The importance of broadening our NCO Corps

By COMMAND SGT. MAJ. JOHN A. MURRAY
1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment
and SGT. MAJ. JASON MOSHER
XVIII Airborne Corps

As young Soldiers going through basic training in the late 1980s, we were taught that when given an order by an officer or a noncommissioned officer, you executed that order without question. You didn’t ask why you needed to do it, and you certainly didn’t argue about the justification for doing it. You simply did it because you knew, unequivocally, that it was the right thing to do. I believe that this lack of questioning was based on an internal trust and respect in our leadership, which was taught to us at an early age.

To change with the times and to bring the NCO Corps in line with what is expected of us in the future, we must be better prepared to answer the “why” in any question that is asked of us. To do this successfully, we must become relevant by broadening ourselves though more education and training.

Today, when giving a Soldier tasks to complete, the Soldier often will ask “why” and question the validity of the task or detail. We do not believe that this is because of a lack of trust or to be disrespectful. One must remember the culture in which our young Soldiers have grown up. They do not know a life without immediate access to knowledge; they have grown up with smartphones, computers and social media. If they need to know something, they do not have to find a book to look it up as we were often told to do. They simply looked it up on the World Wide Web. Because of this instant knowledge, they have a stronger desire to know the “why” of things. Both the officer and the NCO Corps need to understand their jobs in ways that were not required 20 years ago. If they cannot answer or explain the “why,” their Soldiers will get the “why” somewhere else — perhaps from other Soldiers, the internet, or from a source outside their chain of command. When a Soldier seeks answers in this manner, can we really control the validity of the answers received, and more importantly, passed along as truth? Each of these solutions takes away from the trust building between Soldiers and leaders.

Conversely, young leaders were taught that there was a difference between officer business and NCO business, and seldom did the two overlap. As a young sergeant, I can recall platoon sergeants saying not to worry about certain things because that was officer business and that the platoon leader would take care of it.

As I moved up the NCO ranks to a position where I needed to advise my platoon leader, I quickly learned that officers took information from their NCOs with a grain of salt. They listened to it, but more often than not, it was quickly dismissed if the officer received different advice from another officer, no matter the other officer’s rank, duty position or area of concentration. Simply put, officers trusted officers.

The root issue is relevance. The noncommissioned officer of today must evolve and understand that, as we ascend in rank, we must modify our leadership style and performance to keep our relevance as our situation changes. A team leader must comprehend and master troop-leading procedures. The platoon sergeant must become a master trainer and facilitator. The unit first sergeant must become a master of systems while simultaneously being the up-front, in-the-thick-of-it-leader, and the sergeant major must understand intricacies and nuances of complex situations so that he or she can better advise and assist officer counterparts. Anything short of these skill sets leaves us less relevant.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, NCO education came from the noncommissioned officer education system, and really nothing else. College was not pushed, and it was rarely sought out. Officers knew that they were better educated. So, officers believed that their reasoning and understanding of complex tasks and strategies was better than that of the enlisted corps. Bottom line: Education equaled knowledge.

There is a very big difference between the Army of the ’80s and today.

To begin with, there is no such thing as “officer business” and “NCO business.” As my first squadron commander stated in his initial counseling to me in 2012, there is only “leader business.”

The confusion originates with the word “business.” We should call it what it is: responsibility. AR 600-20, Army Command Policy, 6 November 2014 clearly identifies in Chapter 2-18 that the NCO support channel will assist the chain of command in accomplishing 10 specific aspects of our profession. It is a misunderstanding that leads us to believe that there is a prohibition on NCO involvement, when the preceding sentence identifies it as the NCO who “assists” the chain of command.

Additionally, education is now a necessity. In 2010, 29.9 percent of enlisted Soldiers had a bachelor’s degree or higher. This is a far cry from the less than 10 percent who had any type of secondary education in 1987. In 2015, roughly 59 percent of the enlisted corps has some college, and many at the sergeant major level have graduate degrees. The education gap between the officer and enlisted corps is dwindling.

This narrowing of the education gap means that our NCO Corps must continue to receive advanced training and broadening experiences beyond their NCOES requirements as they move up their career ladders, just as our officer counterparts receive. Failure to allow advanced training and studies could be detrimental to the advisory role noncommissioned officers provide to their commissioned counterparts.

One type of broadening experience is the Strategic Fellows Program at The Institute of World Politics. This is an intensive three-week program focused on providing selectees a guided introduction to the development of national security policy at the strategic and federal level. Led by expert scholar-practitioners from the institute, the participants explore key strategic issues through a combination of graduate-level lectures and hands-on activities. The program emphasizes critical thinking, effective oral and written communication, and enhanced appreciation for the Department of Defense’s geo-strategic priorities. In addition, participants explore sources of friction and opportunities to enhance integration in the policy-making process among the Department of Defense and the congressional and executive branches. Participants also learn about one another’s functions so that critical decision-making can be more collaborative. When Soldiers master the arts of statecraft, they will be better at discerning, forecasting, preventing, mitigating, managing and, if necessary, prevailing in international conflicts.

Including NCOs in broadening seminars has proven to be a challenging task. Our culture has not allowed for such an inclusion. The U.S. Army has rightly invested the time and resources into educating its members in an attempt to groom the next generation of future thinkers, capable of comprehending the complexities that are included in the many facets of today’s global community and threats. The NCO Corps traditionally supports the chain of command but can better contribute in this arena if given the opportunity. With minimal evolution, we can improve our worth and contribution to our legacy as the “backbone of the Army.”

In a July 10, 2014, briefing by Human Resources Command to Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the addition of broadening assignments, seminars and courses was identified as an important cog in building the NCO Corps of 2035. “To develop the Soldier of 2014 into an agile and adaptive first sergeant or command sergeant major of 2035, leader development must allow NCOs to build experience in multiple environments versus single tracking in one formation with little to no broadening,” according to the brief. “Promotion boards must recognize and reward this experience and diversity.”

NCOs must search for and attend these broadening experiences. They must get out of their comfort zones and strive for advanced knowledge. They must do this for several reasons. First and foremost is to improve our relevance as the “backbone of the Army.” Second, we must do this to better explain the “why.” We must be able to explain the “why” to our Soldiers, and we must be able to explain the “why” to our officer counterparts whom we advise.

Army leadership is making a conscious effort to provide NCOs these broadening opportunities, and we must take advantage of them. The ball is in our court. Let’s not drop it.

Command Sgt. Maj. John A. Murray has previously served as the command sergeant major of 6th squadron, 4th cavalry regiment and the Operations Sergeant Major of 1st battalion, 35th armored regiment. He is currently serving as the command sergeant major for 1st squadron, 1st cavalry regiment at Ft. Bliss, Texas.

Sergeant Major Jason Mosher recently completed his tour as a battalion command sergeant major and is now the XVIII Airborne Corps Provost Sergeant Major at Fort Bragg, N.C.

 

Tools available to help NCOs lead training

By JONATHAN (JAY) KOESTER
NCO Journal

As Soldiers prepared for duty in Afghanistan or Iraq during the past 13 years, much of the planning and resourcing for their training was handled without NCOs needing to think much about it. The training was laid out to quickly prepare Soldiers to serve in a war zone.

But as Soldiers and NCOs return to garrison, it is necessary for NCOs to reassert their role in training Soldiers. To that purpose, the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center-Training at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., has some important training resources NCOs should know about, said Sgt. Maj. Richard Johnson, sergeant major of CAC-T.

“One of the gaps that is out there is the ability to conduct unit training management,” Johnson said. “Out of necessity, you had pre-deployment training tasks that you had to do. There wasn’t a lot of preparation because it was pretty much standardized based on your unit’s capabilities and what your pre-deployment tasks were. It was laid out and planned for you, and also resourced in most cases. So, as we draw out of Iraq and draw down in Afghanistan, and as we get back to unified land operations, leaders are going to have to get re-educated on unit training management. The Army Training Network provides those tools. There are a lot of how-tos, and a lot of lessons learned from experiences across the force.”

Army Training Network

The Army Training Network is an excellent place to start for noncommissioned officers seeking best training practices, Johnson said.

“What [ATN] provides is a central repository and central access to anything that has to do with training in the Army, across all domains, whether the institutional Army, the operational Army, or self-development,” he said. “It tells you what resources are out there to help you plan, conduct and assess training, for both individual and collective tasks. It’s a one-stop shop for leaders, commanders and Soldiers to look at what the training requirements are. It can then guide leaders on how to conduct that training, how to assess that training, and then do any necessary re-training.”

A prominent link on ATN is to the NCO Corner, a site focusing on the needs of noncommissioned officers, Johnson said.

The Army Training Network offers NCOs resources on unit training management. "There are a lot of how-tos, and a lot of lessons learned from experiences across the force," said Sgt. Maj. Richard Johnson, sergeant major of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center-Training.
The Army Training Network offers NCOs resources on unit training management. “There are a lot of how-tos, and a lot of lessons learned from experiences across the force,” said Sgt. Maj. Richard Johnson, sergeant major of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center-Training.

The NCO Corner “has professional development and unit training management items specifically targeted toward noncommissioned officers for small unit training,” he said. “We just opened a counseling page on NCO Corner that I think is critical. Counseling helps improve readiness. The page provides guidelines on all types of counseling scenarios to allow leaders at all echelons to prepare to counsel. The page has 58 counseling scenarios. Now, you can’t just cut and paste, but it will give you a baseline and some ideas.”

Another important item within ATN is the Digital Training Management System. The DTMS allows leaders to easily plan training, knowing they are checking all the needed boxes, said Harold Sommerfeldt, program manager for Combined Arms Training Strategies.

“Every single collective task and reference to individual tasks are identified in the Combined Arms Training Strategies on ATN,” Sommerfeldt said. “Soldiers need to get into the DTMS to be able to utilize it. Otherwise, it’s just a PDF document. But if you go into the DTMS — based off the proponent’s analysis and our development of the training strategies — you can lay out a training plan on a calendar for your unit in four clicks. It will have all the tasks that are recommended to be trained to obtain proficiency.

“People say, ‘Really, you’ve done that?’ Yes, and we have that capability in DTMS,” Sommerfeldt said. “But you have to go look for it. The great information is out there, but you have to take the initiative to go find it.”

Integrated Training Environment

Another big step toward improving training in garrison is the Integrated Training Environment, which the U.S. Army National Simulation Center describes as “a seamless interconnected combination of live, virtual, constructive and gaming simulations, scenarios and Mission Command information systems.”

The ITE is an effort to raise the bar on the training at home station, said Marcos O. Navarro, military analyst for the U.S. Army National Simulation Center at Fort Leavenworth. The ITE allows leaders to plan and execute rigorous, multi-echelon, progressive training that can be repeated and tailored to replicate a complex operational environment.

“Training within the current operational environment poses great challenges in providing the rigor and realism required to counter an opposing force that is unpredictable and technologically savvy,” Navarro said. “Soldiers must be provided with a training environment that challenges them to react with agility and resiliency.”

“In the past, the Combat Training Centers were the only venues that provided leaders with the capability to replicate many of the high-fidelity tasks for training in a complex operational environment. The ITE enables leaders to evaluate and assess their unit readiness by providing the highest level of fidelity in replicating the operational environment in their own backyard.”

To learn more about the capabilities of the ITE, NCOs should visit their post’s Mission Training Complex, Navarro said.

Training in an ITE means that you can quickly make basic training more challenging by adding complexities. For example, you can quickly add snow, rain or even other organizations in the virtual environments, Sommerfeldt said, and you don’t have to wait until you have a large group.

“If you look at the unit task list for a rifle company, there are about 120 collective tasks that — based off the mission statement in the table of organization and equipment — we expect a rifle company to be able to do,” he said. “How do I create a training plan for that? Well, we talk about that inside the Army Training Network. We talk about utilizing the ITE, so once you have the basic knowledge of that task, you can refine it and become an expert at that task.

A 1st Armored Division Soldier trains on the Aviation Combined Arms Tactical Trainer, at Fort Bliss, Texas. The exercise combined live, virtual and constructive training as part of the Integrated Training Environment. The Integrated Training Environment is evolving to a single synthetic environment that combines constructive, gaming and virtual systems and is coupled with live training. (Photo by Mike Casey)
A 1st Armored Division Soldier trains on the Aviation Combined Arms Tactical Trainer, at Fort Bliss, Texas. The exercise combined live, virtual and constructive training as part of the Integrated Training Environment. The Integrated Training Environment is evolving to a single synthetic environment that combines constructive, gaming and virtual systems and is coupled with live training. (Photo by Mike Casey)

“And through gaming, it motivates NCOs and Soldiers to take initiative and train on their own,” Sommerfeldt said. “They don’t have to wait for an exercise. Maybe they’ll need a little bit of help from the Mission Training Complex setting it up, but once they have it, they can select their tasks and train.

“ITE is not just for your larger organizations,” he said. “It’s already broken down all the way to the platoon level. Because at the platoon level, you can use virtual battlespace. Even at the squad level, you can effectively train on tasks. OK, it’s not perfect. It’s not a live environment, but it will help you focus on the fundamentals.

“As an NCO, you can take your squad into a virtual battlespace suite, and you can practice those tasks that you identify that are critical to the larger organization’s mission,” Sommerfeldt said. “But you have to read the doctrine on ‘plan, prepare, execute and assess,’ so that you can lay that out, so that you can say, ‘OK, they are going to do a large ITE event here. I need to backward-plan so that I can get in.’”

Combining the power of ATN, the DMTS and the ITE allows NCOs to perform unit training management at a high level, Johnson said.

“If you are going to do a collective training event, you pick the task: ‘Conduct an attack,’” he said. “If you go on ATN, it has a link to the Combined Arms Training Strategies, which will lay out all the individual tasks that relate to all the collective tasks to do that training event. It will also lay out a training methodology that will allow you to integrate other capabilities, such as simulations, whether it’s constructive or virtual. That will tie in to the ‘crawl, walk, run’ methodology, so that when you get into a live environment out in the field to conduct that training exercise, you’re at a higher level of proficiency. So the Integrated Training Environment allows you to bring the capabilities of live, virtual, constructive and gaming into your whole training management process.”

ELITE

Though successfully working in the ITE takes some study and coordination, there is a much simpler virtual training program available to any Soldier with a common access card. The Emergent Leader Immersive Training Environment provides training on the important NCO skill of counseling.

ELITE allows NCOs the opportunity to practice having the difficult conversations and counseling sessions that are a part of Army life. But in the case of ELITE, the conversa¬tions take place with a virtual Soldier. It’s a way for leaders to practice before using their communication skills in real life.

The software provides an after-action review of every question that the NCO asked and every response. The software may be used by individuals or during group training, said Anthony Rolfe, military analyst at the U.S. Army National Simulation Center.

“ELITE is available for download to everybody in the military,” Rolfe said. “All they need is a common access card. They can go to the MilGaming website, and they can download the software and start implementing it. It’s not just a niche market where you are using it at the Warrior Leaders Course or other professional development institutions. You could use this in a company dayroom. You could use this as part of your noncommissioned officer professional development program.”

Making sure your counseling skills are sharp is an important part of being a good NCO, Johnson said.

“Counseling is critical, especially when we are trying to maximize human performance,” he said. “Soldiers’ cognitive thinking skills, their physical, mental and spiritual strengths have got to be optimized. Not maximized; optimized. If you maximize something, it’s going to blow up. If you optimize it, it can run at a steady, optimum pace for a long time.

“One thing ELITE can do is provide repetitions,” Johnson said. “Junior leaders are often uncomfortable in counseling because they are not exposed to it. Sometimes these conversations can be on topics that are unpleasant. So, if you can use the gaming technology to provide an environment where a leader can get multiple repetitions — and have the ability to manipulate the circumstances — a leader will get more comfortable and more confident in his or her ability to interact with somebody to conduct counseling.”

Whether it’s by using ELITE, or diving into the resources available from the Army Training Network, it’s time for NCOs to reassert their primary place in training Soldiers, Sommerfeldt said. He said a recent Inspector General report about unit training management found that the majority of company commanders relied on subjective assessments and did not use Army standards (Training and Evaluation Outlines) to evaluate training.

“NCOs need to get back to being NCOs and taking the initiative for training, finding out what’s available, finding this information,” he said. “They are supposed to be the subject matter expert for training, and the training of Soldiers. They can’t sit back and wait for somebody to hand them a book. They need to take that initiative. We’ve provided the tools, i.e. with the Army Training Network, the Digital Training Management System, the Combined Arms Training Strategies and the Integrated Training Environment. It’s out there.

“That NCO, that platoon sergeant, that first sergeant, that operations sergeant major needs to get out there and say, ‘Hey, what’s out there to help train my folks?’” Sommerfeldt said. “They can look at the ATN to see how others have done it. They can hit the ITE site and find the best practices and see how somebody else has been successful. They’re the person who the commander should go to and say, ‘Hey, we have to train on these things. How do you think we should do it?’”

Quick links

• Army Training Network homepage: https://atn.army.mil/
• Integrated Training Environment homepage: https://ite.army.mil/
• More on the “Leaders Guide to Training in the Integrated Training Environment”: http://www.army.mil/article/138539/
• Emergent Leader Immersive Training Environment software, known as ELITE, may be downloaded from the Army MilGaming portal: https://milgaming.army.mil/

 

NCO promotions get tougher this year; more changes ahead

Broad changes for enlisted promotions took effect March 2. More are expected later this year.

The most recent comprehensive list of changes to Army Regulation 600-8-19 are tied to the reduction in size of the force, Army Chief of Staff Raymond T. Odierno said Jan. 6 during a virtual town hall event at Fort Lee, Va. During the past 10 years, the Army peaked at a force level of about 570,000 Soldiers. That number is scheduled to dip to 450,000 by the end of 2017.

To maintain high standards in the Army’s NCO Corps, promotions have to become more challenging, Odierno said.

“What we want to do is promote the right people … so we maintain a strong Army,” he said. “We’ve got to have the people we want to move forward. But it is not going to be as fast as it was five years ago.”

To that end, changes to the NCO schooling system were announced in February, with the revised promotion regulations coming soon after.

Among the key changes is the implementation of a link between promotion and the successful completion of Structured Self-Development courses. The SSD program helps develop adaptive, agile and critical-thinking leaders as well as prepare Soldiers to function effectively in the Contemporary Operational Environment, or COE. Now, the course is a requirement for promotion for Soldiers vying for ranks from sergeant to master sergeant.

Another key change is a policy that allows promotion points for Soldiers who have spent time in a combat zone. Previously, Soldiers in the Middle East were often kept from taking part in distance education studies because of the rigors of deployment. Now, sergeants can attain up to 30 points and staff sergeants up to 60 points for their time overseas.

A closer look at some of the pertinent updates to this year’s enlisted promotion changes, along with resources for more information, may be seen below.

Click here to download a printable version of the document.

Click here to see a complete look at AR 600-8-19

—      Compiled by Pablo Villa

NCOpromotions

NCOs integral to enabling the president to communicate anytime, anywhere

By MICHAEL L. LEWIS
NCO Journal

Clad in smart suits, they blend into the bevy of staff members, reporters and security personnel who surround the president of the United States during his day-to-day activities. Yet it is this unique uniform that camouflages the service members working in the White House Communications Agency, whose no-fail mission is to enable the nation’s top leader to communicate with the government, military and world, whether that be in the Oval Office or on the other side of the globe.

The Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of WHCA, a joint unit headquartered at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., are tasked with providing everything the president, vice president and first lady need to deliver their message anywhere at any time — whether it be the lectern, lighting, TelePrompTer and sound needed for a Rose Garden news conference; live video for the world’s press from Air Force One while flying over the Pacific; or the operators who answer calls from citizens and foreign leaders alike in the White House.

President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office on Feb. 5. The mission of WHCA is to provide the president with the same ability to communicate as in the Oval Office no matter where he travels. (White House photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office on Feb. 5. The mission of the White House Communications Agency is to provide the president with the same ability to communicate as in the Oval Office no matter where he travels. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

Integral to WHCA’s mission are its noncommissioned officers and petty officers, all of whom have responsibilities that exceed those of their peers elsewhere in the military, said Command Sgt. Maj. Nathaniel Jett, the agency’s command sergeant major.

“When someone asks what NCOs do in this organization, I only have to use one example,” he said. “Whenever you see the vice president of the United States on the road, every support person — with the exception of his military aide — they are all enlisted personnel who are setting him up for success out there. This is what our noncommissioned officer Soldiers, sailors and airmen are doing for the No. 2 guy in the free world. His presidential communications, all his audio and visual support, the lectern you see him stand behind, that’s all the work of enlisted behind the scenes making that happen.”

“NCOs, as we know, are the backbone of the Army, and they’re definitely the backbone of this agency,” said Staff Sgt. Andrew Lewis, a personnel security NCO in the agency’s J-2 security directorate. “NCOs run the vice presidential communications program in its entirety, but NCOs in every corner of this agency are making the mission happen, and that impact is monumental. The president can’t communicate to the world without the agency providing him the means to do that, and noncommissioned officers at WHCA make that happen. Nowhere else in your career are you able to say the stakes are this high. It takes a lot of responsibility, but that’s something you already carry with you as an NCO.”

The ‘voice of the president’

As their motto states, personnel at WHCA collectively serve as the “voice of the president.” But the agency’s name is somewhat misleading, said Jett, who like all of his predecessors spent his career in the Signal Corps.

A WHCA NCO checks a camera during a White House-sponsored event. (Photo courtesy of WHCA)
A WHCA NCO checks a camera during a White House-sponsored event. (Photo courtesy of WHCA)

“People see ‘White House Communications’ in our name, but it’s not just [signal] people,” he said. “I have transporters, logisticians, carpenters, sheet metal workers, multimedia specialists, and military intelligence and finance leaders, in addition to my signal leaders. We may be a ‘communications’ agency, but we do so much more.”

The startling diversity is a necessity for an organization that must do almost everything in-house for both security and quality reasons, Jett explained. Service members at WHCA build every presidential podium, outfit and man every motorcade communication vehicle, operate the president’s TelePrompTer, and transport the necessary equipment wherever its needed worldwide.

“Every location the president goes to — even if it’s here in D.C. — we have to provide the same communication capabilities as in the White House. That’s our job,” Jett said. “Wherever the boss goes, it’s our job to make sure that whatever he can do in downtown Washington, D.C., he can do in Siberia, if he goes there.”

As a result, the majority of WHCA’s personnel are assigned as needed to ad hoc travel teams that are deployed whenever one of the three principals — the president, vice president or first lady — is at an event away from the White House. The teams are responsible for determining everything that is required — phone, fax, Internet and satellite links; computers, printers and copiers; cameras, microphones, lights and transmission equipment; and the iconic presidential podiums — then transporting it to the site, setting everything up, executing during the event, taking everything down, then resetting for the next trip. It makes for a constant rhythm of travel, often with little to no advance notice, and with the expectation of nothing less than perfection.

A WHCA NCO, center, carries camera equipment during an event at the White House. (Photo courtesy of WHCA)
A WHCA NCO, center, carries camera equipment during an event at the White House. (Photo courtesy of WHCA)

“That we can support the leader of the greatest nation in the world with no-mistake, no-fail missions anywhere, any time, that says a lot about our corps of noncommissioned officers,” said Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Bray, the senior enlisted advisor of WHCA’s Visual Information Command, which is responsible for teams’ audio, visual and multimedia support. “The tempo here is not like in other units where you deploy, you come back and you reset. The tempo here is fast-paced. At any time, I can get a phone call that says, ‘I need you to go to such-and-such place,’ and you might not even get a day’s notice. During campaign season, we’re traveling constantly. It’s a lot of hard work and 16-hour days.”

But it’s not the glamorous life some see it as, Jett said.

“This job is not the designer-suit, caviar-eating, five-star-hotel life everybody thinks it is,” Jett said.

“Forget the five-star hotel; you may not even see the hotel,” Bray said. “We’re in the business of customer service, and our customer is the president of the United States. We’re not going to stop working until we’re at that presidential level of quality.”

Training for perfection

Though WHCA recruits the cream of the military crop, once service members arrive, they must enter the agency’s internal academy to learn from square one how to do their specific job, no matter their rank.

A WHCA NCO monitors communication equipment during a presidential event. WHCA personnel wear business attire as their uniform when traveling. (Photo courtesy of WHCA)
A WHCA NCO monitors communication equipment during a presidential event. WHCA personnel wear business attire as their uniform when traveling. (Photo courtesy of WHCA)

“We’re going to train you to do those things, and we’re going to train you to do them well,” Lewis said. “It’s a world-class faculty. They’ve been traveling for years with the president and vice president. Many of them can draw from their years in the (President Bill) Clinton administration (1993-2001), so they have been around for a while and have been doing a good job for a long time.”

The academy integrates protocol instruction with multidisciplinary technical instruction, Bray said.

“In the Visual Information Command, we have videographers, photographers and audio-visual technicians working hand-in-hand with each principal, making sure they’re looking good, they’re sounding good, and that everything is presidential quality,” Bray said. “Our training academy teaches you how to do that. So even if you have no knowledge of audio-visual things, they teach you the basics all the way to advanced audio, advanced lighting techniques.

“At the apprentice level, you’re learning how we conduct business, the basic policies and procedures. You’ve got to know the policies and procedures before you go out there and do an event,” Bray said. “At the technician level, that’s when you start focusing more on the rule of thirds, how many foot-candles (of light) will look good with this type of camera. Once you’ve perfected that, you’re ready to lead your own site, in terms of audio and visual. That means that person has knowledge of every key element that is supporting the president, whether that is video, photo, audio or providing feeds to the press.”

The WHCA academy’s training programs are so comprehensive, a service member from any military occupational specialty may volunteer to become an affiliate in an unrelated specialty. That allows great flexibility in filling slots for travel teams, Jett said.

A White House Communcations Agency NCO monitors sound equipment during an event. WHCA Visual Information Command personnel are responsible for all video and sound during events featuring the president, vice president and first lady. (Photo courtesy of WHCA)
A WHCA NCO monitors sound equipment during an event. WHCA Visual Information Command personnel are responsible for all video and sound during events featuring the president, vice president and first lady. (Photo courtesy of WHCA)

“You may start in a fixed (Washington-based) mission, like in the J-1 (personnel directorate). But you might be trained so that you can go set up an airport site or assist with the hotel operation,” Jett said. “Then, when campaign season rolls around again and we are running thin on people, we’ll ask the J-1 if they can spare anybody, and we’ll send them out on the road to help with communications.”

Because leadership within each team is dependent on technical expertise learned in the academy and on-the-job, often an experienced junior NCO will be directing newer senior NCOs at an event site, Lewis said.

“For example, I jumped in on a trip in Iowa as an E-6, and I had an E-4 managing me, because he knew the mission and had been traveling quite a bit; he knew the technology,” Lewis said. “Despite me being an E-6 and him being an E-4, I still fell in line and he told me what he needed me to do.”

“But even if we’re not in charge, we senior enlisted are still there coaching and mentoring to ensure not just their technical proficiency, but also that they are reaching their military goals,” Bray said. “It’s not like an E-6 is telling an E-8 to run around or do push-ups.”

Recruiting the best, and getting them vetted

Because of their mission, every WHCA service member works with people at the highest levels of government every day. And sometimes, that means working with the president, Jett said.

“Case in point, a week before last year’s State of the Union address, before the president spoke in front of Congress, one of my young E-5s was downtown at the White House with the president looking over his shoulder,” Jett said. “The E-5 had the president’s speech on his laptop because he was going to be controlling the TelePrompTer at the State of the Union. The president was asking him to make last-minute changes to the text here and there, and this is an E-5 doing this. That’s the level of maturity you have to have to join this organization.”

Presidential quality equates to near perfection, Lewis said, and potential candidates have to be able to handle that demanding responsibility.

“When you come here to work, you are being depended on. Everyone’s role here is extremely significant,” he said. “Without each person doing their job well and doing it to the fullest extent they are able to, the organization won’t function well. That’s why we put such scrutiny on our applicants.

“We don’t have the option of failure,” Lewis said. “You can never use the excuse that, ‘Oh, it just didn’t work out,’ or that you were waiting on somebody else, or that there’s no way to do it. None of those are options. We’ve got to get done what we’re asked to do, and we can’t fail when doing it. Any failures on the part of our agency would have major implications on the office of the president, and we don’t need that to happen at all.”

“It’s a very thorough vetting process,” Lewis said. “But the same things that would make you a solid NCO in the regular Army will make you meet our security requirements. The common pitfalls: You get disqualified outright for a lot of personnel issues — height and weight failures, PT failures, bad or even average evaluations. Other than personnel issues, bad credit is probably our No. 1 disqualifier. We want to make sure that you are able to meet your financial obligations — that you’re not living paycheck-to-paycheck — that you’re trustworthy.”

President Obama concludes an address in Cairo, Egypt, in June 2009. No matter the locale, WHCA personnel are in charge of lights, podiums, TelePrompTers, videography and sound at all presidential events. (White House photo by Chuck Kennedy)
President Obama concludes an address in Cairo, Egypt, in June 2009. No matter the locale, WHCA personnel are in charge of lights, podiums, TelePrompTers, videography and sound at all presidential events. (White House photo by Chuck Kennedy)

“You’d be amazed at how many young people have no clue that they have bad credit until we go digging,” Jett said. “But that’s not to say that if you have bad credit now, you can’t come back and reapply after taking the steps needed to clean it up.”

Why would bad finances preclude a job at WHCA? Jett said it speaks to applicants’ overall management skills.

“Do you know how to manage your finances properly? We don’t have time to take the risk and assume that you’ll figure it out. We just don’t have that luxury,” he said. “I don’t need somebody here out on the road — potentially controlling the TelePrompTer of the president of the United States — who is worrying about all the bills they have. I can’t have you distracted like that. I need you to be focused on what’s in front of you.”

But Lewis cautioned that coming to work at WHCA is not as hard as some imagine.

“People tend to think it’s impossible to get an assignment here. But that’s just a complete misconception,” he said. “Normal military folks apply and get jobs here. Don’t disqualify yourself. Apply. We recruit aggressively. If you’ve done decent work for the military, have kept in line, are meeting your financial obligations and aren’t a security threat, we’ll get you cleared.”

The benefits of working at WHCA persist long after one’s assignment there is complete, Lewis said.

“I think working here helps you develop the ability to operate professionally within an environment where the stakes are very high and there’s a lot expected of you,” he said. “Doing your job well here enables the president of the United States, the leader of the free world, to communicate with the world and, thereby, allows the executive branch of our federal government to function.

Knowing your actions allow that to happen, I think, really sets you up to be professional, and you’ll carry that for the rest of your military career.

“It shapes you, really, into a more mature and more experienced NCO, and you gain this breadth of knowledge not only of how you operate and do your job, but also the whole strategic picture, the big picture, and how you fit into it,” Lewis said. “You’ll see how the executive branch works. You’ll see how the Department of Defense fits into that, how the Army fits within that and how you fit within the Army.”

Pilot program eases NCOs transition to Army Reserve

By 1LT. BARRY STEVENSON
310th SC(E) Public Affairs

As the active-duty Army draws down on their numbers, there will be quality NCOs making adjustments to their career plans.

Last year, Fort Hood, Texas, was chosen to host a pilot program for Soldiers who have come within reach of their estimated time of separation window. This new program, Active Component to Reserve Component, allows Soldiers to explore opportunities to continue their military service with the National Guard or Army Reserve. Eligible Soldiers are allowed to sign a reserve-component contract as far out as 365 days from their estimated time of separation from active duty. Not to be confused with an early separation program, AC2RC allows Soldiers to be proactive rather than reactive when career changes are on the horizon.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Talley, commanding general of United States Army Reserve Command, said he wants leaders coming off active duty to stay Soldiers for life.

“(In the Army Reserve) we’ll get great men and women who have, on average, a couple of combat tours under their belt, and they are strong leaders that will make our formations, and make our component and our command better,” he said. “The Army wins, the Army Reserve wins and America wins. It’s pretty easy to see why it’s so beneficial to do this.”

While visiting Fort Hood last week, Talley held a town hall with Reserve Soldiers to discuss the state of the Army Reserve and address any concerns the Soldiers had. One Soldier expressed concerns during the meeting about why the active component is drawing down.

“Some people have this perception that as the regular Army draws down and the Soldiers come into the reserve component — that they’re all leaving the regular Army because they’re being kicked out. That’s just not true,” Talley said. “It’s not just the Soldiers who are being asked to leave, it’s also Soldiers who are volunteering to leave because they’ve met their commitment requirements and they want to continue to be a Soldier for life, but also have a great civilian career. Well, that’s what we do in the Army Reserve.”

The Army Reserve is critically short mid-career Soldiers in the grades of sergeant, staff sergeant and sergeant first class.

During a town hall meeting at the 13th SC(E) chapel Lt. Gen. Jeffery Talley addressed questions about active-duty Soldiers transitioning to the reserve component. (Photo by 1st Lt. Barry Stevenson)
During a town hall meeting at the 13th SC(E) chapel Lt. Gen. Jeffery Talley addressed questions about active-duty Soldiers transitioning to the reserve component. (Photo by 1st Lt. Barry Stevenson)

As luck would have it, those qualifications match the majority of Soldiers interested in AC2RC. This program will do more than balance out the reserve formations, it will raise the quality of the force even higher than it already is with all of the knowledge these Soldiers will bring to the table. Not only do these Soldiers possess great leadership skills, but also many have combat experience.

There are a few challenges and benefits that AC2RC is helping to balance. Soldier readiness is always a critical factor when accepting new Soldiers into a unit and many of the Soldiers coming off active duty have combat-arms skill sets. Therefore, if these MOSs are not available within the gaining reserve unit, then Soldiers can be retrained before leaving active duty. This not only benefits the gaining unit in terms of readiness, but it also ensures that Soldiers don’t show up at their new civilian jobs, and immediately need time off for training. It is a win-win situation for all parties involved.

Talley also believes that this concept works well.

“What we can do is use our private-public partnership office to help pull them into a great civilian career that hopefully will correlate well to their new military occupational specialty,” he said. “It’s just a lot easier; it’s so much harder to (complete training) once they separate from the regular Army … we don’t want to pile one more thing on and say, ‘Oh by the way, you need to start a civilian career, but the first thing you need to do is tell your new civilian boss you’re going to be gone for the next six months.’ That doesn’t sit well.”

As retention officers at Fort Hood continue to push the opportunity to retrain before switching to the reserve component, Talley will continue to promote this program and make sure that transitioning troops stay Soldiers for life.

“I’ve asked the secretary of the Army to approve taking the Fort Hood pilot program we’re doing, the AC2RC, and expanding it to Fort Bragg, North Carolina,” Talley said. “And who knows, maybe even expand it beyond Fort Bragg as we continue to try and capture the very best men and women coming out of the regular Army.”