They arrive every 90 days at the Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts, ready to perform an invaluable mission on behalf of their military brothers and sisters. If a Soldier wears it, eats it or sleeps under it, a human research volunteer has tested it for the Army warfighter.
HRVs arrive at Natick usually following advanced individual training and prior to their first permanent duty station. Many Soldiers often arrive unfamiliar with the small military research complex and installation.
“I had no clue about Natick,” said 1st Sgt. Miguel A. Martinez Jr., first sergeant of the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, who works with many of the HRVs. “Before I came here, I asked myself, ‘What am I getting myself into? I have no idea what this is.’ I have been here a year, and I love it. It’s great.”
Behind every HRV is a small force of noncommissioned officers who are charged with sustaining Natick’s mission of maximizing the warfighter’s survivability and combat effectiveness.
“We know what the equipment can be used for, instead of what it was designed to do,” Martinez said. “Soldiers walk in and say, ‘That’s awesome. I can do this, this and this.’ The scientists then say, ‘Wow. We never thought of it that way.”
It happens often: Soldiers repurpose a piece of military equipment in a way that scientists never thought possible. One example was the Army poncho, said Sarah Ross, human research volunteer test coordinator and a veteran NCO.
“Scientists had no idea that Soldiers were using it as a shelter or a cover,” Ross said. “Two years ago, [a review] was done in the Doriot Climatic Chambers because Soldiers were getting heat injuries from being underneath the poncho. They found Soldiers were using the poncho as a shelter, and the temperature underneath the ponchos was reaching 150 degrees. Soldiers thought they were in the shade, but in reality they were hurting themselves by doing it. Scientists and engineers didn’t create that item for them to use it in that regard, so they changed it. But they
wouldn’t have known that if they didn’t have a good relationship with Soldiers to be able to get that feedback.”
Martinez and Ross work together with HRVs to ensure that being a Soldier doesn’t come second at Natick, Ross said.
“Bottom line is we are all just making sure that we do the best we can for the Soldier,” she said.
A lot can happen in the 90 days that Soldiers serve as HRVs.
“It’s enough time where Soldiers who are not diligent in staying within qualification of their MOS, their job, that they can become complacent quite easily,” Ross said. “So that’s where HRDD comes in ─ to make sure that Soldiers keep that good order because that’s important.”
Soldiers who volunteer for studies at Natick may find themselves with such tasks as trying new uniforms or garments or enduring environmental conditions that Soldiers in the field commonly face.
“A Soldier can be here for 90 days and participate anywhere from doing one study to 10, 12 or 15,” Ross said. “I keep records, and I give them all a little memo of things they have done. I did one where a Soldier did 17. That’s the most I have seen a Soldier do in 90 days.”
As part of the team at the Doriot Climatic Chambers, Ross has seen a lot of HRVs come through Natick.
“Our program is evolving because the Soldiers that we work for are evolving,” Ross said. “The Soldiers we are getting in this program are changing because the demographic of the Soldier is changing. We are seeing more females in these groups than I have ever seen. This upcoming group has 11 females. I have never had 11 females in a group of 30 before. That’s never happened in my eight years here.”
The installation often welcomes West Point cadets as well as squads from larger bases to help with testing.
“We have cadets from West Point who intern here,” Martinez said. “We also have a squad from the 82nd Airborne Division that helps as well. There are guys from Fort Stewart, Georgia, here, and we have HRVs as well. It’s a very busy installation for a small unit.”
HRVs have been prized for their feedback since 1954 at Natick labs, where they take part in studies for NSRDEC and the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. Ross often hears back from some Soldiers who have volunteered at Natick.
“One of the best things to me is when I open up Facebook, and I get a message from [a former HRV],” she said. “They tell me, ‘Hey Sarah, I am an E4 now. My unit was chosen to use this new rucksack. I opened it up and realized that three years ago when I was at Natick as an HRV I helped with this research.’ I probably receive about 10 of those emails. That to me is so cool.”
Cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps recently got a first-hand look at NCO leadership at Fort Campbell, Ky. Noncommissisioned officers with 3rd Battalion, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), mentored students participating in cadet troop leader training from July 17 to Aug. 7.
The students, assigned to the 3rd Battalion “Eagle Attack,” saw what it is like to serve as a platoon leader in an active aviation unit. During the assignment, the students gave briefings and assisted in planning day-to-day missions under the mentorship of the battalion’s senior NCOs.
The mentorship opened the lines of communication between the soon-to-be junior officers and the Soldiers they will be working hand-in-hand with once they receive their commissions. By working with NCOs, the cadets gain experience in seeking guidance from their enlisted counterparts and establishing relationships founded on trust.
“I have 24 years in the Army,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Nichols, production control NCO in charge for D Company, 3rd Battalion, 101st CAB. “I have heard jokes about second lieutenants not having experience in the Army but having a lot of authority when they get to their unit. When good NCOs mentor the cadets, it gives us a chance to make sure that doesn’t happen nearly as much. It gives us the opportunity to make sure that when they commission, they can lean on and learn from the knowledge and leadership of their NCOs.”
For the cadets, establishing that trust provided a new perspective. By working in an active-duty unit with their NCO counterparts, the cadets learned some of the realities of working with the Soldiers they’ll be leading.
“You really can’t compare what we learned here to what we learned back at school,” said Cadet Olivia Lynch, a student at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Fla. “In the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at my school, we only learned about our duties as an officer. Here, we’re learning what it’s actually like working with the enlisted, what their day-to-day jobs are, what it’s like for them to live in the barracks. We learned what a platoon really needs out of a platoon leader. We learned that even something as small as going to a softball game can make a huge difference in morale.”
Though taking care of Soldiers is the realm of NCOs, command climate is often influenced by the officers in an organization. Mentoring the cadets is a great way for NCOs to hone their skills training Soldiers and set the cadets up for success, Nichols said.
“One of our basic functions as NCOs is to train Soldiers,” Nichols said. “Our job is to get privates and specialists mission-ready. Now, instead of training a private, you’re training a cadet. As my father used to say, ‘Get them young, start them young, train them young, and they’ll work forever that way.’ If you bring the cadets here to the active-duty Army and establish good habits of working with NCOs, only good things can come out of it. Pairing NCOs and cadets gives leadership opportunities to both sides. It gives junior NCOs the experience of reporting to a platoon leader, in a training sense. Those junior NCOs will become senior NCOs who will be reporting up the chain of command. It gives the cadets the opportunity to lead Soldiers, which will ultimately be their job. It shows both sides how an effective line of communication works both ways.”
Building avenues of communication is an important part of building any team. When it’s time to make things happen, other skills are needed. Time and resource management have to be included in the process.
“I think it’s absolutely necessary for the cadets to get the enlisted perspective as well as the officer mentorship now and as they progress through their careers,” said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Carter, D Company component repair supervisor. “It gives a new set of eyes and vision for fixing future problems. If it takes five Soldiers 30 minutes to move the aircraft, that’s 2.5 hours of manpower. The cadet needs to understand that maybe the time spent moving the aircraft can be better spent on other tasks. Instead of just giving direction, working smarter with your Soldiers would benefit the Army no matter what kind of unit you’re in.”
Leading Soldiers is a big responsibility. Having a taste of what they’ll be doing when they become platoon leaders will better prepare cadets for their responsibilities.
“What I see as a command sergeant major is that sometimes new officers don’t understand the responsibilities of being a platoon leader and the gravity that position possesses,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Brock, senior enlisted advisor for the “Eagle Attack” Battalion. “I think it catches them by surprise. I think the NCOs at ROTC or West Point need to convey that, unlike privates, a newly commissioned officer is a leader from day one by virtue of the fact that he or she is a second lieutenant or a first lieutenant.”
Giving the cadets a bigger toolbox before they receive their commissions helps them build and maintain positive relationships with their NCOs.
Officers have a lot of responsibilities placed on them because they are officers, Brock said. Every officer has an NCO. It’s NCO business to keep officers informed of Soldier issues because NCOs have more experience dealing with them. If officers and NCOs establish that communication and work together as teammates, the organization benefits.
As students nationwide prepare to return to school this month, two groups of NCOs are also preparing to start another year as staff members and students at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School at West Point, N.Y., commonly known as West Point Prep.
There, prior-enlisted Soldiers and recent high school graduates develop their study, military and athletic skills as cadet candidates before going “down the hill” — to the other side of the West Point campus — to begin their journey toward becoming commissioned officers. And guiding these aspiring students are the school’s complement of NCOs.
“NCOs have a huge impact here,” said Sgt. 1st Class Tristan Ruark, a tactical NCO at West Point Prep. “The day-to-day contact we have, the legacy of these NCOs, will be passed down the ‘Long Gray Line’ and out into the Army when these young men and women become officers.”
The school has its origins in President Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 authorization of appointments to West Point for enlisted Soldiers. From then until just after World War II, various programs operated in locations as varied as Fort Snelling, Minn., and in-theater in Langres, France, to prepare candidates for admission and graduation at the U.S. Military Academy. These ad hoc programs were consolidated at Stewart Army Air Field just north of West Point at Newburgh, N.Y., in 1946. The school then moved to Fort Belvoir, Va., in 1957, and to Fort Monmouth, N.J., in 1975, before settling at the West Point installation in 2011 as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure process.
Today, the school is no longer exclusively for enlisted Soldiers. Most of its student body are recent high school graduates who typically need to boost their academic skills before starting West Point’s legendarily tough curriculum. A typical day at the prep school is filled with math, English, study skills and military science classes, plus up to three hours of physical training and team sports, which are often coached by NCOs. Cadet candidates who graduate from the year-long program enter West Point as freshmen cadets — “plebes.” Proof that candidates leave well prepared is in the numbers: Since 1951, West Point Prep graduates have comprised 11 percent of the academy’s Corps of Cadets, yet have held 25 percent of the senior leadership positions.
A different role for NCOs
Because of West Point’s unique time-honored traditions, how NCOs there perform their customary roles of training, coaching and mentoring is unlike anywhere else in the Army. Cadets and cadet candidates operate their own chain of command and are the ones immediately responsible for student training and correction rather than the NCOs on staff.
“When I first arrived, I think the biggest shocker to me was that we weren’t the trainers anymore,” said Sgt. 1st Class Kristy Armstrong, who completed her tenure as the school’s first sergeant earlier this year. “Everywhere else in the Army, NCOs are the trainers. But when we get here, we’re told, ‘Here is your cadet leadership, and they’re going to train the cadet candidates.’”
Because older West Point cadets are the primary trainers at both the academy and the prep school, and that duty is designed as a learning experience for them, NCO staff members take a back seat during training events.
“During marksmanship training, for example, we give the cadets the overview of what we want the cadet candidates to know. But when we go to the range, we’re on the sidelines. We step back instead of being the subject-matter experts and the ones who validate the training as accurate and correct, because that’s not our role here.”
That doesn’t mean they stop showing what right looks like, however, Ruark said.
“We still are making sure that the cadet candidates are maintaining the standards,” he said. “But it’s when there are problems that the [cadet candidate] chain of command can’t take care of, that’s when we step in. And we’re always helping guide them and mold them.”
That caring for Soldiers — a hallmark of NCO leadership — is just done differently at the school than in regular Army units, said Sgt. 1st Class Thaddeus Martin, also a tac NCO at West Point Prep.
“It’s the same message getting across, we just do it differently here,” he said. “You still have to know your Soldiers, get that standard out there and enforce that standard. If we do that, everything else just falls into line.”
Almost all the NCOs on staff at the prep school were prepared for the job through previous stints as drill sergeants or platoon sergeants, Armstrong said.
“But this job really doesn’t compare to being a drill sergeant, because being a drill sergeant, you do everything. Everything falls on you,” she said. “Here, you’re more of a mentor. In my opinion, I’d say platoon sergeant would be the best preparation.”
“Having been a drill sergeant helps a little bit as far as the task management piece of things and because everything here has to be so structured,” Martin said. “As a drill sergeant, you do things every single day the same way, with the same schedule. It’s kind of the same thing here.”
But perhaps the biggest impact the NCOs at the prep school have on their students is simply exemplifying the value of NCOs in the Army, Ruark said.
“Having NCOs here, [the cadet candidates] get a good introduction to what the role of the NCO is,” he said. “They get to see different aspects of what NCOs do every day — not only the expertise part and the experience part, but also that we take care of Soldiers. We do that so officers have the time to accomplish their mission and do all the things they need to do. Eventually, if we stay in the Army long enough, these guys are going to come back to us as officers themselves, and we’re going to be part of that journey.”
That journey includes developing a healthy understanding of the officer-NCO relationship early on and learning to value NCOs as an indispensable resource, Armstrong said.
“Officers are the planners, and they’re a lot better at it than most of us are; they have more experience in that,” she said. “But they don’t have more experience in the implementation piece — the actual, no-kidding, breaking it down to the lowest level possible, like when we are training our team leaders and squad leaders to actually go outside the wire. That lieutenant is not training them; it’s the senior NCO who’s training those squad leaders. … We have all this knowledge, combat experience and leadership experience that shouldn’t be ignored because of the rank we wear.”
That the students will take this knowledge with them to West Point and onward into their Army careers is an immense responsibility, Ruark said.
“We develop and mentor, and try to set these guys up the best we can,” he said. “If they do make it into the academy, then hopefully they’ll take some of what we’ve given them and give it back to their classmates and to the Army.”
On the other hand, the NCOs said their experience in training future officers will also make them better senior NCOs.
“It’s going to help me be a true first sergeant of a company, because I’ve been able to step back,” Armstrong said. “I won’t just jump off the handle as my first instinct, but look to see what the actual problem is.”
“After this assignment, I think I’ll be a better planner,” Martin said. “NCOs, we usually execute. But we’ve planned so much in the past two years, it’s going to give me a foundation for years to come.”
“A little bit of it as well is working in close proximity with high-level leaders like field-grade officers,” Ruark said. “Learning how to work with them in this environment will definitely transfer to when you become a first sergeant or you’re in operations and you’re going to battalion-level meetings.”
Understanding how officers are trained will also be an asset, Ruark said.
“It definitely is a unique experience to see what goes on to produce the officers who are going to take charge of us,” he said.
From Soldier to student
For the West Point Prep students who’ve transitioned from being enlisted Soldiers to being students on the path toward being commissioned as officers, life at the school takes much adjusting.
“It could be that you’re prior-service, but have been out of high school too long,” Armstrong said. “The Army wants to make sure that you can adapt back into the classroom environment.”
Prior-service cadet candidates must trade their lives of relative autonomy and responsibility to start over at the lowest rung of West Point’s student leadership structure. But for one candidate, it was an opportunity that he couldn’t pass on.
“The Army is something I love, and I thought that if I really wanted to make a step up, the positives really outweighed the negatives exponentially,” said Cadet Candidate Samuel Crump, who was a sergeant when he enrolled in the school last year and is now a West Point plebe. “If I really wanted to take my career to the next level, I realized this was something I had to look into.”
At first, Crump said he chafed a bit at cadet leaders calling the shots, having come from a position where that was his job.
“I was pulled out of a mobilization to come here,” he said. “I was a training NCO, and I was training my Soldiers, making sure everything was good to go. We were so gung-ho, ready for that mission. Then this happened. It was definitely an interesting transition.”
But Crump and his fellow prior-service students quickly realized they still were able to positively impact their colleagues. Though informal, that mentorship was no less impactful, Armstrong said.
“[Students with prior service] are definitely used as internal leadership,” she said. “To not use the knowledge that they have to bring to the table would be silly on our part. Their peer leadership is definitely a necessity according to the way this place is set up.”
Helping others understand the different roles of officers and NCOs was a common theme, said then-Cadet Candidate Matthew Seyfried, who was a private first class when he enrolled in the school and is now a first-year cadet at West Point.
“The prior-service [cadet candidates] try to help the non-priors differentiate the roles of the tac officer and the tac NCO,” he said. “It’s probably one of the biggest things for them, because they don’t have any experience with NCOs before coming here. So, I think that’s one of the biggest reasons they bring enlisted Soldiers here, to show how enlisted life is so they have a well-rounded base.”
Crump said one of the hardest things to do — amid the trials and frustrations of what will be for them a five-year stay at West Point — is to remain focused on the ultimate long-term objective for every West Point Prep student: becoming a commissioned U.S. Army officer.
“The system they have in place accomplishes its goal. The goal is to get people down the hill, and that’s what they’re doing,” he said. “Now is the time you need to evolve so you can fit into the West Point mold. That way, when you go down the hill, everything’s going to go smooth for you. That’s the ultimate goal — stay on the glide path and graduate.”
“If you just remember the end state — I’m going back to the Army and I’m going to have a different impact there and perform a different role in a different way — and stay excited about it, you’ll be able to keep that positive mentality even on those days when you wish you could just go back to doing what it was you were doing before,” he said.
But Crump said they wouldn’t forget their roots as enlisted Soldiers and NCOs.
“After all, I’m not here to be Sgt. Crump,” he said. “I’m here on a long transition to become 2nd Lt. Crump. Then one day perhaps, when I’m Maj. Crump and he’s Maj. Seyfried, we’ll be able to look at doctrine differently and influence the enlisted side and give them what they need.”
With the numbers of wounded and ill Soldiers steadily declining in the last 14 months to its lowest levels since 2007, the Warrior Transition Command will restructure over the next nine months.
Five of the 29 warrior transition units, known as WTUs, and all nine community-based warrior transition units, or CBWTUs, will be deactivated due to the falling numbers, explained Brig. Gen. David Bishop, Warrior Transition Command, or WTC, commander, during a media roundtable Jan. 9. He added that 13 community care units would be formed and embedded within warrior transition battalions and brigades at 11 installations.
“The decision to reorganize was also based on periodic reviews and lessons learned over the last few years,” Bishop said, emphasizing that WTC remains fully funded and upcoming changes “are not related to budget cuts, sequestration or furloughs.”
The WTUs being shut down are located at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.; Fort Irwin, Calif.; Fort Jackson, S.C.; West Point, N.Y.; and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. As of Jan. 2, the total number of Soldiers assigned to those five units stood at only 62.
Bishop said those 62 Soldiers are anticipated to transition naturally as part of their healing plan by the end of September. If they haven’t, they’ll be assigned to a community care unit or WTU at another installation.
The nine CBWTUs in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Utah, Virginia and Puerto Rico will all be deactivated, but Puerto Rico will have a community care unit detachment under the mission command of the Fort Gordon (Ga.) Warrior Transition Battalion.
Before the 13 community care units begin receiving Soldiers from the CBWTUs, they’ll first be certified at their initial operating capability by the commanding generals of regional medical commands to ensure resources and training is in place.
“Every Soldier will go through a series of interactions with both their gaining and losing cadre to ensure their complete care and transition plan is fully understood and accountability is maintained and continuity is sustained throughout the process,” Bishop said.
WTC began looking at ways it could improve the transition process in July 2012. While the command had capacity to handle 12,000 Soldiers, the population had dropped to 7,070. Bishop said it was appropriate to reduce capacity given the population decrease, but feedback from oversight agencies, Soldiers and their families identified improvements that could be made.
“We were able to add capabilities to units as well as occupational therapists, occupational therapist assistants, physical therapists, transition coordinators and nurse case managers to improve the experience of Soldiers going through the program,” he said.
“For example, nurse case managers have a ratio of one to 20 Soldiers across the program. In battalion headquarters companies, we’re now going to improve that to one to 10, and squad leaders will go from a ratio of one to 10 across the program to one to eight within battalion headquarters,” Bishop added, noting that in the CBWTUs the ratio of platoon sergeants to Soldiers was one to 40, and that will change to one to 33.
That will increase the capacity of leadership to take care of Soldiers, and it should be felt positively by Soldiers and cadre members, he said.
WTC is also working to reduce the transfer and evaluation time, Bishop said. Now when Soldiers go to a CBWTU, they must first in-process at a WTU on an installation and after evaluation and assessment go through several medical appointments until the commander deems them prepared to go home. That takes an average of 107 days, he said.
“The Community Care model is going to help the cadre and the Soldier by virtue of being on an installation within the footprint and leadership of a warrior transition battalion,” Bishop said. “Right now the CBWTU cadre are on leased space or on some military space, but separate from WTUs on the installations; but under the Community Care model, they’re going to leverage the command structures, the staff of the WTB, the military treatment facility clinical staff and the senior commander who is overseeing the WTU.
“We think the increased standardization, reduction in transfer time, improvement in our simplification of the command structure and the provision and leveraging of installation command structures and resources will help very much,” he added.
Addressing the nearly 4,000 military and civilian personnel required as cadre at WTUs and CBWTUs across the Army, the general said the force structure modifications would result in 549 fewer personnel requirements — 36 fewer civilians and 513 fewer military, most of the latter from the reserve component.
“Commanders will be managing the transitions to these new unit structures, and Medical Command will do everything within its power to take care of its employees — mobilized reserve-component cadre on active-duty orders will have the option of being released or applying for other reserve-component positions elsewhere or in this program,” he said. “The same will be true for our Army civilians.”
The U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, in conjunction with Maneuver Center of Excellence, will host the 2014 U.S. Army Small Arms Championships, from Jan. 26 to Feb. 1, at Fort Benning, Ga.
The All-Army competition is open to all Soldiers, active and reserve component, of all ranks. Additionally, both West Point and Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets are welcome to participate.
The U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, or USAMU, hosts the All-Army in order to raise the standard of marksmanship across the force and increase overall Army combat readiness.
Range capacity for the event is 240, and half of those have already been claimed through early registration. Once registration exceeds that number, Soldiers will be placed on a stand-by list for the competition.
There is no cost to compete in the championship and ammunition is provided to all competitors.
For additional information and to register, visit the USAMU website at www.usamu.com or contact the USAMU chief of competitions, at 706-545-7841.