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This Month in NCO History: Feb. 26, 1991 — Bravery among the tanks at Desert Storm

Sgt. Young Min Dillon possessed an undaunted spirit throughout his Army career.

That notion was no more evident than in the last conversation he had with his father.

“I told him before he went into battle, ‘… don’t be a point man in a war. The point man is in front of the battle all the time. You could get killed doing that,’” Larry Dillon told the Rocky Mountain News of Denver, Colorado, in 2003.

His son’s reply was pointed and showed an awareness of the situation in which he was about to embark. It would eventually earn him a space in the annals of Army history as a recipient of the Silver Star.

“Well, if I get killed, I get killed,” the younger Dillon said.

Sgt. Dillon was part of Headquarters Battery, 82nd Field Artillery, 3rd Armored Division when it took part in the liberation of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. On Feb. 26, 1991, Dillon was part of a brigade on its third day of a march through southern Iraq. The unit was spearheading VII Corps’ vast effort to encircle Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards.

The few Iraqi fighters the brigade encountered were from second-string units who would waved white flags when spotting U.S. forces, according to a first-person account written by Lt. Col. M. Thomas Davis for the Washington Post in 1993. But the elite Republican Guards were determined to fight. On the third day of the march, the 3rd Armored Division found them.

After a few light skirmishes, the 2nd brigade of the 3rd AD became locked in combat with two brigades of the Guards’ Tawakalna Division. Dillon was at the front of the battle with one of the battalion’s fire-support teams. He was charged with accompanying the tank carrying the commander of the 4th Battalion, 8th Cavalry, and to direct artillery fire onto the targets he designated.

The battle with the Tawakalna went well into the night. Dillon stayed near the battalion commander’s tank, a precarious location given that the vehicle he was sharing with Capt. Perry Patton and their junior enlisted driver was an older model M113 armored personnel carrier, known as an APC or a track.

After nightfall, the brigade regrouped and its commander initiated a new plan to pierce through Iraqi lines. The tanks would attempt to penetrate the front about 15 miles east of their location in an operation dubbed Phase Line Bullet.

As the firing batteries moved into position, Dillon discovered his vehicle had a problem. One of the radios in the track had stopped working. Dillon decided it had to be replaced. He pulled the 30-pound device from the track, flagged down a humvee and asked its young driver to take him to the rear.

He arrived at the tank battalion’s operations center and acquired a replacement radio before jumping back into the humvee. By then the battle had erupted again. The young driver was unnerved by the tracer rounds zipping through the darkness around them and was unwilling to return to the front. Dillon grabbed another Soldier and ordered him to drive the vehicle back to the forward lines. In short order, the humvee pulled up behind an M1A1 Abrams tank as enemy fire lit up the night around it. Dillon exited the vehicle with the radio and told the driver to return to safety.

For several minutes, Dillon ran through darkness from tank to tank as he sought Patton and his track. Tank fire bellowed around him as he finally located it. He jumped inside, replaced the radio and climbed through the open top hatch to man the vehicle’s sole .50-caliber machine gun. By then, midnight was nearing and an artillery barrage from U.S. forces was about to begin.

American artillery unleashed wave after wave of rounds. Years later, Davis, recalled what transpired next in a May 30, 1993, editorial published in the Washington Post:

“From my track, about 400 yards to the rear, I observed our artillery preparation in awe. Behind me, our large guns and rocket launchers were firing feverishly. In the distance, their shells exploded, marking the invisible horizon with a long line of flame and smoke. Hearing enemy artillery rounds falling behind me, I turned to see if they were hitting any of our units. Satisfied that the Iraqis had not found the correct range … I turned forward just in time to observe a single shell detonating in the distance off to my left front, far short of the rounds that continued to rain on the enemy lines. Immediately I heard Capt. Patton yelling on the radio, confirming my fears that one of our rounds had fallen short.”

One of the rounds fired during the attack had malfunctioned. Its cargo of bomblets fell onto Dillon’s track, one of them landing just behind his right shoulder. Dillon’s flak jacket was shredded by the blast, leaving his shoulder and upper arm mangled and bloody. The Soldier fell back into the track, bleeding profusely.

Patton and the track’s driver pulled Dillon from the vehicle and immediately administered first aid. At one point, Dillon regained consciousness before he was loaded onto a medical vehicle. Unfortunately, he died before reaching the battalion surgeon.

Davis personally delivered an account of Dillon’s actions to his grieving family. He also expressed his appreciation for the young sergeant who would be posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his actions that day.

“Sgt. Young Dillon did not have to replace his inoperative radio. No one asked him to,” Davis wrote. “He did not have to return to the front. No one would have ever known the difference had he stayed in the rear. But his loyalty and determination to do the right thing, to complete his mission, to stand at his post, compelled him to take action despite the obvious risks. He was where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do, and it cost him and us his life.”

Dillon’s father echoed those sentiments to the Rocky Mountain News.

“My son — all Soldiers — they know what the risks and dangers are,” Larry Dillon said. “They know they’re risking their lives. … Even though there’s anger and sadness because they died in a conflict like this, they’re not dying in a useless cause, not dying in vain.”

Dillon is buried at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, Colorado. He was born Nov. 28, 1963, in Seoul, South Korea. His military home of record was Aurora, Colorado.

4th female sentinel proud to revere tomb’s unknown Soldiers

NCO Journal

Sgt. Ruth Hanks has many memories to choose from when explaining why she cherishes her job as a tomb guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Perhaps it was when an honor flight of U.S. military veterans, either World War II- or Korean War-era, stopped to watch the changing of the guard at the tomb in the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater. Hanks wondered if one of the veterans paying tribute that day had fought alongside one of the unknown Soldiers.

“Veterans see that Soldier will never be forgotten,” she said. “It’s a big thing.”

Or, maybe it was the first time she heard, “Oh, [the Soldier is] a female. I didn’t know they could do that,” while on duty as a sentinel at the tomb. Though sentinels are focused on performing their tasks, they do hear a few of the public’s comments.

Hanks knows that when she ultimately leaves the prestigious post she will have amassed a wealth of pride, experience and knowledge to share with other Soldiers about her momentous opportunity.

“I am always trying to bring it back to the unknowns so that everybody remembers what we are here for,” Hanks said. “I am there for the unknowns, and I will perform to the best of my ability.”

Demanding, yet humbling

Hanks, a military police officer, comes from a family of military service members, and acknowledges the responsibility she shoulders as the fourth female sentinel. For the most part, though, she sees herself as just another one of the guys.

“It’s a role for other females to look up to, but at the same time, from my point of view I’m just a sergeant in the United States Army who wants to do a job,” Hanks told her college newspaper.

It was after being deployed to Afghanistan in 2013 that she began researching the Old Guard, its specialty platoons and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

“I also happened to run into an old Tomb Guard Identification Badge holder and talked to him a little bit,” Hanks said. “That kind of set in stone what I wanted to try to do during my next assignment.”

“I am there for the unknowns, and I will perform to the best of my ability,” says Sgt. Ruth Hanks, a tomb guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)
“I am there for the unknowns, and I will perform to the best of my ability,” says Sgt. Ruth Hanks, a tomb guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

Since 1948, Soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment “The Old Guard” have served in the distinguished duty as sentinels, guarding the tomb in any kind of weather, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. The Guard is changed every 30 minutes from April 1 to Sep. 30 and every hour from Oct. 1 to March 31. During the hours the cemetery is closed, the guard is changed every 2 hours.

The impeccably attired tomb guard wears the Army dress blue uniform, which is reminiscent of the style worn by Soldiers in the late 1800s. Sentinels shine their shoes, medals and belt buckles for hours to meet the high standards of uniform preparation.

During the ceremony, the relief commander appears on the plaza of the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater and announces the Changing of the Guard. The new sentinel leaves the tomb quarters, which is beneath the amphitheater, and unlocks the bolt of his or her M-14 rifle ─ the signal to begin the ceremony.

The relief commander walks out to the tomb, salutes and faces the spectators, asking them to stand and remain silent during the ceremony. The relief commander conducts an inspection of the weapon, checking each part of the rifle once. Then, the relief commander and the relieving sentinel meet the retiring sentinel at the center of the matted path in front of the tomb. All three salute the unknown Soldiers. (The tomb contains the remains of one each for World War I, World War II and the Korean War. The previously unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War was identified as 1st Lt. Michael Blassie. After DNA identification, Blassie’s remains were moved to Jefferson National Cemetery, Missouri.)

The relief commander orders the retiring sentinel to pass on his or her orders, who replies, “Post and orders, remain as directed.” The new sentinel says, “Orders acknowledged,” and steps into position. When the relief commander passes by, the new sentinel begins walking at a cadence of 90 steps per minute.

Sgt. Ruth Hanks is the fourth female sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)
Sgt. Ruth Hanks is the fourth female sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

The tomb guard marches 21 steps down the mat behind the tomb, turns and faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors, signifying that the sentinel stands between the tomb and any possible threat. The number 21 was chosen because it symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed posthumously ─ the 21-gun salute, according to arlingtoncemetery.mil.

Lessons learned

Sentinels are considered to be the best of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, which is headquartered at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia. Each Soldier must be in superb physical condition and have an unblemished military record. An interview and a two-week trial determine the Soldier’s capability to train as a tomb guard. Once chosen, he or she will undergo many hours of intensive training and testing, which focuses on overall performance, uniform preparation and knowledge of the tomb and Arlington National Cemetery.

Hanks credits leadership training and the maturity that comes as a noncommissioned officer for preparing her to take proper responsibility as a tomb guard, whether she is executing her duties in front of veterans or family members.

Sgt. Kevin E. Calderon, another tomb guard, shares Hanks’ sentiments.

“Coming down here to the tomb, I’ve developed myself so much to the point I know exactly what I’m looking for when I see a Soldier,” Calderon told Army publications. “Every day here is training. You become a trainer. When new candidates arrive, the goal isn’t to make them as good as you. You want them to be better. It’s the epitome lifestyle of an NCO.”

A great sense of time management and a supportive family has also helped her cope, she said.

“My family loves it,” she said. “When they came out here for my Tomb Guard Identification Badge ceremony, they got to see me out there, and they really enjoyed it. It’s just overwhelming pride that you see in your family. I don’t do it for that, but seeing that is just phenomenal. It’s one of those things; you just want to make your parents proud, so it was pretty neat.”

It wasn’t until 1994 that women were permitted to volunteer to become sentinels when the 289th Military Police Company was attached to the Old Guard, according to the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknowns. The MP branch is a combat support unit.

In 1996, Sgt. Heather L. Johnsen became the first woman to earn the Tomb Guard Identification Badge. She volunteered for duty in June 1995 and earned her badge in 1996. Since then, two additional female Sentinels who are also NCOs were awarded the badge ─ Sgt. Danyell E. Wilson in 1997, and Staff Sgt. Tonya D. Bell in 1998.

Women must meet the same requirements as male Soldiers to be eligible as tomb guards. The only difference is that women have a minimum height requirement of 5 feet 8 inches, which is the same standard to be a member of the Old Guard. Male sentinels must be between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 4 inches tall.

“I do not get treated any differently,” Hanks said. “The crowd might have more of a response because there is a female there, but when it comes to work and training, it’s absolutely the same.”

Hanks foresees that her praise of the tomb, guards and the military ritual will endure long after she has moved on from her duty, urging prospective visitors to Washington, D.C., to stop by the Tomb of the Unknowns for the Changing of the Guard. “Check this out, and I’ll tell you a little story about them,” she would say.

“I would be passing on history,” Hanks said. “The motto of the tomb guard is ‘Soldiers never die until they are forgotten. Tomb guards never forget.’ That’s what we have to keep doing.”


The Sentinel’s Creed

My dedication to this sacred duty is total and wholehearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me, never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance.
My standard will remain
Through the years of diligence
And the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect,
his bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well-meaning crowds by day,
alone in the thoughtful peace of night,
this Soldier in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.

To join ‘The Old Guard’

Prospective noncommissioned officers and enlisted Soldiers interested in joining “The Old Guard” may call The Old Guard Recruiting Office at commercial 703-696-3007 or email Old Guard Recruiting at usarmy.jbmhh.mdw.mbx.tog-recruiting@mail.mil

Army marketing strategies and the future of word-of-mouth marketing

New Jersey Army National Guard

The U.S. Army predates the nation it serves. Since its inception, policymakers have worked to define the relationship between America’s Army and the civilian populace that supports its mission.

The Army has had to sell itself since the 18th century. First, it had to convince Congress that it was a match for the battle-hardened British Army. It then had to convince the American people that it could win the Revolution with enough time, resources and support. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the Army has been composed entirely of volunteers. It has had to market itself directly to military-aged men and women while at the same time appealing to applicants’ friends, family, and influencers — teachers, civic leaders and role models.

The Army has previously adopted successful marketing campaigns. In decades past, the slogan “Be All That You Can Be” resonated with the public. As the Army transitioned to an all-volunteer force, this theme was appropriate. It was as much a call to individual achievement as it was a higher calling to service. In recent years, the Army’s marketing efforts have struggled. The intent of the “Army of One” campaign was confusing and never caught on with its target audience. Instead of serving as an invitation to serve as a part of a team, the message seemed to focus solely on individual achievement, which runs counter to Army values and ethics. The “Army Strong” message was better, but the campaign did not resonate, either. It was replaced after it was found that civilians didn’t embrace the idea. The Army’s current marketing theme, focusing on “the Army Team,” is in keeping with the values, ethics and culture that are integral parts of the Army brand.

The first Army marketing campaign that comes to mind is from the World War I and II era — the “I want you!” poster. This iconic image was a direct appeal to the individual observing the poster. It featured Uncle Sam, the physical embodiment of the spirit of the United States, pointing at the observer. His eyes were intently fixed on the potential applicant, conveying the seriousness of the country’s need for Soldiers. The image of Uncle Sam, stern and unwavering despite threats to the American way of life from overseas, demanding that a service-age male stand up and do his part, was a successful marketing strategy. It was not just for those who would become Soldiers, but for those who would invest in the war effort in other ways – by purchasing war bonds or by working to manufacture wares used by Soldiers in the field.

Immediately after the Vietnam War, the Army had to address benefits the service offered to potential applicants, including job training and civilian education, in order to become competitive with potential civilian employers. It also had to present the esprit de corps, the camaraderie and the feeling of job satisfaction that could potentially result from military service. Finally, the Army needed an idea that could convey a connection to great leaders of the past, and to their achievements in founding and preserving the nation they served. The resultant slogan, “Be All That You Can Be,” and the advertising campaign that surrounded it for almost two decades, introduced many potential applicants to the idea that the Army could be a stepping stone to higher education (using the Montgomery GI Bill and the Army College Fund), to marketable job skills (electronics repair, aviation, logistics), or to a military career. Many of the applicants during this period also had a relative who had served in World War I or II, in Korea or in Vietnam, so the Army was also able to market to an individual’s sense of family. While appealing to the applicant from all of these positions, “Be All That You Can Be” also appealed to an applicant’s sense of pride and personal achievement.

Another successful campaign involved the Army National Guard. The marketing surrounding the simple slogan “You Can” inspired interest in the Guard’s dual mission for decades. The elegance and simplicity of the slogan conveyed a slew of possibilities: Would you like to have career training applicable to the civilian sector? You can. Would you like to complete your civilian education while serving your country? You can. Would you like to serve your local community in times of emergency? You can. Many individual states supplement the benefits offered by the GI Bill and Federal Tuition Assistance, making it even easier to attract applicants with an interest in continuing education. When the National Guard presents itself as an organization that can empower an applicant, it becomes attractive not only to the applicant but to influencers as well. Guidance counselors, principals, faith leaders and legislators can support students who seek to improve themselves by learning a trade or developing themselves through continuing education — at a minimum burden to the public coffers — while at the same time returning the investment by serving the community.

U.S. Army Sgt. Nayib A. Covar, an infantryman with the 6th Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment, takes a photo after sharing his reasons for serving in the U.S. Army during an interview Nov. 22, 2016, at Fort Stewart, Ga. Soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Division are highlighted on Facebook and Twitter every Wednesday for the Why We Serve Wednesday social media campaign. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Nikki Felton)
U.S. Army Sgt. Nayib A. Covar, an infantryman with the 6th Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment, takes a photo after sharing his reasons for serving in the U.S. Army during an interview Nov. 22, 2016, at Fort Stewart, Ga. Soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Division are highlighted on Facebook and Twitter every Wednesday for the Why We Serve Wednesday social media campaign. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Nikki Felton)

Recruitment issues were recently addressed in an Army Press online journal article, “Improving Army Recruitment by Word-of-Mouth Marketing.” The article addressed some handicaps the Army has as an organization. The author, Cpt. Kevin Sandell, a public affairs officer, suggests that direct communication with Soldiers may be more productive than typical recruiting efforts. Word-of-mouth recruiting may be very effective, especially considering the recent focus on the Army ethic and professionalization. In addition to the opportunities for education, the Army has renewed its efforts to certify Soldiers in their military occupational specialties. This certification extends as far as civilian credentialing in some of the more technical fields.

Former Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning emphasized the importance of these word-of-mouth connections and of the ability of Army National Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers to make those connections. This word-of-mouth strategy is being incorporated into wider campaigns. As the overseas contingency operations of the past decade have reduced in size and scope, the Army’s media coverage has reduced as well. To increase media exposure, the Army instituted the “Meet Your Army” campaign as a means of fostering communication between the civilian community and the military. It is important to maintain this level of visibility, not just for the recruiting effort, but to keep the public invested in the Army’s mission. The American people need to be reminded that they enable the Army: through their trust and confidence, through encouraging young people to serve and through their tax dollars.

The Army offers untested youths the opportunity to sharpen the skills they learn in their primary and secondary education and apply them as part of a team. The NCO is in a position to convey this message to the American people. Noncommissioned officers play a special role in the marketing of the Army as recruiters. The recruiter is often the applicant’s first interaction with a Soldier, regardless of the Soldier’s component. Recruiters must be a tangible representation of all those things the Army mission and vision represent. The recruiter must subscribe to the Army ethic and live by the Army values. A recruiter must stand by the Creed of the Noncommissioned Officer and the Soldier’s Creed. A recruiter must keep the oath made upon enlistment. Recruiting and retention NCOs must not be primarily concerned with the number of recruits they bring into the Army’s formations, but rather with bringing in quality applicants that have the potential to abide by the values and ethics the recruiters represent. Trained, educated and ethical recruiters will attract trainable, educable and ethical applicants.

The job description of the recruiting and retention NCO specifically states that the recruiter will be a first-line marketer, distributing and displaying recruiting material and cultivating community centers of influence. However, word-of-mouth marketing strategies dictate that all NCOs are recruiters, regardless of billet. They are tangible symbols of the Army brand and therefore must be prepared to relay their positive Army experience, verbally or in writing. An NCO has professional experience, training and education that can easily be related to by Americans. NCOs have attained their status by adherence to the Army values, the Army ethic, the Warrior Ethos and the Creed of the Noncommissioned Officer. Conveying why it is important to adhere to these abstract principles is as important as abiding by them. The NCOs of the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve are in prime positions to market the Army, because they are parts of their communities. They can and should take the time to relay the Army’s mission and vision to Americans, not only to attempt to recruit youths into the ranks, but also to inform others of what the Army does.

The Army has had successful marketing campaigns — first marketing itself to military-age men, but now to all service-age Americans — while simultaneously presenting an attractive employment and educational opportunity to applicants’ influencers. The Army’s marketing is most successful when it emphasizes the one-team concept, appealing not only to self-interest but to applicants’ desires to incorporate the Army values and ethics into their lives.

Staff Sgt. Brian Darling is a paralegal noncommissioned officer assigned to the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, New Jersey Army National Guard.

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.


NCOs bring injured Soldiers home as members of Army’s Burn Flight Team

Read more: Burn Flight Team saves lives, breaks records

NCO Journal

Noncommissioned officers play a crucial role on the U.S. Army Burn Flight Team, which is prepared to fly any time, anywhere to transport burned military personnel to the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at Joint Base San Antonio – Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

During the height of the War on Terror, the flight team would routinely meet injured service members at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Since the drawdown of the war, however, flight team members will tell you that the frequency of calls has slowed significantly and that every mission is unique.

Since the 1950s, the team has successfully transported service members suffering from both combat- and noncombat-related burns back to the United States from far-off locations including Honduras, El Salvador, Argentina, Norway, Japan, Korea, Guam, Vietnam and Singapore.

“As soon as we get notice of the mission, the team pulls together,” said Staff Sgt. David Shelley, a licensed vocational nurse and assistant NCO in charge of the flight team. “We want to get there as fast as possible and make sure we have the ability to take care of that service member. There is just that drive to make sure everybody comes home safely and gets the best care possible.”

A burned service member is flown from a foreign medical center back to the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at Joint Base San Antonio – Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The U.S. Army Burn Flight Team travels with specialized equipment on a commercial flight to meet patients, then flies them back on a C-17 Globemaster III operated by an Air Force critical care air transport team. (U.S. Army photo courtesy of USAISR)
A burned service member is flown from a foreign medical center back to the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at Joint Base San Antonio – Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The U.S. Army Burn Flight Team travels with specialized equipment on a commercial flight to meet patients, then flies them back on a C-17 Globemaster III operated by an Air Force critical care air transport team. (U.S. Army photo courtesy of USAISR)

Roles of the NCO team members

The flight team is composed of active duty Soldiers and DA civilians who work daily in the Burn Intensive Care Unit at the U.S. Army burn center, which is the only burn center servicing the Department of Defense.

A team consists of one burn surgeon and one critical care registered nurse, both officers, and one 68C licensed vocational nurse, one 68V respiratory therapist and a forward operations NCO. A rear operations NCO also assists the team from Fort Sam Houston. Four teams – about 20 personnel – rotate call, so that two teams are on call and deployable at all times.

Both the vocational nurse and respiratory therapist positions are filled by NCOs. The vocational nurse provides wound care to the patient during the flight and works closely with the surgeon and other nurses, while the respiratory therapist manages the ventilator and everything related to the patient’s airway and lungs.

“The nurses and doctors are all concentrated on wound care and the other aspects of the patient’s health, and we (the respiratory therapists) are pretty much on our own there,” said Sgt. Matthew Anselmo, a respiratory therapist and NCOIC of the flight team. “We manage our ventilators. If the pressure changes, we change the ventilators as we see we need to. We are the only ones who can manage the ventilators as we do. Nurses and doctors are trained on basic ventilator management, but [respiratory therapists] are really needed in this situation because of the specialized equipment and circumstances.”

The forward operations NCO, usually either a vocational nurse or a respiratory therapist, is responsible for getting the team from point A to point B and makes sure all of the equipment traveling with them gets there and back. The rear operations NCO stays behind in San Antonio to act as liaison between the flight team and the Institute of Surgical Research leadership during the mission. The rear operations NCO is also responsible for providing the team with logistical support during the flight and arranging transportation from the airport for the team and the patient once they return. The forward and rear operations NCOs work together to make sure the team has everything it needs and to ensure the logistics of the mission run as smoothly as possible.

“The forward operations NCO is really coordinating the entire movement, and they are responsible for accountability and really every aspect of the team’s movement from when we leave here in San Antonio to wherever we arrive, getting to and from the hospital and getting back,” said Staff Sgt. Daniel Zimmerman, a respiratory therapist. “The forward ops and rear ops are constantly dealing with all levels of command. Some of our missions are very high visibility; sometimes they go all the way to the Secretary of Defense for approval. Communication is key to our missions, and the operations folks have to handle all of that.”

The team’s NCOs are offered frequent opportunities to use their leadership skills in unique ways, Zimmerman said. The NCOIC in particular is responsible for training and teambuilding exercises for a team of mostly officers, and all of the NCOs are involved in setting up that training to make sure the team stays current on certifications and is familiar with the different types of equipment they may need to use.

“The NCOIC is responsible for the training and the readiness of this team that is mostly officers,” Zimmerman said. “It can definitely be challenging to have influence over people you really don’t have authority over. So it is definitely about tact and mutual respect, team building, gaining the confidence of everyone. Everyone on the team is very professional. It normally runs pretty smoothly, but it can be intimidating.”

Bringing them home

Team members have regular jobs providing daily care to patients at the hospital. But once they get that text message notifying them of a mission, they have two hours to be ready to fly. The forward and rear operations NCOs quickly get to work arranging transportation, because their goal is to have the team in the air within six to eight hours.

The five-member team travels to the patient’s location on a commercial flight, bringing with them eight large cases of specialized equipment, each weighing about 70 pounds. The forward and rear operations NCOs coordinate with the Air Force through the Theater Patient Movement Requirements Center to arrange the team’s travel back on the nearest C-17 Globemaster III, which is operated by an Air Force critical care air transport team.

“You fly there, you have all of this adrenaline, excitement, nervousness, going through the steps A, B, C of what you need to look out for on this particular patient,” Shelley said. “We get an outlook of what the patient’s picture is, so we always have that in the back of our minds. It’s important to try to calm yourself down and get the rest you can get, because there will be no sleep on that long flight back.”

As soon as the patient is ready, they begin the journey home.

“I think the biggest feeling we have once we leave ground is of being … alone,” Anselmo said. “You know, once you are in the air, it’s your team. That’s all you’ve got. There is no one else who can help, especially when you are over the ocean.”

Because of that, the team is prepared for anything and everything to go wrong. Elevation affects patients’ blood pressure levels and airway pressures, and any movement brings some sort of risk. The team monitors all of those things as well as the patient’s hydration and temperature, which are key to the healing process.

As soon as they land, they are met by the rear operations NCO and other team members who were not on the mission to help load the patient into the ambulance and then get the equipment back to the hospital, break it down, clean it, restock and make sure everything is ready to go again.

Getting into this line of work

Shelley initially came into the Army as a 68W combat medic. Anselmo began as a 19K M1 armor crewman. Both of them, like many of their fellow NCOs, changed their MOSs and were eventually assigned to the Institute of Surgical Research.

“As soon as I found out I was coming here, one of my main goals was to get on the flight team,” Anselmo said.

A year of experience in the Burn Intensive Care Unit is required for vocational nurses and respiratory therapists to be considered for the flight team. Both Shelley and Anselmo said it takes a lot of work to ensure you have the needed capabilities.

“For example, we use different ventilators up here that really no conventional ICU would use, so it takes a lot of training,” Anselmo said. “It just works with pressure – it doesn’t give you any numbers, so you really have to know what you are doing with it before you take it in the air.”

All of the extra work is worth it, Shelley said, because working closely with a small group like this is an opportunity unlike any other.

“To have such an impact around the world for fellow service members is amazing,” Shelley said. “That’s why I got into the medical field – to help other service members, and it’s been great to be there in their critical time of need and to provide such a high level of care at the top of my scope of practice.

“I hope other NCOs learn that the Army has this type of capability,” he said. “Respiratory therapists and vocational nurses – or even medics looking to become one of those MOSs, if this is the route that they want to go, they should work hard to hone their skills in a critical-care sense. It’s an amazing chance to grow as a leader and as a clinical expert. They will have to work hard, but the opportunity is here.”

The U.S. Army Burn Flight Team provides in-flight critical care to burned service members as it transports them from around the world back to the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at Joint Base San Antonio – Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Above, the team unloads a patient at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. The patient will be moved by ambulance to the USAISR Burn Center. (U.S. Army photo courtesy of USAISR)
The U.S. Army Burn Flight Team provides in-flight critical care to burned service members as it transports them from around the world back to the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at Joint Base San Antonio – Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Above, the team unloads a patient at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. The patient will be moved by ambulance to the USAISR Burn Center. (U.S. Army photo courtesy of USAISR)