary, seminar leader at UFMCS, facilitated a lesson and several discussions on creativity and innovation.  Participants were asked to demonstrate individual examples of creativity and innovation; through divergence, the class compared these examples to the creative thought process.  Further activities exposed students to short memory, induction and deduction exercises and how these play a part in the creative process. The course, culminated with student-led activities in deconstructing, Red Teaming, and defining vulnerabilities in the Army Operating Concept and in the white paper, “Toward a New Offset Strategy,” 5 by Robert Martinage.

The UFMCS Broadening Seminar makes great leaders better. It is, however, on the individual to reflect on the experiences and themes to determine the best way to apply newly learned concepts.  This course better prepares leaders to deconstruct arguments, getting to the real issues and reasoning.  NCOs are expected to be tactically and technically proficient, with the complexities of today’s environment they also need to be critical thinkers.  Participants are better prepared to add value and support decision making by challenging assumptions, anticipating cultural perceptions, and identifying groupthink while reducing its effects through mitigating strategies. Selected NCOs need to experienced and proficient in their fields; these seminars will make them strategic thinkers and better prepared to advise commanders in complex or ambiguous situations.  The SBS, and specifically the UFMCS Red Team Member Course, prepares NCOs to think critically, and provides participants the tools and frameworks to address problems objectively, which is of value to any leader. While strategic thinking is necessary at all levels, what an NCO is capable of influencing differs with the situation.  What can be focused on, however, is the 15% that an NCO has influence over.  Even in a culture such as the U.S. Army, with multiple regulations and strict command structures, each NCO, Red Teamer, and strategic thinker who has been exposed to such SBS programs can influence their organization in a positive manner.


1 United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, “The U.S. Army Operating Concept – Win in a Complex World” Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-1, (2014): 32.
2  United States Army Human Resources Command, “Military Personnel (MILPER) Message 219” (2015): Accessed March 10, 2016.
3 United States Army Combined Arms Center, “The Human Dimension White Paper – A Framework for Optimizing Human Performance”, (2014): 14.
4 Wright, Rusty. “JFK and Groupthink: Lessons in Decision Making”, Probe Ministries, (2003): Accessed March 10, 2016.
5 Martinage, Robert. “Toward a New Offset Strategy: Exploiting U.S. Long-Term Advantages to Restore U.S. Global Power Projection Capability”, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), (2014): Accessed March 4, 2016.

Sgt. 1st Class Edrena R. Roberts
Career Management NCO
U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School (USACHCS)

Master Sgt. Jorge A. Rivera
Troop Sergeant Major
Asymmetric Warfare Group

Sgt. 1st Class Roberts is a Chaplain Assistant and currently assigned as a Career Management NCO at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School 56M Enlisted Personnel Proponent Office. Roberts has an Associate’s Degree in General Studies and is pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in International Affairs.

Master Sgt. Rivera is a General Engineering Supervisor currently assigned as a troop sergeant major for the Asymmetric Warfare Group. Rivera holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business.

Both NCOs are recent graduates of the Red Team Member Course (RTMC) as part of the Strategic Broadening Seminars (SBS). When MILPER Message 15-219 was published very little information was available on specifics of the seminars or academic requirements. Further research determined that no information was available from a participant perspective. During the course Roberts and Rivera discussed the need to increase awareness across the NCO Corps on both the SBS and the RTMC. This article is a joint effort to address background information, doctrinal guidance, and topics covered in the seminar. The authors hope to increase awareness, interest, and NCO participation in the SBS, making the force smarter and more capable.