This Month in NCO History: Aug. 20, 1804, an NCO rises to help shape America

The Lewis and Clark expedition is renowned as the venture that mapped what is now the western portion of the United States. What isn’t well known is that an NCO was an integral part of the famed Corps of Discovery mission.

Sgt. Patrick McLene Gass almost wasn’t part of the campaign led by Capt. Meriwether Lewis and 2nd Lt. William Clark from May 1804 to September 1806. Gass, who was born June 12, 1771, in present day Chambersburg, Pa., and joined the Army in 1799, was so adept as a craftsman that Capt. Russell Bissell, his commander at the Illinois Territory village of Kaskaskia, denied his request to join the exploring mission. Gass appealed to Lewis who eventually interceded, enlisting Gass as a private on Jan. 3, 1804.

Gass’ military records indicate he was 33 years old during the expedition’s first year, making him one of the elders among the group of 33 volunteers who set out across the continent. History paints him as a first-rate Soldier with excellent people skills. It’s probably the reason he was promoted to sergeant Aug. 20, 1804, after the death of Sgt. Charles Floyd. The other men in the group were allowed to elect Floyd’s replacement, and they chose Gass with 19 votes.

In addition to his leadership ability, Gass proved to be an invaluable addition to the expedition as a carpenter. He oversaw construction of the group’s winter quarters located in Camp Dubois, Ill., Fort Mandan, N.D., and Fort Clatsop, Ore. He applied his woodworking skills to the hewing of dugout canoes used to negotiate waterways in Idaho and Montana. Those same skills were used to modify the wagons to portage the canoes overland around a series of falls along the Missouri River.

On July 3, 1806, during the party’s return from the Pacific, Lewis and Clark divided the group into three separate detachments. Gass was given command of the largest, and entrusted to lead them 18 miles around the Missouri River waterfalls. All three parties successfully rejoined near the mouth of the Yellowstone River and made the trek home, arriving in St. Louis on Sept. 23, 1806.

Gass kept a diary during the expedition, which was published in 1807. He is credited with coining the term “Corps of Discovery.” The phrase used to describe the group of volunteers was boldly scrawled on the journal’s title page.

Gass remained in the Army after the Corps of Discovery returned. He served in the War of 1812. Legend has it he was escorted out of a recruiting station during the Civil War when, at age 91, Gass tried to enlist to fight with the Union. At age 60, he married Maria Hamilton. The couple had seven children while living in Wellsburg, W. Va. Gass died there April 2, 1870, at age 98. At the time of his death, the nation had grown to 38 states, several of them in the very lands he was a vital part of mapping.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

Former NCO burned in IED blast lifts himself, others up through stand-up comedy

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

There’s something striking about Bobby Henline.

No, it’s not the roughly depilated head or the craggy striations seared into the former staff sergeant’s face, the result of a 2007 roadside bomb attack in Iraq that struck the humvee he was riding in. Henline was the only one of the vehicle’s five occupants to survive the blast. More than 38 percent of his body was burned. His head was scorched to the skull. His left hand was so badly singed it would eventually be amputated. Despite 46 surgeries and six months of rehabilitation, Henline’s likeness was permanently altered.

But that’s not what sticks out about him.

What is most palpable about Henline, a San Jose, Calif., native, is his affable demeanor. He speaks with a quick hop-step cadence, punctuated often with a hearty laugh. The rhythm crescendos when he talks about his family, his fellow Soldiers, his friends or the thing that he says has helped him keep going after suffering such a harrowing ordeal — humor.

Today, Henline is a stand-up comedian. In fact, he is one of the industry’s budding talents, having performed in some of comedy’s meccas such as The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, and appearing in the Showtime documentary, “Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor.”

Henline says he turned to comedy as a coping mechanism — his days vocally directing Soldiers as an NCO helped him summon the courage to take the stage for the first time. It ended up renewing his zeal for life. And he hopes sharing his story can help other injured — and sometimes disfigured — Soldiers face their lives with the same exuberance.

“I didn’t think I’d get a job out of it,” said Henline before a Fourth of July performance at the Joke Joint Comedy Showcase in Houston. “It was fun for me. It was a release. It’s always how I like to deal with stuff, with my humor. So it was good for me. It was just a fun thing to do. And it just started building up and building up. Next thing you know, it’s serious. Comedy got serious.”

‘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,” he said. “There are two things I remember from that day. 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 had to smother the flames burning Henline’s upper body and dig the broken teeth out of his mouth to allow him to breathe.

Humor amid hardship

Two weeks later, Henline emerged from a medically induced coma at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, thus beginning a medical odyssey that would provide many painful moments, both physically and emotionally.

But one thing came easy to him — humor.

“I started joking around, even in intensive care, in the first month,” Henline said. “A lot of that I don’t remember. But I do remember one day they were walking me and I was mad because they wouldn’t give me water. And I wanted water. So I was walking around the nurses’ desk and I told them, ‘When I get out of here, we’re having a water party. Squirt guns, balloons. No alcohol allowed. Just water.’ I think that was the first time I really started joking around with people.”

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 gotta try stand-up comedy. You’ve gotta try it!’ I’m like ‘That’s stupid. It’s not gonna 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, Robin Williams and Bill Cosby. 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.

“It went horrible,” Henline remembers. “My joke I still do today about being a rare birth defect was the first joke I really wrote. No one laughed. But I tag it with, ‘And now my mom thinks she has the right to complain to me about her acid reflux.’ I didn’t think that was the joke. I thought the joke that my mom was in the circus as a fire-eater was the funny part. But they related to the acid reflux better. So I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really the punch line.’ When I got off stage, another comic said to me, ‘I really liked the part about the acid reflux.’ That gave me a little hint, like ‘OK, maybe I can write a joke.’”

And so, Henline returned to San Antonio, where he still resides to be near the medical facilities he frequents, 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. 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.

Heeding the call

Henline’s brush with some of comedy’s biggest names did well to instill confidence in his work. But it was feedback from fellow wounded veterans that made him realize his newfound profession was something more than a personal outlet.

“Some of the best feedback I’ve heard comes from guys who are out of the military now,” Henline said. “Two guys — burn survivors, [who] I visited in the hospital a long time ago — have said that what I do helps them. It helps them out in public. They both live in the San Antonio area. They both have been called ‘Bobby Henline’ in public — us burnt guys all look alike. They told me not to feel bad when people call me J.R. Martinez (another famed U.S. Army veteran and burn survivor), because they get the same thing, only they’re called Bobby Henline, the comedian. But they said it really helps them. It’s always breaking the ice for people to feel more comfortable coming up and talking to them. They said they like that.

“Once I started seeing that it could make a difference in people’s lives by going on stage and making people laugh about this, it makes it easier for them, too, to approach somebody else when they see someone with a disfigurement. To know that, hey, we want to talk. We’re not dead. We’re the same person. We like to have dinner, have a drink, go to a movie. We have personalities. We’re not all angry about what happened to us. It’s OK to ask.”

Henline has not limited himself to comedy for his outreach efforts. He conducts motivational speaking visits at schools, colleges, companies and churches. He makes himself available to other wounded warriors in San Antonio hospitals and clinics to give them someone to speak with that might better understand their experiences.

Henline also formed the Crosshairs Comedy troupe with other wounded veterans. The group performs at comedy clubs throughout the country, helping each other with their sets as well as with the emotional setbacks caused by their combat experiences.

Henline performed during Fourth of July weekend in Houston with two members of the troupe — Anthony Torino, a U.S. Air Force veteran, and Raul Sanchez, an Army veteran. Both men lauded Henline’s efforts while on stage. Before the show, Torino jokingly lamented nearly receiving credit for one of Henline’s signature jokes.

“We’ve done a lot of shows together, and I used to sit in the back of the audience,” Torino said. “I used to work with people who were burnt [when I was] a therapist. I’d watch Bobby’s first sets and I was, like, ‘People aren’t paying attention to him. They’re staring at him.’ And he doesn’t give them a chance to just look. He’s used to it; I’m used to it. But the rest of the crowd is like, ‘Holy heck.’ And so I was, like, give them time to go, ‘Holy heck.’ And I was like, ‘What could he say? — You should see the other guy!’ Because he was in a fight, you know what I mean? And the first time he did it, it went great. Turned out to be perfect.”

But Henline didn’t deliver that opening line until he received the same advice from comedian Brad Garrett, a fact Torino dismisses.

“He wouldn’t listen to me,” Torino said. “But Brad Garrett tells him to do it, and …

“Seriously, Bobby is funny. And all the good things he does for us and other people are just awesome.”

NCO lessons shine through

Henline earned his sergeant stripes in 2004, just before joining the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He says his days as an NCO continue to reverberate throughout his life, both personally and professionally.

“Definitely, being a Soldier helped a lot of things,” Henline said. “Especially becoming an NCO — you’re used to talking to the crowds and giving classes and things like that. Also, being burnt meant wherever I went, I got stared at. It didn’t matter. So I figure if I went up on stage and I stood there and people stared at me, it’d be just like me going to Walmart. There wouldn’t be anything different. The attitude of pulling through and making sure you’re OK and all the training definitely comes into being strong.”

Henline also says he enjoyed his days leading other Soldiers. He credits his time with younger Soldiers as the reason he can enjoy the camaraderie of his fellow troupe comics. They are lessons he feels today’s NCOs can continue to employ.

“Leadership style? I’m definitely a participator,” Henline said. “I delegate if there’s enough people around. But if not, I’m gonna get in there. You don’t want to lose a skill by just sitting there giving orders and demands and make everyone else do it, and then you forget how to do it yourself. I was maybe too soft sometimes when I needed to be a little meaner. But I’d rather talk to them and try to coach them that way. I wanted to learn about the individual, who they are. Because they’re just like your children. You know, ‘Which one handles being yelled at better? Which one learns better being talked to?’ So as you get to know your Soldiers better, you can’t just treat them all exactly the same. Because they’re all different personalities and they respond differently. That goes for leadership in the military, raising kids, teachers in schools. In every type of leadership, you need to know what makes the best team. That’s how you make your team work well together.”

There’s one more thing that drives Henline and keeps him feverishly on the trail of his comedic dreams.

“It’s that same old thing, you’ve gotta drive on,” Henline said. “Survivor’s guilt was really bad for me in the beginning. But you’ve gotta 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 gotta 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.”

 

Henline highlights: A selection of Bobby Henline’s jokes

  • “I was burned over 38 percent of my body. Yes, I expect a discount at my cremation.”
  • “I don’t know if you girls know this, but once you go cooked, you’re hooked.”
  • “I did four tours in Iraq. I loved my job. I had a great time. But seriously, that last tour was a real blast. … My humvee got blown up by a roadside bomb. The crazy thing is that it took me four tours and an IED just to figure out my lucky number was three.”
  • “I love messing with people. I love going to CVS or Walgreens. I get a hand basket and fill it up full of scar removal. I just want to see the look on the cashier’s face. … I love Fourth of July. I go to the fireworks stands and say, ‘Just give me the same stuff you gave me last year. It was great!’”
  • “Over the last six years, I’ve had 46 skin-graft surgeries. I don’t know if you know what that is but, basically, they take good skin from one part of your body to replace the burnt skin in another part. Essentially, they make a skin quilt out of you. They took my stomach and put it on top of my head. Now, I gotta pick lint out of my ears. I get a headache when I eat too much. And that’s not even the worst of it — I’m mooning all of you right now.”
  • “If my comedy career does take off, I’ll be the first comedian ever to show up to his roast pre-cooked. Comedy Central will have to change the name to ‘Serving Leftovers at Bobby Henline’s Reheating Special.’”

SMA Chandler challenges USASMA students to think about Army’s, NCO corps’ future

By JONATHAN (JAY) KOESTER
NCO Journal

As Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III spoke to the incoming class of the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy on Friday at Fort Bliss, Texas, he challenged members of Class 65 to look to the future and decide what kind of Army and NCO Corps they want to have.

“What do you want your Army to be?” Chandler asked. “As you look toward the future, what do you want your NCOs or your petty officers to be able to do? You are the people who are going to lead our Army in the future. I’m retiring in five months. You will decide what the Army of 2025 will be.

“You will decide what the NCO corps will be,” Chandler said. “If you look at the many challenges that we have today within our Army, or in the future, it will be an NCO at the end of the day who will get us that last 300 yards. You will decide whether we are successful.”

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler spoke to students from Class 65 of the United States Sergeants Major Academy on Friday at Fort Bliss, Texas. (Photos by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III spoke to students from Class 65 of the United States Sergeants Major Academy on Friday at Fort Bliss, Texas. (Photos by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

Chandler warned the class that as the Army continues to build rigor across the Noncommissioned Officer Education System, they will be challenged academically at USASMA in ways they perhaps haven’t been before.

“Last year, we had several students who did not make it [academically],” Chandler said. “Now think about that. If somebody has had misconduct in your past experience in NCOES, they might have been dismissed. But did you ever know someone who got dismissed for academics? Probably not. We’re changing the dynamic. It’s not cooperate and graduate. It’s learn, grow and excel. Because the future of our Army is going to be in environments where noncommissioned officers using Mission Command will determine our success on the battlefield.”

But in addition to challenging the group of future sergeants major, he asked them to take some time during their 10 months of coursework to take care of themselves and their families. Chandler noted that all of the students have been under a tremendous load during the past 13 years of conflict, but that now they aren’t in charge of anything but learning and developing as leaders.

“Some of you have physical or invisible wounds that you need to get taken care of,” Chandler said. “You are at the right place, at the right time, to get them taken care of. Don’t squander the opportunity. As a person who spent two years in behavioral health here at Fort Bliss, Texas, on a twice-a-week basis, I know you can get help. Get the help that you need, so that you can be a better leader and an example to your Soldiers.”

Chandler also took the time to give Class 65 students some historical perspective on just how far USASMA has come since its first class more than 40 years ago.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that in 1973, half of the staff and faculty were officers. They were not noncommissioned officers or retired noncommissioned officers, they were officers. And if you think about our education system since 1973 and today in 2014, the strides of those who have come before us, to get us to a point now where the academy has no assigned officers … the trust between noncommissioned officers and officers, I don’t believe is anywhere more manifest than at the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy.

“This is the center of the NCO Corps,” Chandler said. “Anything that applies to an NCO is either touched or developed or reviewed or approved through this location.”

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler spoke to students from Class 65 of the United States Sergeants Major Academy on Friday at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler spoke to students from Class 65 of the United States Sergeants Major Academy on Friday at Fort Bliss, Texas.

After speaking to USASMA Class 65, Chandler took time to address a story in this week’s Army Times about a recent promotion board saying too many E-8 Soldiers were coming in overweight. The board also took to task those Soldiers’ raters for sometimes incorrectly annotating Soldiers’ height and weight. Chandler said raters, like all NCOs, must be dedicated to meeting Army standards and helping those who don’t meet those standards to take action.

“It’s a mark of your commitment to the Army profession,” Chandler said. “If you’re unwilling to abide by the Army values and ensure that person is measured by what is the truth, then I question your ability to be committed to the Army overall. It’s a very simple thing. It’s a twice a year check, as part of a PT test to see that a person can meet the Army standard. And if a person cannot meet the Army standard, we’ve got a duty to uphold that standard. That means taking the appropriate actions to ensure that Soldier is monitored and evaluated in the Army Weight Control Program.”

Soldiers spending more time in garrison now and in coming years shouldn’t be an excuse for NCOs to allow standards to slip, Chandler said.

“First of all, I don’t like the term ‘garrison Army’ because we’re not going to sit around and paint rocks,” Chandler said. “We are going to be a more home-stationed Army, a training Army and an Army of preparation. We’re still an Army that is going to deploy, whether that’s toward a hostile environment or to help partner nations, or to show our readiness across the world. People have struggled with the Weight Control Program for as long as we’ve had one. The issue at hand now is, are we enforcing an Army standard? Yes, I’ve seen people who are overweight, but I’m trusting that their leaders are enrolling them and monitoring them and leading them toward meeting the Army standard. When that doesn’t happen, we have a challenge in our Army about our commitment to the Army profession.”

‘Experto Crede:’ Designing the new Army Instructor Badge

Previously in NCO Journal:
— Army Instructor Badges a key step to professionalize NCOES instructors

By MASTER SGT. ELSI A. INOA-SANTOS
Institute for NCO Professional Development

Transforming NCOs’ professional development will come about by improving strategies for delivering educational content and leveraging the Army Learning Model. This transformation is a vigorous, evolutionary strategy that drives the Army to re-examine itself on a frequent basis. The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Institute for NCO Professional Development intends to use this strategy to evolve the current NCO Education System into the NCO Professional Development System of the future.

NCOs’ feedback was captured in the NCO 2020 Survey Analysis, published in March, which indicated the importance of motivating our NCOs through professional development. INCOPD’s staff and other researchers believe that professional development should include learning opportunities that provide instructors with new skills, competencies and a “can-do” attitude to improve the NCOES. Master Sgt. Dan Mueller exemplifies this vision of NCO development through his design concept for the new Army Instructor Badge.

From 2012 to early 2013, Gary Rauchfuss, then the chief of INCOPD’s Learning Innovations & Initiatives Division; Command Sgt. Maj. Wesley Weygandt, then the deputy commandant of the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy; and Master Sgt. Lawrence S. Payne, then the program manager of INCOPD’s Instructor Development and Recognition Program, worked with Mueller to design the Army Instructor Badge. Mueller, who knew it would be important for instructors to wear a badge that they would feel proud to wear, wanted to create a design that would capture the essence of what it meant to be a professional mentor, trainer and educator.

Mueller’s design concept for the instructor badge ties together military history and his background in the Army, where standards, consistency and professional development are crucial for Soldiers to progress and become experts in their field. Mueller said he was “inspired by heraldic symbols tied to education, like the owl’s quill, the torch of knowledge and the laurel wreath.” He worked closely with INCOPD to create a well-thought-out design “that would in some way encompass the countless hours, dedication and commitment of cadre to the Army’s NCOES.” His creativity led to the design of the three badges for the Basic, Senior and Master levels.

The three badges symbolize knowledge, leadership and commitment, Mueller said. A ring of 13 stars represents the original 13 colonies and the critical role that instructors play in building the new Army. The torch signifies a zeal for training and education and a commitment to lifelong learning. The concentric rings radiating from the flame of the torch symbolize the instructor’s role in the three training domains: institutional, operational and self-development. All three Army cohorts are represented through the NCO’s halberd, the officer’s sword and the owl’s quill, which represents civilian instructors. The open book symbolizes wisdom attained through training and education, and “Experto Crede,” means “Believe the one who has had experience in the matter” in Latin. The uppermost star in the senior and master level badges is a compass rose, which is also referred to as a leadership star. The Master level badge has a laurel wreath edge, which represents accomplishment.

Instructors are inherently motivated and are most impacted by the act of accomplishment and the acknowledgment of their fellow NCOs and leaders through encouragement and recognition. Through the work of Master Sgt. Mueller, Master Sgt. Payne, Command Sgt. Maj. Weygandt and Dr. Rauchfuss, INCOPD is able to continue to support the Army’s NCO academy instructors as they build their professional competencies, which will in turn support implementation of the Army Learning Model as a part of NCO professional development.

Master Sgt. Elsi A. Inoa-Santos is a senior military research analyst and Instructor Development and Recognition Program manager at the Institute for Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Va.

NCOs begin new school year as staff — and students — at West Point Prep

By MICHAEL L. LEWIS
NCO Journal

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.

Sgt. 1st Class Thaddeus Martin, a tactical NCO at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School at West Point, N.Y., inspects new cadet candidates on their reception day in July 2013. (Photo by John Pellino)
Sgt. 1st Class Thaddeus Martin, a tactical NCO at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School at West Point, N.Y., inspects new cadet candidates on their reception day in July 2013. (Photo by John Pellino)

“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.

As a West Point cadet (left) leads a lesson teaching new West Point Prep students how to salute correctly, Martin (background) checks for deficiencies. (Photo courtesy U.S. Military Academy)
As a West Point cadet (left) leads a lesson teaching new West Point Prep students how to salute correctly, Martin (background) checks for deficiencies. (Photo courtesy U.S. Military Academy)

“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.”

Seyfried agreed.

“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.”