Tag Archives: NCOA

Students at Fort Sill NCO Academy test their skills during live fire exercise

NCO Journal

Field artillery Soldiers attending the Advanced Leader Course at the NCO Academy at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, don’t just worry about tests at the end of the course. They feel the boom of a cannon and smell its smoke as they demonstrate their expertise and leadership skills during a live fire exercise.

Soldiers in all field artillery and air defense artillery career management fields come through the NCO Academy, but those with military occupational specialties directly involved in the operation of howitzers – including 13B cannon crewmembers, 13M multiple launch rocket system crewmembers, 13P MLRS operations/fire direction specialists and 13D field artillery automated tactical data system specialists – have the added advantage of hands-on training in that live fire environment.

A student in the Advanced Leader Course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, holds up the three excess gunpowder bags that were not needed for the four-increment charge during live-fire training on an M119A2 howitzer. The action serves as a visual confirmation for the section chief that the crew loaded the correct charge. (Photo by Meghan Portillo / NCO Journal)
A student in the Advanced Leader Course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, holds up the three excess gunpowder bags that were not needed for the four-increment charge during live-fire training on an M119A2 howitzer. The action serves as a visual confirmation for the section chief that the crew loaded the correct charge. (Photo by Meghan Portillo / NCO Journal)

“Throughout the course, we touch on all the things they will need to be howitzer section chiefs,” said Sgt. 1st Class Craig Dalen, senior small group leader, master gunner and NCO in charge of the ALC live fire exercise. “They learn the doctrine in their classes. Then the live fire is what we call the capstone or the culminating event of the class, where they put everything they have learned into firing the howitzers safely and accurately and are then able to go back to their unit and spread the knowledge to other NCOs in their battery.”

The live fire is a great opportunity for the students, Dalen said, especially for those who work outside of their MOS.

“We get such a diverse group of NCOs who come here, and they are not necessarily in a section chief position,” said 1st Sgt. Antonio Morris, ALC first sergeant. “Some of them are working in training rooms or administration jobs, some are recruiters, some are drill sergeants, NCOs with various duty assignments across the globe. One of the major benefits is that when they come here, they get that training they have been missing. This is their opportunity to get reacquainted with what they will be doing on the line. It is definitely a plus – they get up-to-date on their training, up-to-speed with their peers, then go back out to the force and are better able to groom their section or that lieutenant who is with them. They will be better at their jobs when they leave here.”

Throughout the five-week course, NCOs’ leadership skills are evaluated. Students take turns leading formations and physical training and acting as section chiefs, who are responsible for prepping the guns and ensuring the others know the crew drills. The section chief is the one to give the OK, saying, yes, they have the capability to fire.

“I want students to come out of this course knowing Army doctrine,” Dalen said. “Every unit has its own standard operating procedures, but here they learn the base and core elements of field artillery by the manual. They learn what right looks like, what a real crew drill is. Their unit will dictate how they do it, but there are certain things by manual that they are not supposed to change. And the students get a better grasp of what really is safe and unsafe, authorized and not authorized.”

The culminating event

Fort Sill’s is the only NCO academy in the Army that provides a live fire exercise. It is important, Morris said, because the skills required in field artillery are perishable. To solidify the lessons learned throughout the course and ensure NCOs are prepared for combat, the students need to get out there and actually do what will be required of them, he said.

“This is the culminating event,” Morris said. “Everything they learn over the first five weeks they take that out to a field environment and put into action. The dry fire missions, the rehearsals, the crew drills, they all lead up to the live fire. It’s like ending with an exclamation mark.”

A student in the Advanced Leader Course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, looks through the sites of an M119A2 howitzer during a live fire exercise at the end of the course. (Photo by Meghan Portillo / NCO Journal)
A student in the Advanced Leader Course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, looks through the sites of an M119A2 howitzer during a live fire exercise at the end of the course. (Photo by Meghan Portillo / NCO Journal)

During the live fire, students fire 155 mm rounds and 105 mm rounds and utilize all three artillery pieces used in Army units: the M777 howitzer, the M119 howitzer – both degraded and digital – and the M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzer. The instructors try to ensure each NCO works with the howitzer on which he or she is least familiar.

Every crew has a loader, or “No. 1 man,” a gunner and a section chief. Depending on the howitzer a crew is working on, there may also be an assistant gunner, an ammunition crew and a driver. After every two or three rounds, the students rotate through the positions so each has the opportunity to act in a leadership role.

“The live fire is very valuable to this course because as things upgrade and change, we have to adapt with them,” said Sgt. Benjamin Murray, a student in the course. “It’s better to do things hands-on rather than just out of a book, because there are things you won’t understand completely until you actually see it and see how it’s done.

“And, it will make it easy for us to PCS to another unit with a different piece because we will have a better understanding of what it is that they do and how their crew drills and everything are run. If I have only worked on one piece, I may go to a new place and their lowest-ranking Soldier knows more than I do about how to do the crew drills. That just doesn’t reflect well. So having this course, being able to jump on each piece, it helps us out and keeps us up-to-date.”

Sgt. Jose Medina, another student, agreed.

“If you don’t know the gun, how are you going to be in charge of that section and teach your Soldiers?”

NCOs in officer roles

In addition to the benefit of hands-on practice, the live fire gives instructors a way to gauge the effectiveness of the course, Morris explained. How do they know the training is working? Are the students learning all of the lessons they need to be prepared for combat? It is easy to sit in class and take tests, Morris said, but that is not what will be required of them in the field.

“We find out how effective our curriculum is by how well the NCOs do at the live fire,” Morris said. “The live fire is not a graduation requirement, but it is a test. It tells us what is working well. Based on their performance, we adjust the curriculum if needed.”

Morris said he is proud of his NCO instructors and how they have taken charge of the course and live fire. In a combat situation, as well as in any other live fire training scenario, officers would be present to verify calculations, ensure safety and give the OK to fire. At the ALC live fire, however, NCOs fill those roles.

“It is definitely an eye opener, because you never get to see this anywhere else where it is all NCOs fulfilling those roles,” Morris said. “It is a testament to the knowledge that these NCOs have. They are the trainer, the evaluator, the overseer. They are facilitating it.”

“The benefit of having all NCOs is that the Soldiers are getting it from guys who have been there, who have done what they are doing,” Dalen said. “And it also shows they are learning from true professionals. It shows the students and the Army as a whole that NCOs are more than capable of executing fire missions and anything else we would have to do if need be.”

Success with writing software is only latest example of innovation at Fort Hood NCOA

Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph McFarlane, the III Corps NCO Academy commandant, and Sgt. 1st Class Amber DeArmond, a senior group leader at the academy. (Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones / NCO Journal)

NCO Journal

The III Corps NCO Academy at Fort Hood was selected to pilot the Criterion writing assessment program last year, but that is just one of the ways the academy has adjusted its curriculum to better serve its junior NCOs.

Fort Hood’s NCO Academy is housed in the same complex as the post’s education center, so for years the commandant and deputy commandant have used the center’s counselors and other resources to encourage Soldiers to pursue an education and even to retake the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to boost the general technical, or GT, portion of the ASVAB.

“You have to try to bring all those resources together, to where the students have every opportunity to use it,” said Sgt. Maj. Salvador Montez Jr., the NCOA’s deputy commandant. “If you can have an NCOA close to that post’s education center, that’s money. And we’re right next door. Even those test administrators come over here and give us tests during our training. It’s not part of our curriculum, but we’re trying to raise GT scores on these Soldiers, too, because that’s what’s required for them to be drill sergeants, recruiters, etc. You need a certain GT score.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph McFarlane, the NCOA’s commandant, said incorporating a GT Predictor exam into the Basic Leader Course has led to an increased ASVAB score for 7 to 10 percent of BLC graduates.

“That’s one more drill sergeant, one more Ranger instructor, one more master gunner — the higher technical positions” that require higher GT scores, McFarlane said.

And although McFarlane says 7 to 10 percent may not sound like much, the Fort Hood NCOA has 220 to 300 students in each BLC and is conducting the 22-day courses almost back to back throughout the year. That percentage translates to improved scores for hundreds of Soldiers each year.

“I think that was the first reason we got tagged with [the Criterion pilot] last year — because we already had the GT Predictor incorporated into BLC here,” Montez said.

The GT Predictor program demonstrates the NCO Academy cadre’s commitment to success.

“I’ve surrendered a lot of my commandant’s time to the other things that are beneficial, just to help the students out, as well as to try to make the curriculum better without changing the curriculum,” McFarlane said of the 15 hours of BLC instruction that falls under his discretion as commandant. “I sacrifice my commandant’s time for something else that’s within the guidelines.”

Montez says the NCOA’s success is directly attributable to McFarlane.

“The commandant has to allow the flexibility and to be open enough to say, ‘Hey, this is good for the Soldiers, this is a great program. How can we make it better? What can we do?’ ” he said. “If you don’t have that type of structure in an academy to allow the NCOES system to improve, it’s just going to stay stagnant.”

The Fort Hood academy is in regular contact with the Institute for Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development, as well as the Army’s other NCO academies. This was true before the Criterion program launched, but that communication has only increased since the writing program was rolled out across the Army.

“We try to keep all academies informed, …” Montez said. “Every time we get an update, every time we get an analysis, it gets loaded where everyone can see it up to NCOPOD. They usually provide a little error analysis, and this tells you how your academy scored and executed it.”

Other academies have struggled to set up the program and get BLC students to take the assessment. Montez points to a spreadsheet that shows the number of students who took the assessment at each academy.

“There are a lot of zeroes there, because there were only 14 [NCO academies] that were able to successfully get in there,” he said.

McFarlane said, “There’s a lot of communication on Blackboard between the academies that are brand new [to Criterion] … to my cadre and myself. They haven’t seen it before. We’ve been lucky because we piloted it first, and we had the opportunity to train a bunch of cadre before it was even sent to be piloted.”

The Fort Hood NCOA cadre had challenges at the inception of the program, as well, but they have worked diligently to implement the program effectively.

“We’re always trying to improve stuff,” Montez said. “We’re always looking at making it better, and what can we do. Even the automation systems we use are the latest, and we’re eventually going to go to tablets. That’s where we want to be. We’re not there yet, but we’re pretty close.

“And I’m hoping everyone else will ask, ‘Hey, what’s Fort Hood doing?’ ” he said. “We have some good instructors who know how to articulate all that stuff to the Soldiers. And when they come here for 22 days, I want them to know that it’s all about them. It’s all about you and improving you, making you a better noncommissioned officer. Don’t be afraid to take on any task.”

Fort Hood sets example for use of writing software during Basic Leader Course

File photo by Staff Sgt. Patricia Ramirez of 2014 Best Warrior competitors typing during the essay competition.

NCO Journal

A year-old pilot program to help new NCOs improve their writing was first rolled out at the III Corps NCO Academy at Fort Hood, Texas, and it has rapidly become just another way the cadre works to boost Soldiers’ performance and help their careers.

The program, called Criterion, is a web-based service that scores writing samples almost instantaneously and provides students with an overall score, as well as annotated diagnostic feedback on elements of grammar, usage, mechanics, style, organization and development.

“Fort Hood is one of the largest forces command posts, and we train approximately 250-300 students at the academy every 22 days, so it was an ideal place as far as location to conduct these tests here,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph McFarlane, commandant of Fort Hood’s NCOA.

The academy was given wide berth in the implementation of the program, which Training and Doctrine Command rolled out last summer as part of the 22-day Warrior Leader Course — now the Basic Leader Course — at four sites, including Fort Hood.

Now Criterion is in use at all the Army’s NCO Academies, although many have struggled to launch and use the program effectively.

“Across the Army, we are looking for ways to improve NCO education in general,” Liston Bailey, Learning Innovations and Initiatives Division Institute for Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development chief at TRADOC headquarters, said when the program first launched at Fort Hood. “What we are actually attempting to do is transform the NCO education system into an NCO professional development system that will take into account training that sergeants do in every single domain; that includes the unit, self-development and in the institution.”

Through trial and error, the cadre at the III Corps NCOA have determined some best practices.

“We’re figuring out little ways to make it better,” said Sgt. Maj. Salvador Montez Jr., the NCOA’s deputy commandant. “Like this last class, we figured out little flaws we have to accommodate into our training calendar, as part of our training. The first time we just threw it out there.”

At Fort Hood, the assessment is administered on Day 1 of BLC, immediately after students check in on Day Zero. Taking the test early ensures that instructors have enough time to work with students who need help developing their writing skills and that students who miss the initial assessment have time to make it up.

“We’ve kind of organized the way we implemented for our cadre so they can go step by step, as well,” said Sgt. 1st Class Amber DeArmond, a senior group leader at the Fort Hood NCO Academy who led the implementation of the Criterion program.

For the students, she said, “We do a registration process.”

“So in Criterion, we can see how many individuals successfully enrolled in the program for our student activity. Then once we determine how many successfully enrolled, we only do the writing attempt for those students on Day 1,” she said. “After Day 1, when we do our first attempt, then we try to rectify the problem within 24 hours with the other students who weren’t successfully able to log on to the domain or (participate) for whatever reason. Then we do attempt No. 2 on Day 6.”

DeArmond said the academy has also changed the registration process since its inception to avoid using students’ names, so their personally identifiable information is protected.

The Criterion program gives students 45 minutes to write an essay on one of 400 possible topics. When they’re done, their essays are uploaded and the Criterion software gives each student’s essay a holistic score of up to six points. When students score ones or are given ranks of “advisory” because the software couldn’t score the essays, Fort Hood cadre know they need to spend extra time with those Soldiers. Usually, fewer than 5 percent of the students score one or below.

“It gauges how to employ the cadre, especially when we go through our communicative writing lesson plan,” DeArmond said. “We can tell who needs additional assistance and how we can be of assistance by looking into how they scored and where their errors occurred.”

She said BLC Soldiers’ scores have averaged about a 3.5, and she believes the target should be about a five.

There are no minimum requirements for essay scores as part of BLC; the Criterion grading is merely an assessment tool. However, BLC students receive a block of instruction on how to effectively write an NCO Evaluation Report (DA Form 2166-8), an award (DA Form 638), a sworn statement (DA Form 2823) and a memorandum for record, so the early assessment tool can be beneficial in identifying students who might benefit most from extra help during those exercises.

“These students are going to do this again a couple more times,” McFarlane said. “This is the Basic Leader Course, formerly known as WLC, and then they’re going to take it again in Advanced Leader Course, with College Level Writing 1. And then they’re going to take it again in the Senior Leader Course, with College Level Writing 2. And then the Sergeants Major Academy, which is like executive level.

“So this is the first step, the base line,” he said. “The end result is to create a senior-level NCO who can communicate effectively and clearly, inside large organizations or outside, even talking to the media and the press, trying to develop them as they grow up into the senior levels.”

DeArmond agrees and notes that the Soldier’s performance on the assessment will follow him or her through the Army Career Tracker system.

“I think the program is a good implementation inside of NCOES,” she said. “It’s designed from the lowest level to the top, and it’s designed to ensure that these junior Soldiers are progressing at a level equivalent to their skills. So by the time they reach the goal of becoming a command sergeant major or sergeant major, they’re able to apply themselves using the literacy and competency they need. Writing skill is one of the main tools that they’ll need to be successful.”

As the program progresses from pilot to full implementation, Montez predicts that “not only is the program going to change the students, it’s going to change the instructor prerequisites.”

“You have to have some college; you have to have some type of ability to write as cadre,” he said. “You can’t just be working with the program if your punctuation and grammar are sideways also.”

Montez and McFarlane acknowledge that the III Corps NCO Academy is fortunate to have trained and highly educated NCOs, such as DeArmond, who is about to complete her doctorate.

“Going back to education, you have to have some oversight,” Montez said. “We have Dr. DeArmond here, but [everyone will] have to have somebody with a degree who can see things, so another member of the cadre can say, ‘Hey, this is what I see. Do you see the same?’ Someone who understands that verbiage: a dangling modifier, you have a noun in between two verbs, and explain to the students which verb does it fall to. How do you hear about all that?”

McFarlane notes the need, but also sees the changes happening already.

“Back when we were young, the officer corps had all the education,” he said of himself and Montez. “They all came out of West Point or had their four-year degrees or even more. And then you had the enlisted force that pretty much had a high-school diploma or GED. They were the guys and gals who were turning the wrenches in the motorpool or cleaning the gun tubes on the tanks, executing the guidance given by the officers. And now it’s merging to the center where everybody has a whole bunch of education, the officers and the senior NCOs. … You had the blue-collar force and the white-collar element, but where are we at now? It’s some kind of light blue.”

Even after the formal education, NCOs may have some learning to do to understand the way young, junior enlisted Soldiers communicate.

McFarlane noted that many of the younger Soldiers going through BLC are more accustomed to texting than writing formally. The transition from abbreviations and emojis to scoring well on the writing assessment can be tough.

“If I have a student write a sentence into Criterion with hashtags and ‘lol,’ even though everyone understands it, the program will say the student fails,” Montez said. “The students, that’s how we’re getting them now.”

To illustrate the differences to students, Montez works to break down the process.

“Sometimes, I’ll tell them just to write something like they’re talking to me, just a normal conversation, just write. And then we’ll pick it apart,” he said. He tells them, “ ‘Give me a sentence right now, tell me something like you’re speaking to me.’ And they’ll come out there, ‘Hey, Sergeant Major, let’s keep it on the down low and go dis way and you know …’

“Meanwhile, I’m like, ‘OK, all right, write it down,’ ” he said. “I get them involved and then articulate it.”

DeArmond has worked to incorporate corrective behavior into the instruction before the students even start writing.

“Part of it is organizing,” she said. “The more organized you are in delivering the information and breaking it down step by step, the better. One idea that the deputy gave for how to write a memo is take them through the brainstorming process first. So we give them a topic, two or three students in the class will start off by brainstorming and researching what an organization or program is about.”

In this and myriad other ways, DeArmond wants to ensure that Soldiers get the most out of their time at the NCO Academy.

“When noncommissioned officers come to NCOES, this is their prime opportunity for institutional training. … They get opportunities to progress here. They get the newest information here. They learn the newest material here. This is the opportunity in NCOs’ careers when they actually get the time to solely focus on institutional training. A lot of benefits come out of this academy.

“They don’t know what is out there to help them and set them up for success,” she said. “There’s not one clear pathway for an NCO to say this is the way you succeed. So opening the doors to different opportunities is what the academy is about.”