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NCO forges valuable partnerships with veterans at Natick

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

When he first arrived at Natick Soldier Systems Center for duty as 1st sergeant of the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, 1st Sgt. Miguel A. Martinez Jr. had heard the assignment in Massachusetts wouldn’t be a typical one.

“My response was the first sergeant position is the same regardless of where you are and what you’re doing because your first and foremost priority is the health and welfare of the Soldier and then to try to advance the organization,” Martinez said.

He made sure all Soldiers were taken care of and that they were meeting all standard Army requirements. Then, Martinez set out to meet every director or team leader at the small military installation.

Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade test female body armor. In a collaborative effort, the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center worked with Program Executive Office Soldier on an improved outer tactical vest designed specifically for women. The innovation was named one of Time Magazine’s “Best Inventions” in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)
Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade test female body armor. In a collaborative effort, the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center worked with Program Executive Office Soldier on an improved outer tactical vest designed specifically for women. The innovation was named one of Time Magazine’s “Best Inventions” in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)

“I told each one, ‘My intent is to have an NCO from this organization help every single team here at some point,’” Martinez said. “Before, [what I was suggesting] was pretty much nonexistent. We didn’t have any of our NCOs help any of our directorates. I wanted to change that because I was previously at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center [at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey], and I saw how those Soldiers interacted. That’s what I wanted to bring here.

“A lot of people think the NCO’s main job here is to manage the human research volunteer program,” he said. “That’s only partly true. We are here to make sure HRVs are being trained properly and also to help all of the studies. I asked the HRDD commander, Capt. Enrique Curiel, about my recommendations and told him what I wanted to do. Together, we started making little changes.”

‘Different animal’

Located in Massachusetts, the birthplace of the U.S. Army, the Soldier Systems Center employs about 160 active-duty Soldiers and 1,800 civilians. Roughly a platoon of the Soldiers at Natick serve as human research volunteers for scientific studies at NSRDEC, while NCOs fill roles that run the gamut from parachute riggers in the parachute shop or noncommissioned officers in charge at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.

“I started teaming up my NCOs to work with other teams [at Natick],” Martinez said. “I told my guys we need to start getting embedded [in projects]. The more the scientists see us, the more they are going to remember the NCOs and the more relevant we are. We want to be seen. We want to be in the front of their minds, so when they have a new project or are starting a new job, I want them to think about talking to NCOs.”

Martinez views working with the scientists, engineers and other civilian employees at Natick as a mutual partnership.

A scientist from the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center tests uniforms for burn injury protection at the Doriot Climatic Chambers in Natick, Mass. (Photo courtesy of Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)
A scientist from the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center tests uniforms for burn injury protection at the Doriot Climatic Chambers in Natick, Mass. (Photo courtesy of Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)

“One of the biggest things I noticed that was shocking to me is that when I met with some people, they told me they were under the impression that the NCO chain of command here switched out every 90 days like the HRVs,” he said. “That only solidified my desire to meet everybody here because I need to change that way of thinking. I told them we are here for three years. We don’t switch out every 90 days; those are the HRVs. The NCOs and officers are here for three years, and we want to be able to work with you guys.

“I can open those doors for them [in the military], and they will not have to be slowed down by trying to get the right people in the right place to talk to them,” he said.

Work often brings Sarah Ross, human research volunteer test coordinator, and Martinez together at Natick’s Doriot Climatic Chambers. As a veteran noncommissioned officer, Ross has a history there. Her last duty assignment was as NCO in charge of the facility, and she was also a medic assigned to USARIEM when she a Soldier.

The chambers are a unique facility that can mimic environmental conditions from any location around the globe. Temperature, humidity, wind, rain and solar radiation can be simulated for testing on HRVs or military equipment.

Ross’s military experience often comes in handy when trying to bridge communication between scientists, engineers and Soldiers.

1st Sgt. Miguel A. Martinez Jr., 1st sergeant of the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, works with Sarah Ross, human research volunteer test coordinator, at the Doriot Climatic Chambers in Natick, Massachusetts. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)
1st Sgt. Miguel A. Martinez Jr., 1st sergeant of the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, works with Sarah Ross, human research volunteer test coordinator, at the Doriot Climatic Chambers in Natick, Massachusetts. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

“1st Sgt. Martinez is the Soldier component that HRVs have 24 hours a day, because although they are human subjects they are Soldiers 24 hours a day,” Ross said. “It’s important that we work really well together. [Natick] is a different animal, and as a veteran, I understand that. I know from my own experiences, it is a completely different ballgame.

“1st Sgt. Martinez and I work together really well to make sure that the Soldiers get opportunities to participate in things, and that they are always ready as Soldiers because that’s the number one priority ─ making sure that HRVs are always safe when they are volunteering in these studies,” she said.

Teamwork

One of the projects Martinez and Ross worked on together was to revise the physical restrictions document, concerning the participation of HRVs in studies.

“Some of the things I wanted to change were due to risk aversion,” Martinez said. “Principal investigators don’t want to get in trouble or do anything wrong. They don’t want to hurt the HRVs, or tarnish the name of the detachment, program or installation.”

Principal investigators were limiting the activity of some HRVs to an extreme, sometimes resulting in Soldiers who were going back to the Army after their 90-day HRV stint at Natick unable to fulfill the physical requirements of being Soldiers.

“We want to make sure these Soldiers are healthy,” Ross said. “We want to make sure they have appropriate recovery time, and sometimes these principal investigators err on the side of caution. … The principle investigator is thinking, ‘I want to make sure my subject is protected, and that they are not doing something outside the realm of the study.’ And HRDD is thinking, ‘I want to make sure my Soldiers are ready to be able to do the PT necessary and additionally anything physical they have to do as Soldiers.’”

Because Soldiers’ careers were being affected, Martinez saw he needed to get involved.

“The PIs actually started explaining, ‘This is what I will be doing, this is what I want,’ and Capt. Curiel, and I will make sense of it,” Martinez said. “We will agree, or we will debate. Eventually, we come to a good middle ground, and everybody is happy.

“We told the civilians, ‘We can help you; we can do all these things to help your project and not be in conflict with your study,’” he said.

For Martinez, it helps to have someone such as Ross, with her military experience, serving in her position.

“If there are any questions I might have that are study-related, she is my go-to person,” Martinez said.

Ross couldn’t be happier that she ended up in a job she loves. Despite separating from the Army, she still works with Soldiers every day.

“Although I have been here eight years, I am still learning,” Ross said. “I have to make sure I am aware and updated, and that I am familiar with [federal regulations on human subjects and how Soldiers should be treated] so I can be the best facilitator with the program. At the same time, I love these Soldiers. I have the best job in the Army. I still get to serve without wearing the uniform … and I get to meet 30 new selfless Soldiers every 90 days. I meet 120 new Soldiers every year, which is so cool.”

Ross is part of a growing population of veterans who found work at Natick after leaving the military.

“The veteran population is pretty strong,” Ross said. “It’s close to 300 veterans who work at this installation. I think in this environment [being a veteran] is instrumental to [Natick’s] success.”

Despite its size, the work done at Natick extends far beyond its small confines. Valuable Soldiers’ feedback goes a long way toward building projects and contributing to the readiness of the big Army.

“Here, it doesn’t matter what your rank is,” Ross said. “It doesn’t matter how long you have been in the Army. What matters is that you give us your opinion and that we are going to take that under consideration. That is one thing that I love. I don’t know where else that happens.”

The experience has proven invaluable to NCOs such as Martinez, who says there are still many tasks he wants to work on to better the detachment.

“When I leave here and I continue my service, I will always keep Natick on the phone,” Martinez said. “Now that I have worked here, I want to continue to work and would like to tell Natick they have an open door with me.

As a veteran, Ross is particularly grateful for the opportunity to work with Soldiers. It’s not unusual for Natick to have about 20 studies running at the same time.

“This place is incredible,” Ross said. “The things that we do for the Soldier in this small installation blow my mind. At the same time I am talking to you, there is a Soldier down at the biomechanics lab doing a VO2 max ride test, at the same time they are blistering Soldiers in this front room, at the same time another scientist is doing a thermal test and burning a uniform, at the same time there’s a change of command over here, at the same time there is a glove dexterity test happening and at the same there are Soldiers at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, testing a uniform in an obstacle course.”

The Soldiers, scientists, engineers and civilians form a powerful team at Natick, with a common goal, she said.

“We have all of these facilities, and we are all just working toward giving the best equipment and making sure Soldiers can function to the best of their abilities,” Ross said. “You could argue that Soldiers/warfighters are the best athletes in the world, and we have to make sure a team of 100 people goes out with every Soldier [on the field]. They might not be present with Soldiers, but they are there.

“They are there in the uniform that Soldiers are wearing,” she said. “They are there in the boots Soldiers are wearing. They are there in that Kevlar. They are there in that weapon. They are there with Soldiers without actually being physically present, and that’s incredible to me.”

This Month in NCO History: June 19, 1945 — A one-man charge at Ozato, Okinawa

Technical Sgt. John William Meagher was atop a moving tank when he spied a Japanese soldier with a bomb clutched in his hands dashing toward the vehicle’s tread. Meagher didn’t hesitate. He barked the location of one last target to the tank’s gunner before leaping off the iron behemoth to charge at the incoming threat — and into history as a recipient of the nation’s highest military honor.

Meagher was part of E Company, 305th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, on June 19, 1945, when it ran into Japanese resistance near Ozato, Okinawa. The Statue of Liberty Division had arrived in Okinawa in March to relieve the 96th Infantry Division. By June, it had moved to the southern end of the island near Ozato from its previous position in Shuri. Here, the 77th ID was charged with covering the right flank of the XXIV Corps to seal off cave positions the Japanese used as safe havens.

On that fateful June day, Meagher’s unit was advancing against enemy resistance. According to his Medal of Honor citation, he climbed atop an assault tank to direct its fire against two fortified enemy targets. He did so despite “bullets splattering about him.” Amid the hail of gunfire, Meagher noticed the lone Japanese soldier making a run at the tank. He jumped off the tank and ran toward the enemy with his bayonet extended in front of him.

While Meagher halted the attacker’s charge, he also detonated the explosive device the attacker was carrying and was knocked unconscious by the blast. Meagher came to moments later. Finding his rifle destroyed and enemy fire still whizzing by him, he returned to his tank to grab a weapon. Meagher secured a machine gun and “began a furious one-man assault on the enemy,” his citation states.

He fired from the hip as he moved through a barrage of bullets that ripped through his clothing. Meagher reached the nearest pillbox and killed six enemy soldiers. He sprinted to the next pillbox through more gunfire only to find his weapon out of ammunition. But Meagher was unfazed. According to his citation, “he grasped his empty gun by the barrel and in a violent onslaught killed the crew.”

His single-handed effort silenced heavy enemy resistance and enabled his platoon to take its objective and continue the advance. For his actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor a year later on June 26, 1946.

Meagher was born Dec. 5, 1917, in Jersey City, New Jersey. On March 21, 1942, he was drafted into the Army for service in World War II. The 77th ID was activated four days before his draft date. Meagher trained extensively with the division in the United States before heading for war in the Pacific. They fought in campaigns on Guam and Leyte before joining other forces in the Battle of Okinawa. Two days after Meagher’s gallant one-man charge, the last remnants of Japanese resistance fell.

Meagher left the Army while still a technical sergeant. He died April 14, 1996, at age 78. Meagher was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

 

NCO, nation’s oldest living Medal of Honor recipient dies

The nation’s oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor died during the weekend.

Nicholas Oresko, an Army master sergeant and World War II veteran died Friday of complications from surgery in Cresskill, N.J., according to media reports. He was 96.

Oresko received the nation’s highest military honor for his actions on Jan. 23, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge near Tettingen, Germany, while with C Company, 302nd Infantry Regiment, 94th Infantry Division. On that day, Oresko singlehandedly defeated a German bunker by lobbing a grenade and charging it after the explosion to eliminate the remaining enemy. Oresko was seriously wounded in the hip by machine-gun fire from a second bunker. Despite his injuries, Oresko led a charge to the second bunker, eventually charging it on his own and successfully eliminating its threats.

In all, Oresko was credited with killing 12 Germans, preventing a delay in the enemy assault and making it possible for Company C to obtain its objective with minimum casualties.

President Harry Truman decorated Oresko with the medal in October 1945 at the White House.

Oresko was born Jan. 18, 1917, in Bayonne, N.J. He joined the Army in March 1942. He became the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor after the death of Pfc. Barney F. Hajiro in January 2011.

Retired Army Col. Bruce P. Crandall, right, and Nicholas Oresko, center, both recipients of the Medal of Honor, attend Veterans Day activities at Madison Square Park in New York City, N.Y., honoring war veterans Nov. 11, 2011. Oresko is the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade)
Retired Army Col. Bruce P. Crandall, right, and Nicholas Oresko, center, both recipients of the Medal of Honor, attend Veterans Day activities at Madison Square Park in New York City, N.Y., honoring war veterans Nov. 11, 2011. Oresko is the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade)

SPP: Being the backbone where NCOs aren’t treated as such

By MICHAEL L. LEWIS
NCO Journal

As one of the original participants in the State Partnership Program, the New Jersey National Guard has built a solid and valuable relationship with Albania during the past 20 years. But at the core of the partnership lies a discrepancy that is common to many SPP pairings: American NCOs often have far more responsibilities and authority than their counterparts in other nations’ armies. Consequently, as they support the bilateral SPP missions directed by combatant commands, U.S. Army NCOs have the additional job of imparting what being the “backbone of the Army” means as they help their fellow noncommissioned officers develop professional NCO corps in their own countries.

New Jersey National Guard NCOs and Albanian soldiers carry a casualty on a litter during a medical evacuation training exercise at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, May 29, 2011. (Photo by Pfc. Stephen Solomon)
New Jersey National Guard NCOs and Albanian soldiers carry a casualty on a litter during a medical evacuation training exercise at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, May 29, 2011. (Photo by Pfc. Stephen Solomon)

Albania’s top NCO said he is grateful for the help in raising the profile of NCOs in his country, whose armed forces are celebrating the “Year of the NCO” this year.

 “Albanian NCOs have not been used very much in the past,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Proletar Panxha, the sergeant major of the Albanian armed forces. “But now, we have been trying to build a good NCO corps with the support of the United States, especially through training and education.

“Our NCOs have learned a lot,” Panxha said. “There are a lot of NCOs who benefit from this, not just me. First of all, we have made a good friend. Second, we have learned how the United States’ and the New Jersey National Guard’s NCOs do business and cooperate with officers.”

Old ways of thinking still dominate Albanian officers’ attitudes toward enlisted soldiers, said Staff Sgt. Toby Tirrito, a plans and operations NCO with the New Jersey National Guard.

“Three years ago, we were shipping surplus bulletproof vests over there, and I remember specifically speaking with one of the Albanian NCOs. Then an officer came over and stood in front of him and said, ‘No, you’re going to talk to me.’ It’s a totally different climate over there. An officer is way up here, and NCOs are really just soldiers who just do what their told.”

Nonetheless, Albania’s armed forces are gradually understanding the vital role of professional NCOs, said Maj. Richard Karcher, the state partnership coordinator for the New Jersey National Guard.

“It wasn’t that long ago that they got rid of conscription. So they are still in that mind frame — if you’re not an officer, you’re a worker bee,” he said. “But slowly they are getting there. In my one-year deployment [with Albanian forces], I could see the change start to happen. Once they saw our NCOs leading convoys, being convoy commanders and doing convoy briefs, and me giving them responsibilities, they were just astonished.”

“We do still have some officers with the old mentality,” said Sgt. Maj. Ilmi Popshini, the Albanian armed forces’ J-1 sergeant major. “It is not so easy for them to change. But for our young generation of officers, they have had good cooperation with the NCOs. They accept the NCOs to be close to them, and that is very important. For sure, we cannot say we’re at 100 percent. But that mentality has been changed a lot.”

 

Leading and learning by example

Learning the differences between the U.S. Army NCO Corps and that of a foreign army helps New Jersey National Guard NCOs appreciate what they have, said Master Sgt. Brian Holderness, a senior intelligence analyst with the New Jersey National Guard.

New Jersey National Guard NCOs Albanian soldiers depart from a helicopter during a medical evacuation training exercise at in Hohenfels on May 29, 2011. (Photo by Pfc. Stephen Solomon)
New Jersey National Guard NCOs Albanian soldiers depart from a helicopter during a medical evacuation training exercise at in Hohenfels on May 29, 2011. (Photo by Pfc. Stephen Solomon)

“I think we take a lot for granted as NCOs in the U.S. Army,” Holderness said. “But when you deal with some of these countries that come from different systems that are much more class-oriented, you see that, as an NCO, you’ve been developed and trained to take on more responsibility, to have more decision-making power, to be able to be in charge and lead troops. You see that is not always the case in these other cultures, Albania being one example. But they are coming along with that. They benefit tremendously by interacting with us and seeing what we’re capable of doing without always seeking continuous guidance and direction and permission for everything. That benefits them certainly, but it also allows us to reflect on the kind of training and the kind of benefits that we enjoy here.”

Exceeding expectations is the best way to showcase the professionalism of American NCOs, said Sgt. 1st Class Richard St. Pierre, an administration operations NCO with the New Jersey National Guard.

“Over there, the officers are more controlling than we are here,” St. Pierre said. “Here, the officer tells the NCO what to do and knows it’s going to get done. That’s in the Creed: Officers ‘will have maximum time to accomplish their duties; they will not have to accomplish mine.’ There, I think the mentality is, ‘The NCO’s not going to do it, so I’ll have to do it.’”

NCOs can engender the most respect just by leading by example, Holderness said.

“In any new situation, there’s a lot of judgment going on,” he said. “Their NCOs are watching their officers, and their officers are watching you. It’s all your interactions, your mannerisms, your social interaction. So you have to present yourself as a professional. You gain their respect, and you go from there.”

Once mutual respect is attained, a true partnership develops that is based on genuine cooperation, Holderness said. He saw it happen first-hand during his own deployment with Albanian troops to Afghanistan. He was one of 12 U.S. troops on a small military advisor team led by an Albanian commander and sergeant major.

“It was challenging for me and for the team at first, because you’re thrown together,” he said. “It took a while for the two parts of us, the two halves of us, to mesh and get that single focus, and I think both sides had to compromise. You can’t go into this with the expectation that we’re going to make the Albanians work with our system. That’s not going to happen, and it shouldn’t happen. You have to find some kind of compromise, and that comes through different ways — talking together, eating together, socializing together, as well as performing the mission together.”

 

Bringing it back home

Being able to interact with fellow NCOs as true peers means a lot to Albanian NCOs, Panxha said.

“We had two NCOs go to the NCO academy [in New Jersey], and when they got back, they were very excited. They learned a lot from your NCOs, even how to exchange information and exchange experiences NCO-to-NCO. Whether officially or socially off-duty, they felt equal; they discussed things seriously.

“This is new for us,” Panxha continued. “For you, it may not look so special. But for us, that was very special. When you see them speak of their experiences there, they are very excited. And they spread it among their friends and the NCO corps here through their jobs as instructors at our NCO academy.”

But Albanian NCOs aren’t the only ones developing as professionals, Holderness said. New Jersey Guard members have improved as leaders and trainers through their work with the partnership too.

“As NCOs, we’re sometimes charged with training foreign troops and communicating with foreign troops, even just getting along with foreign troops,” he said. “This partnership really helps that. Our ability to get along with them, to communicate with them and to familiarize ourselves with them, I think, makes us better NCOs when it comes to some of these other missions we have.”

Missions such as training troops stateside, Karcher said.

“When you are sitting in front of a bunch of Albanians or a bunch of Afghans, you are teaching all the way down to the lowest level,” he said. “So you really have to think about every step of that process as far as what you’re trying to train them. You have to look at your slides, you have to watch your acronyms, you have to watch your speech. So I think [working with partner nations] hones our NCOs’ skills to train junior Soldiers when they get back and are sitting in front of a squad of folks who just got out of [Advanced Individual Training].”

Holderness agreed.

“I think this program makes all of us more effective NCOs,” he said. “We’re more effective in our jobs, whether that’s training foreign troops or preparing for our next deployment and dealing with another culture, or training within our own corps. It’s having that flexibility and that sensitivity, that ability to adapt.”