Tag Archives: Iraq

Former NCO burned in IED blast wants to open restaurant, empower veterans

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

Former Staff Sgt. Bobby Henline has spent nearly nine years trying to empower wounded warriors such as himself. Now he wants to help employ them.

Henline is working to open a restaurant dedicated to hiring veterans in San Antonio, Texas. The location is not far from the medical facilities he frequents at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, where he has received treatment since 2007 for burns that cover nearly 40 percent of his body. Henline was burned in a roadside bomb blast in 2007 in Iraq that killed the four Soldiers he was riding with. Since then, he has undergone 46 surgeries and six months of rehabilitation. His likeness is permanently altered.

On his arduous road to recovery, Henline found comfort and strength in humor. He has enjoyed a newfound career as a stand-up comedian, telling his story on stage as a coping mechanism. Henline found that taking others along on his journey has helped other injured — and sometimes disfigured — Soldiers face their lives with the same exuberance. He hopes his new venture takes that notion a step forward.

“I’m trying to give back,” Henline told People Magazine earlier this month. “This is a great way to do it, through empowerment and food.”

Henline is partnering with Richard Brown, a Marine and Korean War veteran, who owns a hamburger restaurant in San Clemente, California. The restaurant is one of Henline’s favorite stops, not only because of the savory hamburgers but also because the two men share an interest in helping their fellow veterans.

Brown will teach Henline all he needs to know to run his own business. Henline will solely hire veterans to work at the restaurant.

“It’s not just me getting a restaurant,” Henline said. “It’s me learning to fish, it’s me teaching other veterans how to fish and to continue on to help the stability of other veterans not just myself.”

‘That’s all I remember that day’

Henline has only a couple vivid memories of the day his life changed.

It was April 7, 2007, and Henline was part of a convoy that was making stops at various forward operating bases, or FOBs, delivering supplies and transporting Soldiers north of Baghdad, Iraq. He was a part of the 82nd Airborne Division and was weeks into his fourth deployment.

“We were doing the typical, ‘Get the convoy ready,’ that morning,” Henline told The NCO Journal in 2014. “There are two things I remember. One was that there were two Soldiers in the vehicle who normally didn’t ride with me. I also remember getting a second cup of coffee. The S-4 captain, who was sitting behind me, he wasn’t there yet. So we were sitting around waiting, and I ran and grabbed another cup of coffee while we were waiting on him.

“That’s all I remember that day.”

Henline’s vehicle was at the front of the convoy traveling near the Diyala province village of Zaganiyah when an improvised explosive device detonated underneath it. The blast hurled the humvee nearly 50 feet down the road. Four Soldiers — Capt. Jonathan Grassbaugh, Spc. Ebe Emolo, Spc. Levi Hoover and Pfc. Rodney McCandless — were killed instantly. When fellow Soldiers reached the vehicle, they found he was severely injured, but alive.

Two weeks later, Henline emerged from a medically induced coma at Brooke Army Medical Center at San Antonio, thus beginning a medical odyssey filled with painful moments, both physical and emotional.

But one thing came easy to him — humor.

Henline says laughter helped keep spirits high for him and the medical personnel working with him. It also helped his wife, Connie, and the rest of his family cope with their loved one’s ordeal and changed appearance.

“Joking around at the hospital, that was my way of using my sense of humor to let my family know I was OK, to let staff know I was OK,” he said. “It was how [I chose] to deal with the pain during physical therapy, laughing about it, joking with the other patients. I could see my family worrying. My mom couldn’t even get me a drink. She was shaking just trying to put the straw to my mouth, real scared. So it was kind of like, ‘Don’t worry, I’m still here. Even if today I’m kind of groggy.’ I’d still make a little joke to let them know, ‘It’s OK. I’m inside here. I just can’t move right now.’

“I think when I was talking a lot better and able to sit up and stuff, that’s when they were finally like, ‘OK, he’s still in there. He’s back. He’s still being that goofball.’”

From surgery to the stage

Henline spent almost the next two years working to regain a sense of normalcy.

His face was scarred by the burns he suffered and puffed by various skin-graft surgeries. His left ear was gone; his right was reduced to a rough-hewn stub. His smashed left hand eventually became too painful to bear, and he asked doctors to amputate it. After removing the protective goggles he was forced to wear for a year, it took time to get accustomed to the stares.

While jokes helped, Henline couldn’t shake the notion that he needed to heed a call. He just didn’t know what it was. Then his occupational therapist made a “stupid” suggestion.

“One day she told me, ‘You should try stand-up comedy!’” Henline said. “She has this really high-pitched voice, one of those happy people all the time. ‘You’ve got to try stand-up comedy. You’ve got to try it!’ I’m like ‘That’s stupid. It’s not going to work. This, here at the hospital, is funny. We could joke about it here.’ I wasn’t gonna go up on stage and people are gonna go, ‘Oh, you got blown up in Iraq? That’s funny.’”

Henline said he grew up admiring comedians such as George Carlin and Robin Williams. But he never considered actually taking a stage. However, after a steady stream of good-natured pestering from his therapist, he obliged, sealing the deal with a pinkie swear.

“My occupational therapist’s sister lives in L.A., and she’s in a band,” Henline said. “So one day, I’m going out there for a consultation to see a doctor. She tells me, ‘My sister’s in entertainment. She might know a place you could try it while you’re out there.’ Sure enough, her sister calls me and says, ‘Hey. Comedy Store. Go sign up at 5 o’clock.’”

Henline’s very first set took place August 2009 at the famed Los Angeles club on the same stage graced by some of comedy’s biggest names. He returned to San Antonio and began performing open-mic sets three nights a week. A year-and-a-half later, he was in Los Angeles when a chance meeting with a talent agent landed him an appearance in the Showtime documentary “Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor.” The film, released in April 2013, follows Henline and four other veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan as they work with comedy A-listers to explore their experiences through the healing power of humor.

Three years later, Henline is still healing. He wants to continue to help others do the same. He says one of the biggest driving forces behind him is the memory of his fellow Soldiers who didn’t come home with him that fateful day.

“It’s that same old thing, you’ve got to drive on,” Henline said. “Survivor’s guilt was really bad for me in the beginning. But you’ve got to live on for those who don’t live anymore, the guys who sacrificed it all. There were four other guys in that humvee who didn’t make it. I sat on the couch, and I felt sorry for myself. I gave up. But what’s that doing for them? I’ve got to live on for them. Any of them would trade places with me. They’d rather be in pain and look funny and be here. Their families would rather have them back. That’s a big push for me that helps drive me on.”

As he fights PTSD, former NCO continues climb up boxing’s welterweight division

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

Sammy Vasquez Jr. scored a convincing win over Aron Martinez on Saturday in a nationally televised welterweight boxing match. But another manner in which the former Army sergeant was a victor is just as momentous.

The bout at Staples Center in Los Angeles was the first time Vasquez had been in the ring since revealing that he is living with post-traumatic stress disorder. He told reporters last month when the fight with Martinez was announced about his condition and the difficulty it has posed. As it was during his days directing Soldiers as an NCO, Vasquez hopes he can help lead others grappling with PTSD toward help.

“I have PTSD,” Vasquez said in December. “That’s something I’ve been dealing with for a couple months. It’s hard to talk to somebody about what you’ve been through. You can explain it to them and they can tell you, ‘Oh, I know what you’re talking about.’ In my mind, I’m like, ‘You have no idea what I’m talking about. You can’t touch the surface of what I’m talking about.’ But to talk to somebody, like a counselor that’s been through it, that knows what I’ve been through, and that I can share my stories with, it helps me vent it out and get it off my chest. It’s 10 times easier and 10 times better talking to somebody than holding it in.”

Vasquez certainly held nothing back against Martinez. The fight, which was a Premier Boxing Champions co-feature, was a one-sided affair. Vasquez (21-0, 15 KOs) used his quick footwork and hand-speed to confound Vasquez (20-5-1), peppering him with jabs and straight lefts throughout the first few rounds. Martinez was on the defensive most of the fight, covering up and making very few attempts to attack the much quicker Vasquez. It was an uncharacteristic fight for Martinez who fought Robert Guerrero to a standstill last summer before losing by a controversial split decision. Guerrero fought Danny Garcia in Saturday’s main event for the WBC welterweight title. Nonetheless, Vasquez’s pressure wore his opponent down. Martinez quit on his stool after the sixth round complaining of an elbow injury to give Vasquez a technical knockout win.

“A victory feels good of course, but I wanted more,” Vasquez said after the fight. “I wanted to go 12 rounds, if it would have lasted that long. I wanted a very decisive win. Unfortunately, he got hurt, but every fight is a learning experience for me.”

What we’re learning about Vasquez, the current World Boxing Council Central American Boxing Federation, or WBC/FECARBOX, champion, is that he is a gritty contender. His win Saturday was a WBC welterweight semifinal eliminator, putting him in line to contend for a WBC Silver welterweight title against Amir Khan.

“My name is starting to get tossed around and that’s the main goal,” Vasquez said.

His quest for that lofty title is one Vasquez says he wants to share with his fellow service members.

“I’m just thankful for where I am at today,” Vasquez said in December “A lot of my brothers and sisters in arms who are amputees and can no longer live out their dreams, I’m trying to do the best that I can to help them live through me and still find hope and success to keep going and feel motivated. Regardless of their condition, there’s always something else that you can do. The impact that Iraq had on me, it just showed me how grateful I am to be in the position I’m in.”

Vasquez, a native of Monessen, Pennsylvania, deployed to Iraq in 2005-06 and in 2008-09. His first deployment took him to Camp Habbaniyah, Iraq, where gunfire was a typical part of the day during missions that took Soldiers from the base near Fallujah to the outskirts of Ramadi. Vasquez’s second deployment saw him split time between Fallujah and Taji.

“When I was over there, boxing was the last thing I thought about,” Vasquez said. “If I didn’t think about my brothers in front of me that could be that chance that they get shot or killed. So, when I was overseas that was my main focus — being overseas.”

Upon returning home Vasquez returned to boxing, a sport he had engaged in since age 9. He won the 152-pound title at the 2010 All-Army Championships and was invited to join the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program. While a member of WCAP, Vasquez earned a berth at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Though he missed being a part of Team USA — he lost the spot to Errol Spence Jr., himself a rising professional boxing star — Vasquez knew fighting would remain in his life. What he didn’t know was he would be engaged in another fight that didn’t involve gloves or ropes.

“When I came back home it was very difficult,” Vasquez said. “[In Iraq] you walk around with an M4 for a whole year or more, every day. You eat with it, you do everything with it. You’re used to that. You have mortars going off in the middle of the night so you don’t get a full night’s rest. When you go back home, you’re tossing and turning. You wake up startled all the time. You’re reaching for a gun you don’t have. I couldn’t go to Walmart because there’s too many people in there, I had to watch my back. Even still to this day, I go sit in restaurants and I can’t sit with my back to the door.

“Boxing is a huge outlet for me. There’s thousands and thousands of people there to watch me fight and it doesn’t bother me … until after the fight. After the fight, the high comes down, that’s when everything gets surreal for me and then it’s like, ‘OK, I’ve got to go.’ Now I’m getting edgy and a little antsy. It’s tough to deal with. I just get away from everybody except for maybe the people that are real close to me.”

While Vasquez said he’d rather not divulge specific details about his ordeal, he encourages fellow Soldiers and veterans who are going through similar struggles to seek help. He said it has been a cathartic experience for him, one that has now vaulted him to heights he couldn’t imagine.

“I can only thank God,” Vasquez said. “There were a lot of guys around me that aren’t here today. A lot of things happened and it just didn’t happen to me. It just wasn’t my day. I’m just blessed to be here. It’s an honor.”

Former NCO returns to the ring in showcase main event

• Read a previous NCO Journal feature on Sammy Vasquez Jr.
By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

The last time boxing star and former Army Sgt. Sammy Vasquez Jr. was inside a ring, he kept his undefeated record intact on national television. His next act will garner even more of the spotlight.

Vasquez announced Tuesday that his next professional fight is scheduled Jan. 23 against Aaron Martinez at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The welterweight bout is the co-main event of a fight card headlined by welterweights Danny Garcia and Robert Guerrero. Vasquez (20-0, 14 KOs) will look to stay unbeaten against Martinez (20-4, 4 KOs) in a 10-round match and retain his World Boxing Council Central American Boxing Federation, or WBC/FECARBOX, title. Both fights will be televised live beginning at 6 p.m. in the Premier Boxing Champions’ inaugural event on FOX.

“I’m exciting to be fighting Aaron Martinez and to be fighting on this big stage in a fight that I think the fans will really enjoy,” Vasquez said after the fight announcement. “This is just another stepping stone for me to move closer to my goal of fighting for a world title. This will be my first time fighting in California, and I’m sure the fans out there will enjoy my exciting style of fighting. I’ve always wanted to fight at Staples Center and now I have my chance. I’ll be a long way from home, but it’s a nice feeling that all of my fans who can’t make it will get to watch me on FOX.”

Vasquez’s contingent of supporters expands far beyond his native Monessen, Pennsylvania. He has developed a following among the Army ranks and he says he fights with them in mind. Vasquez served nine years with the Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq twice. He honed his boxing craft with the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, narrowly missing the Olympics in 2012. He says he carries the lessons and hardships of his fellow Soldiers with him every time he steps in the ring.

“There are Soldiers out there who can’t live their dream because they got blown up by an IED, and now they’re amputees,” Vasquez told the NCO Journal last summer. “I fight for those guys. They can’t do that stuff anymore. I try to show them and give everyone else a better light of the military, because there’s so much negativity against the military. But the military has been around me, obviously, for a long time. So for me to showcase it in a better picture while I’m doing my sport? That’s why I do it.”

Vasquez, 29, does it with an Army-laden background in his corner. His head coach is recently retired Staff Sgt. Charles Leverette, a former All-Army champion and the WCAP head boxing coach. Together, the two have reeled off a slew of exciting victories, most recently a fifth-round technical knockout over Jose Lopez on Sept. 15 in California, Pennsylvania. Their next test will be against a tough competitor who is coming off a convincing unanimous decision win against former welterweight champion Devon Alexander in October.

“This is a great opportunity that I am very thankful for,” Martinez said. “Sammy is a great fighter who I have a lot of respect for but Los Angeles is my home. I intend on defending my turf and coming out victorious.”

With a win, Vasquez can put himself in position for a potential title fight against the winner of the co-main event between Garcia and Guerrero. Garcia is the No. 2-ranked welterweight by the World Boxing Council and is a former title-holder in the light welterweight division. Vasquez’s coach knows the heights are endless for him.

“We’re hoping for bigger things,” Leverette said. “The buzz that’s in the air is, ‘OK, now this kid has proven himself.’ We just have to keep proving ourselves and what comes next will come next.”

Watch it

  • What: Sammy Vasquez Jr. (20-0, 14 knockouts) vs. Aaron Martinez (20-4, 4 KOs) in welterweight fight.
  • When, where: 8 p.m. EST Jan. 23, Staples Center, Los Angeles.
  • On TV: Fox.
  • Of note: Vasquez is a former sergeant with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He deployed to Iraq twice during a nine-year career. The fight is the co-main event of a card headlined by a welterweight championship clash between Danny Garcia and Robert Guerrero.

Former NCO continues combat tour in the ring

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

When budding boxing star Sammy Vasquez Jr. steps in the ring Sunday at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, it will be the first time one of the former Army sergeant’s fights will be showcased on national television.

The 10-round welterweight bout, which will air live on CBS, will pit Vasquez (18-0, 13 knockouts) against Nigerian knockout artist Wale Omotoso (25-1, 21 KOs). The clash at the MGM’s famed Grand Garden Arena will be the first time in more than two years that Vasquez, a Monessen, Pa., native and the World Boxing Council Central American Boxing Federation, or WBC/FECARBOX champion, fights in Las Vegas — the sport’s modern mecca. Despite the elevated stakes and grandiose setting, Vasquez, who deployed twice to Iraq during a nine-year career with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, is unfazed.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Are you nervous?’ or ‘How do you feel fighting in front of everybody on a big stage like that?’” Vasquez said during a phone interview from Fort Carson, Colo., where he held his training camp. “I tell them, ‘I’ve deployed twice. I’ve already been on the biggest stage of my life.’”

Fighting has been a part of Vasquez’s life since he was 9 years old. That’s when he was introduced to boxing by his father, who wanted to give his son an outlet and a method to defend himself from the bullies that hounded the younger Vasquez at school. While his newfound pugilistic skills staved off most schoolyard fights, Vasquez showed glimmers of talent inside the ropes during an amateur career that would number about 200 fights. But he never thought about fighting professionally. Instead, he enlisted in the National Guard after high school to help pay for college. That decision introduced him to a fight like no other.

Vasquez deployed in 2005-06 and in 2008-09. His first deployment took him to Camp Habbaniyah, Iraq, where gunfire was a typical part of the day during missions that took Soldiers from the base near Fallujah to the outskirts of Ramadi. Vasquez’s second deployment saw him split time between Fallujah and Taji.

“Going overseas, it gives you a different outlook on life,” Vasquez said. “It shows you how blessed we are to be in the country that we live in. I’m just blessed to be here boxing, living my dream and giving the fans enjoyment from someone who used to be a Soldier, used to be in Iraq and used to do everything a Soldier does.”

Vasquez still found time to train in the sport he loves while deployed, setting up makeshift gyms amid the Spartan conditions of various Iraqi locales. He said it provided a release from the rigors of deployment. He eventually parlayed that work into a gold medal at the 2010 All-Army Championships in the 152-pound division and an invitation to join the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program. While a member of WCAP, Vasquez earned a berth at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Though he missed being a part of Team USA — he lost the spot to Errol Spence Jr., himself a rising professional boxing star — Vasquez knew fighting would remain in his life.

After leaving from the Army, Vasquez made his professional debut April 7, 2012, in a four-round bout against Clifford Gregory. Vasquez defeated Gregory by technical knockout in Round 2, displaying the grit and power that has helped him rack up victories and become a fan-friendly draw.

“I try to be entertaining, but at the same time be smart,” Vasquez said. “I want to be an exciting fighter. I want to be that edge-of-your-seat fighter.”

He says he also wants to fight for those who can’t anymore.

“There are Soldiers out there who can’t live their dream because they got blown up by an IED (improvised explosive device), and now they’re amputees,” Vasquez said. “I fight for those guys. They can’t do that stuff anymore. I try to show them and give everyone else a better light of the military, because there’s so much negativity against the military. But, the military has been around me, obviously, for a long time. So, for me to showcase it in a better picture while I’m doing my sport? That’s why I do it.”

Since his first professional win, Vasquez has reeled off a slew of victories. He has stopped eight of his last nine opponents in stunning fashion, with several of those wins shown on cable television. His last victory perhaps vaulted him onto a plane closer to the 147-pound division’s biggest stars. Vasquez defeated Emmanuel Lartey by unanimous decision Feb. 20 in Pittsburgh, a mere 30 miles from Vasquez’s hometown. The bout was the main event of a Showtime Boxing card. It gave Vasquez his greatest exposure to date and proved he could go the distance against stern competition.

“I wanted to knock him out,” Vasquez said of Lartey. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of talk of, you know, can I go 10 rounds? The only people that Lartey lost to were Errol Spence and Felix Diaz. I think I handled him better than any one of them.

“(Lartey) wanted to quit in the eighth round, but his coach wouldn’t let him. If I would’ve pressured him in the ninth round, he would have quit. I guarantee it. But I decided to box and just not risk it. I just wanted to be smart about it and beat him.”

Beat him Vasquez did. That win set the stage for his first showcase bout in Las Vegas. His clash with Omotoso will be the featured undercard of a main event pitting Rances Barthelemy against Antonio DeMarco in a super lightweight showdown. Though the fight is far from home in one of the most storied environments the sport offers and against a challenging opponent, Vasquez is composed.

“It’s a different atmosphere, of course,” Vasquez said. “Me fighting at home, I bring six- to eight thousand people to the fight. So, coming to this one, I know I’ve got about a plane and a half coming down for the fight. So I’ll have some fans there. It’ll be a different venue, but the same results. You can’t let wherever you fight dictate what the fight outcome is going to be.

“To be successful against (Omotoso), my game plan is to box him. I don’t think he can take the power that I have. He hasn’t really fought anybody with power yet. But he’s doing his job. I see mistakes that he makes, but I see nobody exposing mistakes so far. So my job is to do that.”

To accomplish that task, Vasquez hasn’t strayed far from his military foundation. His head coach is Staff Sgt. Charles Leverette, a former All-Army champion and the WCAP head boxing coach. Vasquez says having someone in his corner who understands his trials and tribulations as both a boxer and a Soldier is a boon.

“It’s tremendous. It’s a huge help,” Vasquez said. “In this sport, in this game, you have to keep a close, tight-knit family. Having Coach Lev be the head coach and be a part of the team — the guy who was the head coach of the military boxing team — you couldn’t ask for anything better. He still has the mind-frame that I have. That’s why we work so great together. He still has that Soldier mentality when we both work out. But when we go home and we have family parties and stuff like that, we relax, we have fun.”

Their lessons as NCOs add to the successful mix, Vasquez said. He credits his time as a sergeant in the National Guard with teaching him the biggest lesson that an elite fighter requires.

“Discipline. You have to be disciplined in this sport,” Vasquez said. “It’s unreal. You have to cut weight. You have to watch what you eat. Everyone around you is eating pizza and you have to eat salads. The training and work ethic have to be superior. You have to push yourself to different levels. Being an NCO, that’s what your main job is. You’re in charge of people. You have to look out for them. You have to be on your A-game at all times. So, being an NCO, that’s what taught me — the same kind of aspect as in boxing — I have to be on my p’s and q’s at all times. I have to be mentally prepared and mentally focused. If things don’t go my way or I have a bad day sparring or a bad day of training, I have to know and be focused on the next task at hand.”

For now, the next task at hand is Wale Omotoso. And Vasquez will look to find a way to win the fight, like he has most of his life.

Watch it

What: Sammy Vasquez Jr. (18-0, 13 knockouts) vs. Wale Omotoso (25-1, 21 KOs) in welterweight fight.

When, where: 4 p.m. EDT, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas.

On TV: CBS.

• Of note: Vasquez is a former sergeant with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He deployed to Iraq twice during a nine-year career. The fight is the featured undercard of a main event bout featuring super lightweights Rances Barthelemy and Antonio DeMarco.

ARCENT NCOs building relationships with officers, other branches and other countries

By MICHAEL L. LEWIS
NCO Journal

Though there are hot spots throughout the globe, U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility — the Middle East — has been the locale for several spots that, during the past 13 years, have been hotter than most. Supporting the land forces in the region is U.S. Army Central, commonly known as ARCENT, whose headquarters at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., includes NCOs who are expected to be strategic thinkers capable of working alongside officers, be subject-matter experts able to deploy temporarily when needed downrange and be able to build relationships with members of other U.S. military branches and the militaries of other countries. It’s a tough job description, but one for which ARCENT’s NCOs say they routinely rise to the occasion.

 

Covering all the angles

Sgt. 1st Class James Garton, an explosive ordnance disposal NCO with U.S. Army Central, observes a Tajikistan engineer wire explosives for an electric demolition during the ARCENT-sponsored International Mine Action Standard EOD level-one course in Tajikistan on June 5, 2014. (Photo by Sgt. Tracy R. Myers)
Sgt. 1st Class James Garton, an explosive ordnance disposal NCO with U.S. Army Central, observes a Tajikistan engineer wire explosives for an electric demolition during the ARCENT-sponsored International Mine Action Standard EOD level-one course in Tajikistan on June 5, 2014. (Photo by Sgt. Tracy R. Myers)

NCOs at ARCENT are quick to dispel the myth that NCOs assigned there don’t have much to do. Noncommissioned officers are constantly going in and out of theater to supplement units downrange, said Master Sgt. James C. Brown of ARCENT’s G-4 logistics directorate.

“I think the misconception out there is based on the fact that a lot of people don’t know what ARCENT does,” Brown said. “They don’t know that ARCENT really controls everything out there Army-wise in the AOR. So when they hear people are coming to ARCENT [headquarters], they think we’re ‘taking a knee.’”

“In this unit, you work,” said Master Sgt. Amel Brooks of ARCENT’s inspector general’s office. “If you take your average inspector general office in the U.S. Army, this office has a bigger footprint than them, including the ones at Fort Jackson (S.C.), Fort Bragg (N.C.) or Fort Stewart (Ga.), because, not only do we cover down on this headquarters, we have the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait — all that is under us. So we get it coming in from all those different angles.”

“Then there’s the fact that this is a three-star headquarters,” Brown said. “A lot of people ask, ‘How much work [is an NCO] really going to be doing at a three-star headquarters?’ But just about everybody here is on a deployable status and TCSes (temporary change of station) downrange. Some deploy more than others, depending on MOS shortages or shortages of personnel with a skill set that is needed downrange.”

Besides helping their U.S. Army colleagues, ARCENT NCOs are also key participants in one of the command’s hallmark missions: building relationships with nations in the region.

“We do a lot of partnerships,” said Sgt. 1st Class Nick Salcido of ARCENT’s public affairs office. ”We have 20 countries in our AOR, 18 of which we have regular participation in. Partnership is a big part of ARCENT; it’s a large part of what we do.”

“In May, our office visited with the Kuwaiti inspector general to build a relationship and partnership,” said Master Sgt. William Cintron of ARCENT’s inspector general office. “They wanted to learn from us, because they really don’t have established inspectors general like the U.S. Army does. They only do inspections — they don’t do assistance or investigations — and the way they do inspections isn’t like how we do them. So they really wanted to learn from us how we did them, how to do the follow-up and how to correct the deficiencies. That’s a good example of the kinds of partnering we do.”

 

A part of something bigger

Cpl. Sara Manning, a military police officer with the 450th Military Police Company, 304th MP Battalion, 290th MP Brigade, U.S. Army Reserve, tests the balance of a Kuwaiti soldier serving with the 94th Al-Yarmouk Mechanized Brigade during an ARCENT-supported training exercise at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Oct. 29, 2013. (Photo by Sgt. Jennifer Spradlin)
Cpl. Sara Manning, a military police officer with the 450th Military Police Company, 304th MP Battalion, 290th MP Brigade, U.S. Army Reserve, tests the balance of a Kuwaiti soldier serving with the 94th Al-Yarmouk Mechanized Brigade during an ARCENT-supported training exercise at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Oct. 29, 2013. (Photo by Sgt. Jennifer Spradlin)

The relationships NCOs help develop are the building blocks of the larger strategy the U.S. Army is employing with other countries throughout the globe, said Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Greca, the senior enlisted leader of ARCENT’s higher headquarters, U.S. Central Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.

“What I would underline is the multinational approach,” he said. “How do you build coalitions so that people internal to the areas of responsibility solve their problems? Operationally, I had been to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and I thought I understood the AOR. But, frankly, I didn’t understand — every place in that AOR is slightly different. How can we assist as a nation through DIME — through the diplomatic, informational, military and economic elements of U.S. power?”

NCOs also need to understand how the various pieces of the U.S. military contribute in the region, and the Army’s place in that mix, Greca said.

“As our Army goes to 450,000 Soldiers, we can’t do it alone,” he said. “It’s been pretty eye-opening [getting to know the component commands]. As I formerly understood CENTCOM, I didn’t understand the NAVCENT (U.S. Naval Forces Central Command) piece, and I didn’t understand the AFCENT (U.S. Air Forces Central Command) piece. Certainly, I understood that there are airplanes and ships out there. But to truly understand how, day-in and day-out, they are supporting the commander’s intent and providing support internal to the AOR has been eye-opening. I just had no idea.”

Neither did many of the NCOs who relocated to Shaw when ARCENT moved there from its former home of Fort McPherson, Ga., which was closed as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process. Shaw, already the location of AFCENT’s headquarters, was seen as a natural place for ARCENT to call home, too. But the co-location of the two commands resulted in a culture clash at first, Brooks recalled.

“When we first got here, we had a big cookout at one of the hangars, and it was Air Force sitting on one side and Army sitting on the other — completely separate,” he said. “But, hey, we’re supposed to be here together. So one of our Soldiers went above and beyond. He helped develop a Shaw Air Force Base soccer team — an Army and Air Force joint team. That sergeant first class took initiative and helped build that joint relationship, showing the Air Force what we do and letting the Air Force show us what they do.”

That interaction is exactly what Greca envisions as the ideal throughout the larger joint command.

“You can sometimes get wrapped up in the little world, the little place, the little cubicle, the little team that you’re exposed to, and not appreciate what’s going on on the outside,” he said. “If our NCOs pay a little bit more attention and truly talk with our joint brothers and sisters on our right and left flank, it would give them an appreciation for the other services and our role and how we fit into the team,” he said.

That appreciation includes learning the different duties and responsibilities of NCOs in the two service branches that call Shaw home, Salcido said.

“In the Army, it is better to be multifunctional rather than to be so niche, because we often have to cover down on so many different kinds of positions,” he said. “In the Air Force, you have to test in your job in order to advance to the next rank. So you tend to have individuals who are very knowledgeable about their particular career field, rather than being a jack-of-all-trades, which is to our benefit in the Army.”

Being knowledgeable in areas outside of one’s primary military occupational specialty helps keep NCOs relevant, said Master Sgt. Christopher Pair of ARCENT’s G-6 signal directorate.

“I’m a 25W (telecommunications chief) now, but I need to know the 25B job, which is computers; I need to know the 25Z job, which is (video teleconferences); I need to know the 25L job, which is cable installer. I’ve got to know all their jobs. So it is different [than in the Air Force].”

But the exposure to other U.S. military branches and the militaries of other countries is providing invaluable insight into a wide-angle view of the world, which can benefit NCOs throughout their careers, Brooks said.

“Being in a line unit, you see the small picture. But you have to look at the big picture,” he said. “If, when I leave here, I go on to be a first sergeant, I will be getting my team leaders, my squad leaders, my platoon sergeants to see the bigger picture. I think that will help them better train their Soldiers, because they’ll understand the bigger picture.”

“Other units, it’s all about the micro. Here, it’s about the macro, the overall picture,” Pair said. “That’s what I’ll definitely take back and tell others: Stop looking at the micro and start looking at the big picture, because the big picture is going to directly affect the smaller picture. With the big picture in mind, you can prepare a lot better for whatever comes your way.”

 

Not typical NCO duties

Sgt. Edgar Sanchez (center), an EOD NCO, and 1st Lt. Mitchell Amoriello, an EOD operations officer with the 75th Ordnance Disposal Company, 79th Ordnance Disposal Battalion, 71st Ordnance Group, conduct a practical exercise with a Tajikistan engineer during the International Mine Action Standard EOD level-one course in Tajikistan on June 3, 2014. (Photo by Sgt. Tracy R. Myers)
Sgt. Edgar Sanchez (center), an EOD NCO, and 1st Lt. Mitchell Amoriello, an EOD operations officer with the 75th Ordnance Disposal Company, 79th Ordnance Disposal Battalion, 71st Ordnance Group, conduct a practical exercise with a Tajikistan engineer during the International Mine Action Standard EOD level-one course in Tajikistan on June 3, 2014. (Photo by Sgt. Tracy R. Myers)

Perhaps the biggest difference of NCOs’ work at ARCENT headquarters versus elsewhere in the Army is the interaction they have with officers, Brooks said.

“The the role of the NCO in your average line unit? Your role here is much more broad than there,” he said. “NCOs have a huge role here. Sometimes, you’re doing the work of a field-grade officer, sometimes that of a senior NCO. You’re never going to just stay in the NCO’s lane here.”

To be successful means understanding your unique role within the organization and cultivating a culture of trust, Greca said.

“When you talk about a shared understanding, everybody understands the environment that he or she is working in,” he said. “You build cohesive teams based on mutual trust, and that trust goes up and down; it’s not only trusting subordinates, it’s the subordinates trusting their leaders.”

“It’s about understanding that you’re on a staff, understanding the staff’s functions, and being productive in that,” Brown said. “It’s easy to become complacent here, so you should make yourself relevant. Insert yourself into what is going on.”

Being a valuable asset to a staff requires NCOs to become more of a strategic thinker than they may be used to, Greca said.

“We need our NCOs — we even need our junior Soldiers — to think,” he said. “There was a time when the expectation was you just acted. There was this battle drill concept where, without thought, you just reacted. But in today’s environment, the environment requires leaders and Soldiers to think.

“[The Army] talks about discipline and initiative internal to mission command, and that discipline piece gives a military solution to a problem set that a service member is exposed to,” Greca said. “So he or she has to be able to think. The environment is complex, and if you don’t have those service members out there putting a deliberate decision-making process against a problem, the results are — well, we just can’t have that happening.”

“In school, we learn about the military decision-making process,” Brooks said. “Here, you’re doing the military decision-making process, and you have to know your role in that process.”

That means taking into consideration a multitude of variables, Greca said.

“How can you be value-added for that commissioned officer?” he said “They often talk about noncommissioned officers as the executors — the commanders specify the task, and we ensure those tasks are accomplished to a high level. Regardless of where you’re at, I think that remains constant, however the tasks change. Maybe you’ve got a greater emphasis on force protection, because you’re in a deployed environment and you have to secure a piece of tactical infrastructure on which your organization is sitting. How do you ensure that your personnel recovery [standard operating procedures] are solidified? How do you ensure there’s no needless loss of life internal to those environments, where there are a lot of moving pieces? Equipping — how do you ensure our Soldiers have the best equipment on hand to be prepared for their particular mission?

“Then, you certainly have professional development,” Greca said. “Every day, we’re charged with ensuring the professional development of our enlisted formation is done correctly. How do we ensure they are best positioned, not only for them personally but for the good of the Army? We’re doing a multitude of things, and you have to prioritize the tasks the commander gives you — what’s important at that time and place? That means you have to really understand the environment in which you’re working and your commander.”

An NCO must find a way to balance their staff duties with their normal NCO duties, Salcido said.

“In a lot of the operations and planning scenarios, we’re doing a lot of the work of the field-grade officers. We’re pretty interchangeable in that way. And that’s where part of the challenge comes being an NCO. Ensuring sergeant’s time training takes place is a challenge, because some in a field-grade officer-heavy environment don’t see the value in that. Just making sure some of those things happen for the junior Soldiers — prepping them for boards, doing mock boards before the real board — that stuff becomes more of a challenge than it might be in another unit.”

Though the headquarters environment is officer-heavy, ARCENT officers quickly come to appreciate the value of NCOs — if they haven’t before — through the work of the NCOs on staff there.

“In our office, the officers really listen to the NCOs. We NCOs have a huge say-so,” Brooks said. “Our officers will come to us and will ask us questions. During sergeants time training, our officers are welcome to come, and they learn things there, too.”

“The officers will definitely seek you out,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jared Oberman of ARCENT’s G-33 current operations division. “They’ve definitely expected a lot from me, and I would like to say that I’ve been able to pull through and show them what an NCO is capable of doing, because they sure as heck haven’t stopped giving me stuff to do.”

Greca said that is indicative of the ever-growing confidence officers have in NCOs.

“I think the trust has risen and continues to rise,” he said. “I think part of that is because the capabilities of our NCO Corps and our enlisted Soldiers have increased. They’ve been given more responsibility, and they’ve excelled in taking that responsibility and have run with it. I think what we have proven to our commissioned officers is that we’re capable, agile and adaptive, and given the requirements, we will achieve the mission.”