Tag Archives: Fort Belvoir

PEO Soldier NCO obliged to return life-saving gear

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

If it hadn’t been for some great noncommissioned officers who provided a steadying influence early in his career, Master Sgt. Corey M. Ingram might not have made it to Program Executive Office Soldier and the job he loves.

Ingram is a senior enlisted advisor to Project Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, or PM SPIE, which is part of PEO Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. PM SPIE oversees development of helmets, body armor, uniforms, parachutes, and other clothing and protective equipment.

The advanced combat helmet that saved Staff Sgt. Joseph McKenzie's life shows damages. Master Sgt. Corey M. Ingram presented McKenzie with the helmet during a ceremony in October at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Armando R. Limon, U.S. Army)
The advanced combat helmet that saved Staff Sgt. Joseph McKenzie’s life shows damages. Master Sgt. Corey M. Ingram presented McKenzie with his battle-scarred helmet during a ceremony in October at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Armando R. Limon, U.S. Army)

“I have had some really good NCO mentors,” Ingram said. “When I was a younger Soldier, I wasn’t the best Soldier. An NCO snatched me by the scruff of my neck and said, ‘You’re not doing it right. I see lots of potential in you, and I’m going to be your mentor for the rest of your career,’ and he honestly was my mentor for the rest of my career because I ended up being stationed with now retired Command Sgt. Maj. George R. Manning about three times. Then, I had three other really great mentors at Fort Sill [Oklahoma] which I really learned a lot from ─ Sgt. Maj. Thomas Miller, Sgt. Maj. Taylor Poindexter and Sgt. Maj. David Carr.”

He credits the four NCOs with shaping his career and putting him on the path to PEO Soldier.

“Where else can you go and touch the Soldier every day?” Ingram said. “Not just one or two Soldiers, but the whole Army at the same time. It’s incredible.”

It’s Ingram’s job to offer the voice of the Soldier to Col. Dean Hoffman IV, who is Program Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment. Everything at PM SPIE is designed for Soldiers, and feedback is important. Ingram regularly solicits feedback from Soldiers during equipment fieldings, where units test the latest in what the Soldier touches, wears or carries. The results are taken to officers, then sent to scientists, who work to improve equipment for Soldiers.

Master Sgt. Corey M. Ingram, left, senior enlisted advisor for Project Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, holds the advanced combat helmet that helped save Sgt. Christopher Thompson’s life. Participating in these ceremonies helps Ingram raise awareness to PEO Soldier’s PM SPIE. (Photo courtesy PEO Soldier)
Master Sgt. Corey M. Ingram, left, senior enlisted advisor for Project Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, holds the advanced combat helmet that helped save Sgt. Christopher Thompson’s life. Participating in these ceremonies helps Ingram raise awareness to PEO Soldier’s PM SPIE. (Photo courtesy PEO Soldier)

“The stuff that I do here really makes a difference in a Soldier’s life because the equipment we give them is going to keep them warm in the Arctic and it’s going to keep them alive in combat,” Ingram said. “I didn’t know what this place was when I got here. Soldiers need to know that there’s an organization here that is specifically designed for them and their protection.”

Raising awareness

Ingram is on a mission to make Soldiers aware of his organization.

When a Soldier is injured in combat, the Soldier’s equipment is collected and sent to a lab for analysis, all in an effort to determine whether the Soldier’s equipment was instrumental in defeating the threat it was designed to thwart. If the Soldier requests the equipment’s return, PEO Soldier reunites Soldiers with the equipment credited in saving their lives.

“Every time I go and give back a piece of equipment to a Soldier, I let them know where it came from and how it was tested,” he said. “I’m not specific, but I let them know it was tested extensively. ‘If you wear this, it will save your life.’”

Ingram and Hoffman traveled in October 2015 to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, to reunite Staff Sgt. Joseph McKenzie with the battle-scarred helmet that saved his life four years ago in Afghanistan.

“I am glad to get this back,” McKenzie said at the ceremony. “It is a piece of history; my history, anyway. It was a piece of my life that was pretty intense.

“For some of you guys who have not been downrange yet, this is kind of a wakeup call,” McKenzie told Soldiers at the ceremony. “Make sure you take this stuff serious because you never know what is going to happen.”

In March 2011, McKenzie of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, was hit by a bullet “right where the night vision goggles mount on the helmet,” he said.

Hoffman explained to the Soldiers at the Schoffield Barracks ceremony that the Army does all it can to provide them with the best possible protective equipment so they can come home to family and friends. Inspectors randomly select helmets and hard armor plates from each production lot and shoot them to ensure the equipment meets Army standards, Hoffman said.

A week and a half after he was shot in the head, McKenzie said he “was back in the gym, thanks to my helmet.”

“If McKenzie hadn’t been wearing his helmet, he wouldn’t be here,” Ingram said. “That was four years ago. Now, he has a 17-month-old son and a wife.”

His stint at PEO Soldier has impressed upon Ingram many times the importance of wearing combat equipment, he said.

“I had a guy shot in the chest, and my former boss, Col. Glenn Waters of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, his side Small Arms Protective Insert was returned to him. He was shot in the side during combat, and you could see where the bullet went into his side plate. I had no clue that I would be the one giving those things back. Col. Waters had a side SAPI that had been damaged in combat, and now I’m here. Now I know where it came from. It came from this office.”

Leadership skills

As Ingram winds down his 27-year career in the Army, he plans on finishing his Ph.D. in multidisciplinary human services with an emphasis on public policy. He said he will take with him a great sense of satisfaction, knowing that he was able to have an impact on Soldiers’ lives in combat. Someday, he even hopes to throw his hat in the ring and run for political office. Ingram is confident in his leadership abilities, having learned them as an NCO.

“Learning leadership as an NCO has really prepared me for life after the Army because as an NCO you deal with Soldiers and people every day, you counsel every day, so it was natural for me to fall into the human services path,” he said.

Education is also very important to Ingram, and he urges other NCOs as well as his successor at PEO Soldier to further their studies. Ingram credits his drive to solid NCO mentorship and rejects any excuse to not get an education.

“The excuses of ‘I don’t have time; I’m in the field,’ no. I got probably 60 credit hours on deployment,” Ingram said. “There are always computers. … ‘Don’t tell me what you can’t do, [I tell Soldiers.] Tell me how you’re going to do it because there is always a way.’

“My mother, aunts and uncle grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, and they were amongst the first 277, as they called them back then, ‘colored children’ integrated into the white school system in the 1960s,” he said. “They were harassed, they were beaten and they had bricks thrown at them. My grandmother said to me, ‘I only wanted my kids to have the same thing that the other kids had.’ That’s why I want to get all the education I can so that their sacrifices were not in vain.”

 

Contact PEO Soldier

PEO Soldier encourages Soldiers to communicate their questions and ideas, said Debi Dawson, PEO Soldier Strategic Communications. “Ask the PEO NCOs” is a website that Soldiers may use to email questions about uniforms and equipment. Soldiers may find it at www.peosoldier.army.mil/feedback/contactForm.asp?type=csm. Soldiers are also urged to reach out through the Soldier Enhancement Program at www.peosoldier.army.mil/sep/index.asp where Soldiers may propose a technology or equipment item.

PEO Soldier’s NCOs put Soldier safety first

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

Making sure Soldiers come home to their families is paramount at Program Executive Office Soldier. That’s why it’s so important to the noncommissioned officers who work there to ensure that Soldiers are given the best, most up-to-date protective equipment in the world.

Upon arrival, NCOs quickly learn that everything at PEO Soldier revolves around the Soldier.

Soldiers train on an M2A1 .50 Caliber Machine Gun mounted on an M205 Lightweight Tripod in May 2014 at Fort Bliss, Texas. PEO Soldier’s NCOs are assigned to gather feedback from Soldiers who train on new equipment. (U.S. Army photo)
Soldiers train on an M2A1 .50 Caliber Machine Gun mounted on an M205 Lightweight Tripod in May 2014 at Fort Bliss, Texas. PEO Soldier’s NCOs are assigned to gather feedback from Soldiers who train on new equipment. (U.S. Army photo)

“Everyone is here because they want to be here to help the Soldier,” said Master Sgt. Corey M. Ingram, senior enlisted advisor to Project Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, or PM SPIE, which is part of PEO Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. “Everyone is here to do what they can to protect the Soldier in combat to make sure they come back to their family.”

Tasks vary for each noncommissioned officer who works at PEO Soldier’s four Program Management Offices, which are responsible for managing the life cycles of what Soldiers wear or carry. The one constant, though, is their job description. NCOs serve as subject matter experts and are typically tasked with soliciting feedback on equipment fieldings or trials. NCOs are there to speak for the Soldier.

“I get firsthand feedback on the products that we are issuing to the Soldiers in the field, to get a better understanding on what their acceptance is,” said Master Sgt. Robert Campbell, senior enlisted advisor to Project Manager Soldier Warrior, or PM SWAR. “I bring that feedback to our engineers and discuss it with them because Joe in the field is not going to talk to a civilian or give their correct answer to an officer. … We get to the nuts and bolts of, ‘How do we fix this and get the right equipment for the Soldier.’

“It helps to have the NCO here to be that middleman or to be the good-idea policeman,” Campbell said. “There are a lot of good ideas out there, but are they really conducive for the mission? That’s what we are here for.”

‘Life and death’ decisions

A Soldier aims an XM-25 weapon system during training at Aberdeen Test Center, Maryland. PEO Soldier’s NCO seek Soldiers’ feedback during equipment fieldings. (U.S. Army photo)
A Soldier aims an XM-25 weapon system during training at Aberdeen Test Center, Maryland. PEO Soldier’s NCO seek Soldiers’ feedback during equipment fieldings. (U.S. Army photo)

To provide the very best in military equipment, NCOs take their roles seriously as senior enlisted advisors in the four Program Management Offices of PEO Soldier ─ PM Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, PM Soldier Sensors and Lasers, PM Soldier Warrior and PM Soldier Weapons.

“A split-second decision can mean the difference between life and death, so that’s why it’s very crucial to get the Soldiers’ feedback as well as mine,” said Master Sgt. Reiko Carter, senior enlisted advisor to Project Manager Soldiers Sensors and Lasers, or PM SSL. “Something as simple as saying that this button doesn’t work or this button isn’t good, that can make the difference in lives being saved. It’s crucial for our organization not only to get the Soldiers’ feedback but to get my feedback as well.”

“I have been the Soldier on the battlefield,” Campbell said. “I have been the squad leader, a platoon leader and a first sergeant, so I have had experiences in different levels of authority to understand that some of this equipment that the Army is developing may or may not be something I want to use on the battlefield. I give the engineers the firsthand knowledge of experience of what the Soldiers will actually use or what they actually want.”

Getting a new piece of equipment in Soldiers’ hands requires a lot of evaluation and collaboration. Equipment fieldings are necessary, where Soldiers extensively train on new equipment and are asked to offer an assessment.

An advanced marksmanship instructor with PEO Soldier instructs a paratrooper on using a thermal imaging scope at night in January 2013 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Noncommissioned officers who serve as subject matter experts attend fieldings where Soldiers are trained on equipment. NCOs gather feedback and report back to PEO Soldier. (Photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod / U.S. Army)
An advanced marksmanship instructor with PEO Soldier instructs a paratrooper on using a thermal imaging scope at night in January 2013 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Noncommissioned officers who serve as subject matter experts attend fieldings where Soldiers are trained on equipment. NCOs gather feedback and report back to PEO Soldier. (Photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod / U.S. Army)

“We reach out to Soldiers by going to the fieldings and getting their feedback,” Campbell said. “Anybody can sit and do a survey after their training. But then if Soldiers want to go home, they may scribble on that survey real quick and give us the firsthand response versus after they get back to their unit and they start using this equipment. Then, their minds change.”

The feedback wouldn’t end there, though. PEO Soldier’s NCOs often reach out again, the NCOs said.

“We take pride in the equipment we issue to the Soldiers, and we make sure we get feedback from them even a year later,” Campbell said. “We go back to them and say, ‘What do you think of it? Is it still working for you? What needs to be fixed? What can we do to make it better?’”

Some NCOs, such as Carter, prefer to undergo training on the new equipment right alongside Soldiers. It further develops a rapport with Soldiers, which helps during feedback, he said.

“That way, I can experience what they experience,” Carter said. “I can see it from their perspective. It’s my opportunity to get that real-time feedback. When you’re out on the range with the Soldiers and they see you going through it, they understand that we’re actually trying to make sure we are giving them the right capability.”

Although technology may be improving every day, PEO Soldier is committed to lightening the load Soldiers carry.

“Throughout these past 13 to 14 years of conflict, ounces turn into pounds and pounds turn into pain for Soldiers,” said Master Sgt. Jason Barton, who recently brought his tactical skills to PM Soldier Weapons as senior enlisted advisor. “So how do we make our inventory lighter for the Soldier? How do we make it more ergonomic, but still safe? I have been in the Army about 25 years, and I have back problems. Most of my peers do, to some extent, as well. But how do we keep our Soldiers as safe as we can and not injure them in the process when they are in all of those different types of environments?”

“It’s imperative to have this type of a position for an NCO at PEO Soldier,” Campbell said. “It gives us the capability to get the right equipment in the Soldiers’ hands versus turning them into Christmas trees, just making up all this new equipment and saying, ‘Here, use this.’ Not everything we build is the right thing. Not everything we build is what we need. So we’ve got to work hand in hand with [many organizations and people, including] the materiel developers to discuss where our gaps are. It all has to go together before we can actually get something into the Soldiers’ hands.”

Different side of the Army

NCOs more accustomed to working among large Soldier populations may experience culture shock when first arriving at PEO Soldier. Though they are no longer directly in charge of Soldiers, they soon find that they play an equally important role in keeping Soldiers safe on the battlefield while containing costs. The NCOs also bring a fresh perspective and expertise to the organization.

“I have the responsibility of making sure that [civilians, scientists and engineers] are doing the right thing for the Soldier,” Campbell said. “PEO Soldier needs that NCO-experience level mainly because the Soldiers don’t have a voice when it comes to all this equipment. Squad leaders, team leaders and platoon sergeants at fieldings are going to talk to me and give me the true answer versus when they see my colonel and tell him, ‘Everything is going great, sir. No problem.’ When the Soldier sees the first sergeant or platoon sergeant, he or she is going to say, ‘This is messed up. We need to fix this. This isn’t working for us.’ So that’s where I come in.”

Because the NCOs work closely with civilians, scientists and engineers, they get to see the latest in military protective equipment and often collaborate on projects, offering their input from a Soldier’s perspective. The opportunity gives them a chance to glimpse all of the options available to Soldiers on the battlefield.

“The equipment and the innovative technology we have today is really an enhancement to the Soldiers on the battlefield,” Campbell said. “We want to give them that capability, but at the same time the Soldiers can’t forget the fundamentals ─ the linear map, compass and other basics. We stress that, too, as part of our training. We let Soldiers know that even though they are getting this equipment and technology has taken off, we still need to make sure we keep the fundamentals.”

Once they have learned what PEO Soldier can do for the average Soldier, the organization’s NCOs are eager to spread the word about it.

“I want to relay to Soldiers that there are civilians and Soldier retirees who are working for our team,” Barton said. “Soldiers are their focus and purpose. I think if you know you have the support behind you, it changes your outlook. Fellow Americans are working to take Soldiers into the future, to make them more dominant on the battlefield.”

“I get to touch every Soldier, [in every location], every day,” said Ingram, who frequently participates in ceremonies to reunite Soldiers with the equipment that saved their lives in combat. “The stuff that I do here really makes a difference in a Soldier’s life. … I didn’t know what this place was when I got here. Soldiers need to know that there’s an organization here that is specifically designed for them and their protection.”

PEO Soldier’s NCOs are well aware of the broadening opportunities their roles as senior enlisted advisors afford them. They are immersed in another side of the Army that Soldiers don’t usually get to see. These NCOs know the professional skills they have gained will benefit them long after they have left the Army.

“When I first arrived, I had a conversation with a former program manager who put me in the mindset of making sure I understood that everything I do here at PEO Soldier has a strategic impact,” Carter said. “Here, I have the opportunity to make a change strategically to the whole Army while I am alive. Just realizing that helps me appreciate what I do and be mindful of the impact I want to leave, knowing that I did something that will make a change and a difference in the way the Army operates.”

“I never knew this place existed being down in a unit,” Campbell said. “I never knew about PEO Soldier until I got to this level. That young Soldier needs to know that we exist. Once we get the word to them and let them know what we are here for, that gives young Soldiers a better understanding of the Army as a whole. This equipment is coming to you, but how does it get to you, where does it come from, who builds it, who makes it? They don’t know all that, and if Joe learned a little bit more about what PEO Soldier does for each of them, that opens up their minds and opens up avenues that they can look at to broaden their horizons.”

 

 

Contact PEO Soldier

PEO Soldier encourages Soldiers to communicate their questions and ideas, said Debi Dawson, PEO Soldier Strategic Communications. “Ask the PEO NCOs” is a website that Soldiers may use to email questions about uniforms and equipment. Soldiers may find it at www.peosoldier.army.mil/feedback/contactForm.asp?type=csm. Soldiers are also urged to reach out through the Soldier Enhancement Program at www.peosoldier.army.mil/sep/index.asp where Soldiers may propose a technology or equipment item.

Rapid Equipping Force’s NCOs keep Soldiers in the fight

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

During the initial stages of conflict in Afghanistan in 2002 as U.S. Soldiers were clearing caves used by foreign and insurgent forces, the Army found itself in dire need of materiel technology to help thwart IEDs and victim-borne explosive devices. Soldiers were using unsophisticated technologies to search caves and bunkers rigged with booby traps and grenades, resulting in multiple casualties. Urgent solutions were needed to keep Soldiers in the fight. A task force was formed, and the PackBot tactical robot soon followed, giving Soldiers visual confirmation of obstacles on the frontlines.

The successful project led to the establishment of the U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force, which would quickly procure and deliver nonstandard, specific solutions with a goal of 180 days or less to ease the urgent challenges that Soldiers were facing.

NCOs have a key role

Having direct access to Soldiers is critical to the REF so it can maintain a quick turnaround, which at 180 days is a faster timeline than the ones traditional acquisition systems and organizations face. Whether reaching out to Soldiers in an expeditionary lab in the field or gathering feedback from deploying or returning units, outreach programs are essential to the mission. The REF, which is headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, canvasses the commercial and government realm of technology to mitigate capability gaps. Noncommissioned officers are vital to its process.

Sgt. 1st Class Michael Wayne Dessecker, an operational advisor for the Rapid Equipping Force’s outreach team, says Ex Lab projects are often first developed into a working plastic version from 3D printers in order to cut down costs and to check its form, fit and function. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)
Sgt. 1st Class Michael Wayne Dessecker, an operational advisor for the Rapid Equipping Force’s outreach team, says Ex Lab projects are often first developed into a working plastic version from 3D printers in order to cut down costs and to check its form, fit and function. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

“An NCO brings knowledge and experience with him to individuals who have not had that type of experience before,” said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Wayne Dessecker, an operational advisor for the outreach team. “A majority of the acquisition career field is fielded by officers at field-grade level. They have either not been in the fight for several years or have never been in combat arms MOS’s. NCOs bring that firsthand knowledge and experience, so we can give them appropriate feedback and collaborate with them to find the best piece of equipment to fill those capability gaps.”

The REF draws on NCOs’ skills heavily because combat experience comes in handy when collaborating on technology.

“For any NCO to come work at the REF, he or she must have been a combat leader, which means you must have done time as a platoon sergeant and you must have met your minimum requirements for the next position,” Dessecker said. “Most of us have two or three years of combat experience as platoon sergeants, not to mention that we did our staff sergeant time in combat arms positions. So we bring all of the information from the squad level to the platoon level to the company level.”

“As an infantry NCO, being at the REF is a significant change from what NCOs are used to,” said Sgt. 1st Class Justin Fulk, an outreach and assessments team member. “This assignment requires tact, cohesion and a level of collaboration with civilian peers, vendors, high-level leadership and academia, which the typical infantryman would normally never have to worry about. That being said, it’s an excellent broadening opportunity, which requires a lot of on-the-job learning, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity.”

Equal partners

The NCOs may be of lesser rank than the officers they work with, but they are considered peers because of their technical and tactical experience, Dessecker said.

“When we say something on a strategic or tactical level that is necessary to consider [for project development], everybody in the room listens to us,” Dessecker said. “Additionally we have the flexibility to perform just about any mission because of the way that we were brought up in the Army.”

NCOs who are part of the REF are afforded the opportunity to form productive working relationships with academia, other Army organizations and civilians, Fulk said.

“It’s rewarding because infantry NCOs rarely get the opportunity … to develop a prototype piece of equipment and become a part of the solution,” Fulk said. “It’s amazing how quickly an NCO who works side-by-side with an engineer can create a solution that works from both an engineering and a Soldier perspective. Most Soldiers do not have the background to create a complete product from scratch, and most engineers do not have the background to create a Soldier-proof product that will work in the environments faced today. Together, though, we can create finished prototypes and help mitigate a capability gap.”

A contractor with the Rapid Equipping Force, left, shows Capt. Steven Caldwell  how to adjust solar panels to increase solar energy collection in September 2014 in  Afghanistan. (Photo by Sgt. William White / U.S. Army)
A contractor with the Rapid Equipping Force, left, shows Capt. Steven Caldwell
how to adjust solar panels to increase solar energy collection in September 2014 in
Afghanistan. (Photo by Sgt. William White / U.S. Army)

“Working with scientists and engineers was a challenge at first, because we had to learn from one another,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Pessink, the REF forward team’s NCO in charge. “The NCO helps them understand how the military functions. Most NCOs who come into the organization have never worked in an environment with scientists or engineers, or really, any civilians. They provide us with a plethora of knowledge to take back with us when we, the NCOs, have to transition back into a regular Army unit and lead troops.”

In the effort to give Soldiers quick access to technologies while out in the field, the REF deploys expeditionary labs, or Ex Labs, to connect Soldiers with scientists and engineers from the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command. Ex Labs are containerized engineering hubs designed to be transported to the most remote of bases. They deploy with an NCO, who is ready to meet with Soldiers and clarify equipment issues to the on-site engineers. Ex Labs come equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, such as 3D printers, computer numerical control machines and fabrication tools.

“We help identify the tactical problems and even provide immediate solutions in some locations, using the Ex Labs,” Pessink said. “The NCO can give Soldiers who are deployed equipment and tactical knowledge that will help their organizations be successful on any battlefield. I always feel like I’m making a difference in the development of a REF solution, assessment or event.”

“A Soldier will come in and tell us about a problem with equipment,” Dessecker said of the Ex Lab process. “The NCO can translate that information to the engineer to get the right piece of equipment built or created so that that Soldier’s capability gap will be filled.”

Ready to assist

Though the REF’s NCOs easily can find themselves juggling 20 to 30 projects, the organization wants to get the word out to units and Soldiers that they are ready to handle urgent equipment challenges that may crop up.

Sgt. 1st Class Justin Rotti, a combat developer for the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Fire Cell, tests a developmental handheld precision targeting device for the Rapid Equipping Force in July 2014 at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The device allows Soldiers to engage targets with precision munitions and provide digital connectivity to related units. (Photo by John Hamilton / White Sands Missile Range Public Affairs)
Sgt. 1st Class Justin Rotti, a combat developer for the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Fire Cell, tests a developmental handheld precision targeting device for the Rapid Equipping Force in July 2014 at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The device allows Soldiers to engage targets with precision munitions and provide digital connectivity to related units. (Photo by John Hamilton / White Sands Missile Range Public Affairs)

“A lot of Soldiers don’t know we exist, and down at the Soldier squad level that can be a big problem for us,” Dessecker said. “Part of our outreach program is to engage with units before they deploy, so that every Soldier knows what’s going on. But in theater, one of the things I like to do is go to lunch and dinner at different dining facilities and pick a table full of Soldiers and tell them what kind of capability I bring so they can engage me. Within a few days, those Soldiers I talked to will tell their buddies or their platoon sergeants [about us] or they, themselves, come in [to tell us about a problem they were having]. Every Soldier has a problem [with equipment]. They just don’t know how to fix it. We are an avenue to help fix those problems.”

The document that kicks off the production process is the submission of a REF 10-liner. The simple document gathers information about the capability gap and operational intent for the equipment solution.

“Any Soldier can write one of these,” Dessecker said. “Basically all Soldiers have to do is tell us who they are, what the tactical problem is, what concept of your operation is this tactical problem representative of, what you see as system characteristics that will define the problem or define the piece of equipment that will help you solve that problem.”

The Army deputy chief of staff gave the REF director the authority to validate requirements in order to ensure that these quick-reaction solutions get top priority to meet Soldiers’ and units’ needs. Once the 10-liner is submitted and validated, the REF begins canvassing industry- and government off-the-shelf technologies and working with partners to determine potential solutions. Ex Lab projects are often first developed to get a working plastic version of the prototype. A 3D printer is used because it’s cheaper to work with plastic and also to check the form, fit and function of the solution, Dessecker said.

The REF’s intent is to address urgent requirements for specific units and create a general solution the entire Army can use. It’s a challenge that the REF’s NCOs embrace.

“I want NCOs who can come in here with 12 to 14 years of experience in the Army, who have platoon sergeant time,” Dessecker said. “They can come in here, influence the piece of equipment that they will use as future platoon sergeants, first sergeants and battalion sergeants major. We want to be able to use their tactical experience here for a little while, get them in the acquisition process, to understand the different realms that are in the Army and then go back to the tactical side of the fight and bring the information forward. It will make them better leaders and middle managers in the Army in the future.

“Prior REF NCOs are our most valuable communication assets because they go back to the Army with the knowledge from here,” he said. “Our former NCOs … can identify the problems now. [Experience with the REF] brings a new perspective. You now have an outlet to request something to fix the problem instead of having to deal with it with what little resources you have.”

The REF’s NCOs play an integral part in influencing the Army’s technology of the future.

“If you [as an NCO] do well in your job, you’re smart and you’re able to be flexible and adjust your environment, you will move from working with Soldiers to getting them the piece of equipment that will keep them going in the fight,” Dessecker said. “If you’re an NCO and you want to directly affect the pieces of equipment that Soldiers are using instead of complaining about what Soldiers get, then this is the type of place you need to come to. We have direct influence on what new and emerging technologies Soldiers will get in the future.”

The NCOs recognize the value of the skills they have acquired working for the REF, expertise that will keep them relevant in the evolving Army.

“The NCO provides knowledge that helps get the warfighters the best equipment to fill their capability gaps,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jose Laboy-Correa, a logistics team member. “In the logistics division, we draw on our deployments and assignments at other unique organizations to ensure that REF solutions make it to the warfighter. NCOs make a difference because they have an understanding of the needs of Soldiers deployed all over the world. All NCOs are able to influence the types of solutions that are equipped to units in theater.”

“I will have a huge sense of accomplishment [when I leave], Fulk said. “I feel I am able to make a big impact on Soldiers and the Army through the work accomplished at the REF.”

Caisson Platoon NCOs work to honor fallen comrades, families

By MEGHAN PORTILLO
NCO Journal

Staff Sgt. Jonathon Goodrich shined his boots and brushed horsehair from his dress uniform, taking time to pick a small string off the shoulder of his jacket and burn away stray fibers with a cigarette lighter.

Staff Sgt. Daniel Twomey, 2nd Squad’s leader in the Caisson Platoon, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), shines the brass on the bridle he will use on his horse during funerals that day. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Staff Sgt. Daniel Twomey, 2nd Squad’s leader in the Caisson Platoon, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), shines the brass on the bridle he will use on his horse during funerals that day. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

Though the sun had barely risen, Goodrich and the other NCOs of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard’s) Caisson Platoon at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., had already polished every piece of brass and leather on their tack; fed, washed and brushed their horse; and double-checked the same tasks completed by their Soldiers for each of their two horses. 

The meticulous routine is performed every day the riders and horses pull flag-draped caskets on caissons from the Old Post Chapel into Arlington National Cemetery, escorting fellow Soldiers to their final resting place.

Goodrich, the 4th Squad’s leader, said it can be hard to spend so much time making a uniform perfect, only to have it ruined minutes later when his horse rubs against another, re-scratching his boots and covering him once again in hair. 

“But I don’t do this for me,” he said. “I pay close attention to whose services we are doing each day, because I dread the day a name

comes up that I know personally from previous tours.”

Staff Sgt. Daniel Twomey, 2nd Squad’s leader, said each NCO and Soldier of the platoon takes pride in even the smallest task, because they are conscious of the honor of their duties and of what their work means to the families of the Soldiers being laid to rest.

“The whole job is an honor,” Twomey said. “I have friends in Arlington National Cemetery. It’s good to be able to see what we can do for the families, for all of the people who they have lost — to see that they are honored, that we do right by them. We try to give them everything we can give, because they gave us everything they could give — their lives.”

Work ethic: an example for the rest of the Army

The work ethic displayed by the platoon — comprised of all NCOs and enlisted Soldiers with the exception of one officer — is impressive. Not only do they engage in hard, physical labor from dawn till dusk, they do it with little or no oversight and with impeccable attention to detail.

Polishing all of the leather and brass on their tack is one of the first things the Soldiers and NCOs do when they arrive at the barn each morning. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Polishing all of the leather and brass on their tack is one of the first things the Soldiers and NCOs do when they arrive at the barn each morning. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

The platoon’s 56 members are divided into four squads and a headquarters element. The four squads share duties through a four-week rotation. On alternating weeks, when a squad is not performing missions in the cemetery, Soldiers spend their days maintaining the platoon’s barn and equipment. Every buckle is unbuckled; every piece of brass that is removable is removed. The brass is polished, and the leather is scrubbed clean, dyed and re-oiled. Every piece is made perfect before it can again be part of a procession into the cemetery.

“The most honorable part of our work is paying tribute to the families and to the Soldiers we lay to rest. Right underneath that is being able to uphold such a high standard,” Twomey said. “The work ethic that these guys put out — it’s an honor just to be their leader.”

The labor is not reserved for the Soldiers. NCOs work in the stables just as hard as their subordinates do — polishing tack, mucking stalls, picking hooves, feeding and bathing horses, and cleaning the century-old barn until it shines.

“During my training, I actually got a blister in the web of my hand because it had been a long time since I had pushed a broom with any sense of urgency,” said Staff Sgt. John Ford, the caisson operations NCO. “The Caisson Platoon is the hardest working platoon in the Old Guard, definitely. … An NCO is here at 4 o’clock in the morning, and an NCO is the last person out the door, usually around 6 o’clock at night. It’s not always the same NCO, but it does happen.” 

Responsibility beyond their rank

Ford said the responsibilities given to NCOs of the Caisson Platoon prepare them to be some of the best leaders in the Army, as they are required to deal with situations far and above what most NCOs at their grade are expected to handle. He explained that the E-5 sergeant in charge of supply is responsible for submitting and reviewing bids for contracts usually handled by a battalion-level executive officer. The NCO in the cemetery responsible for the conduct of the mission — the one who deals with the officer in charge of a funeral — may be a corporal who happens to be an experienced rider.

“That corporal will be dealing with the civilians who are naturally going to approach us in the cemetery between missions,” Ford said. “He’ll be dealing with other branches. It may be a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel he is dealing with for this funeral, and for the next funeral, it will be an officer from the Coast Guard.”

Sgt. 1st Class Eric Hayman, platoon sergeant for the Caisson Platoon, agreed that his NCOs have more than the usual responsibilities on their shoulders. In addition to being responsible for the health and welfare of their Soldiers, squad leaders are also responsible for the health and welfare of their horses.

“NCOs have to be hands-on with these horses to find out what they need,” Hayman said. “A horse may be acting up and you don’t know why — it could be a health issue. A tooth may be growing up and needs to be floated — filed down so it’s not cutting up into their gums. It’s just one more thing the NCOs have to pay attention to, and it’s a big responsibility. This is hard work that has to happen every day, and it does wear on you. You don’t get Saturdays and Sundays off; the work has to be done. … The NCOs here just shine. They do their jobs well and they don’t think twice about it. In my eyes, these are some of the best NCOs we have in the Army.”

Missions steeped in history

The Soldiers — and it seems even the horses — are aware of the significance of their job. The rich traditions upheld by the platoon date back to Civil War times, giving deep meaning to everything they do.

The team of six horses — either all white or all black — pulls the casket in a 1918 replica artillery caisson. Originally, the caissons were used to pull cannons on the battlefield. But when they weren’t pulling weapons or ammunition, they hauled the dead and wounded, leading to their use in military funerals today. The Caisson Platoon usually participates in eight funerals per day — more than 1,700 funerals each year.

Spc. Cheyenne Rakestraw of the Caisson Platoon, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), walks with a horse during his final test to become a caparisoned horse walker at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013. A caparisoned horse and his walker follow behind a funeral procession for Army and Marine officers in the rank of colonel and above. The horse is seen without a rider and wears reversed boots in the stirrups of the empty saddle to signify that the service member will never ride again. (Photo by Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr.)
Spc. Cheyenne Rakestraw of the Caisson Platoon, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), walks with a horse during his final test to become a caparisoned horse walker at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013. A caparisoned horse and his walker follow behind a funeral procession for Army and Marine officers in the rank of colonel and above. The horse is seen without a rider and wears reversed boots in the stirrups of the empty saddle to signify that the service member will never ride again. (Photo by Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr.)

The six horses are hitched in three teams: the lead team in front, the swing team in the middle, and the wheel team closest to the caisson. The draft horses used as the wheel team — large breeds often weighing more than a ton — are usually ridden by the most experienced Soldier. They do most of the pulling, and serve as the brakes for the caisson.

All six horses are saddled, but only three Soldiers ride on the left, or “near,” horses, just as they did during the Civil War and World War I. The “off” horses were not ridden, but were instead used to carry provisions and supplies.

Ford noted that two caisson teams used to work together, one leading the way with the weapon and the other following with the ammunition and tools.

“In an emergency, if something terrible were to happen to the caisson that was forward with the battery, those three [off] horses could be detached from the team … and you could go up and recover the riders from the gun crew,” Ford said.

A seventh horse, ridden by the squad leader, is not attached to the caisson. The squad leader rides next to the team of six, giving directions to the three riders. Ford explained that this configuration originated out of necessity. Having the section chiefs mounted on their own horses enabled them to move between the two teams, he said.

One of the oldest and most significant traditions used by the platoon is the caparisoned horse — a riderless horse led behind the caisson during a funeral procession. The practice can be traced to the time of Genghis Khan, when a horse was sacrificed at the burial of a soldier to serve the individual in the afterlife. Today in the United States, the horse represents the Soldier being buried and takes on his or her rank. Boots are placed backward in the stirrups of the empty saddle, as if the rider were facing back for his final ride, overlooking his family and troops.

Use of the caparisoned horse is reserved for funerals of Army or Marine Corps officers with the rank of colonel or above, as well as for the funerals of presidents and those who have served as the Secretary of Defense.

Goodrich explained that the tradition of tying boots backward in the stirrups came from a cavalry practice during the Civil War. Even during the funeral procession for Abraham Lincoln, his horse followed the casket with the president’s boots tied in the same manner.

“If an officer were to go down in battle, Soldiers would take his boots off, tie them in the stirrups backward in the same way and smack the horse,” Goodrich said. “The horse, being a creature of habit, goes back to where he is comfortable, where he is fed, where he knows — back to camp. When the horse showed up with the officers’ boots tied backwards, they would know that officer had perished in combat. We use it the same way now, with that horse specifically representing the person who we are burying, to carry on the traditions of those times.”

The tack used by the platoon can also trace its roots to the early days of the country. Fabricated from scratch by the in-house saddler, everything from the bridles and bits, to the harnesses that attach the horses to the caisson is a replica of the tack used in 1916, the year of the last major design change for the field artillery harness and tack. In 1943, most active horse-drawn and horse-mounted artillery and cavalry made the transition to motorized modes of transportation. In 1948, the remaining horse-mounted units were deactivated, and the Caisson Platoon became the last full-time horse-mounted unit in the Department of Defense.

“There are a couple of installations that have horse-mounted units, but it’s not their full-time job,” Ford said.

Learning from horses

The NCOs of the platoon said they view their horses as fellow Soldiers. The special bond formed between them is clear in the gentle way the Soldiers handle the horses and in the happy voice they use to talk to them as they work. By spending time with individual horses on a daily basis, the Soldiers quickly learn the funny quirks they may have and each one’s likes and dislikes.

Sgt. Charles Morrison, the Caisson Platoon’s farrier, tightens a horse’s shoe at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s John C. McKinney Memorial Stables as the Soldiers prepare for the funerals that day. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Sgt. Charles Morrison, the Caisson Platoon’s farrier, tightens a horse’s shoe at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s John C. McKinney Memorial Stables as the Soldiers prepare for the funerals that day. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

The farrier, Sgt. Charles Morrison, works with each horse in the platoon. Every morning, he tightens the shoes that need to be tightened before the horses go into the cemetery. Every six weeks, he brings each of the platoon’s 61 horses into his shop for a “manicure” and new shoes. Morrison said he continues to learn all there is to know about being a farrier — including traditional blacksmith work — from Robert Brown, a contractor who doubles as the platoon’s herd manager. In turn, Morrison teaches his Soldiers and anyone else in the barn who wants to learn.

Morrison was glad to say he has never been hurt on the job, something he attributes to paying close attention to the horses and their modes of communication.

“Part of working with the horses is getting to know their personalities,” he said. “You get to know their signs. It’s like working with a bunch of kids: You get to learn the action that comes before the action. You see the physical signs they are showing you before they act out. Sometimes, they just get impatient.”

Morrison said observing and learning from the horses has improved his human communication and made him a better leader.

“It made me realize that there are certain points — so much that Soldiers can take — before they start acting out. It’s helped me to step back and look at the overall picture with my Soldiers. A lot of times, with Soldiers as well as with horses, it’s not necessarily what they’re doing. It’s what I’m doing to cause them to do it.”

Learning from Soldiers

Soldiers and NCOs who come to the Caisson Platoon are handpicked from the best of the Old Guard. Though most come from an infantry background, the platoon is open to men and women of any MOS — from truck drivers to public affairs specialists.

Pfc. Dustin Davis (left) and Pvt. Sean Chapman play a soccer match with their horses as part of the Caisson Basic Rider’s Course at Fort Belvoir, Va., in 2013. Although it looks like a game, the exercise helps the riders learn how to control the horses. (Photo by Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr.)
Pfc. Dustin Davis (left) and Pvt. Sean Chapman play a soccer match with their horses as part of the Caisson Basic Rider’s Course at Fort Belvoir, Va., in 2013. Although it looks like a game, the exercise helps the riders learn how to control the horses. (Photo by Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr.)

According to Hayman, 99 percent of the Soldiers and NCOs who come to the platoon have no horsemanship experience. They actually prefer it this way for uniformity and to avoid having to correct bad habits, Hayman said. New Soldiers and NCOs attend a 9-week course at nearby Fort Belvoir, Va., where they learn all the basics of riding and horse care. Once they arrive at Fort Myer, there is an additional month and a half of training before they are allowed to participate in a mission.

Sometimes it’s really difficult for the NCOs who come here, because they’ve spent years being a subject-matter expert in their field,” Ford said. “They know everything about their current job and have been reading up on all the latest publications, trying to stay ahead of the curve, trying to learn about the most recent thing the enemy’s doing and the most recent equipment the Army is fielding. … Then they get here, and the manual that we go off of is the 1942 field artillery mounted instruction manual, which hasn’t changed in 75 years.”

Morrison agreed that NCOs new to the platoon quickly realize that their skills as an infantryman will not help them much.

“They still have the leadership skills, the responsibility and all of what makes an NCO. But now they have to learn to step back and take cues from the lower enlisted guys,” Morrison said. “It’s the same with NCOs who leave here to go elsewhere, even within the Old Guard. They are going to a new job as well. Now they have to step back and take their cues from the front-line guys who have been there and know their job. It’s a role reversal. The NCO becomes the student. It takes a little time to get used to that — especially for NCOs who have been out there and done a lot in their career. They have been leaders for a while. They have been the ones who have taught. And now, they have to learn.”

Surrounded by sorrow

Though it may initially be difficult for NCOs to be students instead of teachers, the NCOs of the Caisson Platoon recognize that it only makes them better leaders. By working alongside their Soldiers, NCOs are better able to inspire them and help them cope with the stresses of the job, Goodrich said.

Spc. Alex Krieger drapes the flag-covered casket after a Caisson Platoon team leaves a burial site, signifying that there are no longer remains being carried on the caisson. The casket pictured is a “mock” casket, with a compartment in the back used to carry cremated remains on the caisson. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Spc. Alex Krieger drapes the flag-covered casket after a Caisson Platoon team leaves a burial site, signifying that there are no longer remains being carried on the caisson. The casket pictured is a “mock” casket, with a compartment in the back used to carry cremated remains on the caisson. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

It takes a certain kind of NCO to not only motivate the Soldier to maintain such a high standard, but to also lead them in an environment where they are surrounded by grief on a daily basis, he said.

Spc. Alex Krieger, one of the riders on Goodrich’s team, was the life of the party in the barn. He made everybody laugh. But as soon as he mounted his horse to head to the chapel, his demeanor changed. He and the other riders donned relaxed, somber expressions, and sat tall on their horses, with their chests out and their backs straight. They are not supposed to turn their heads or maneuver in any way. Goodrich said each Soldier processes the grief in his or her own way, and recalled the difficulties of participating in funerals when he first came to the platoon.

“There was a private first class who had been killed in Iraq, and when the service was taking place, the next of kin came out,” he said. “The girl couldn’t have been more than 19 or 20 years old, as pregnant as you can get, and just bawling, people having to hold her up. It ripped my heart out. That was the only time I broke composure to the point where I shed a tear on a mission. But I’ve come a long way since then; I’ve done a lot of them. I’m able to channel a lot more of that now and focus during the mission. After the mission, I can just kind of relax and let it blow off, and then get ready for the next one.”

Because the Soldiers are so restricted in their view of the funeral, Goodrich said he often takes them on a day they are not on a mission to watch a funeral from the distance. He wants them to be able to see the families, to know what it means to them that they are there. The more conscious they are of the service they are providing to the families, the easier it is for them to handle the sorrow and do their jobs well, he said.

“A lot of times the families will come talk to us and ask us questions, and they always say ‘Thank you’ to us for being out there. To me, the honor is mine,” Goodrich said as he waited with his team in front of the chapel for a funeral to finish. “I always tell them, ‘Thank you.’ They ask, ‘Why are you thanking me?’ And I always tell them, ‘Thank you for allowing me to be here for this.’

“The people we are putting in the ground laid the foundation for me to even be here. I take it personally, and hold a lot of pride in this,” Goodrich said. “But all good things have to come to an end. I have a year left, and then I’m off to somewhere else. Hopefully by then, I will have helped others to see things the same way. Because it is — it’s important.”

Staff Sgt. Jonathon Goodrich, 4th Squad’s leader in the Caisson Platoon, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), rides alongside his Soldiers as they escort the remains of a fellow Soldier to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery, Va. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Staff Sgt. Jonathon Goodrich, 4th Squad’s leader in the Caisson Platoon, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), rides alongside his Soldiers as they escort the remains of a fellow Soldier to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery, Va. The C Company casket team marches next to the coffin. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)