This Month in NCO History: Oct. 3, 2009 — A battlefield pledge honored on the gridiron

It was easy to lose sight of former Sgt. Daniel Rodriguez earlier this month on the sideline of Memorial Stadium on the campus of Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina.

The 5-foot-8, 180-pound Rodriguez was cloaked in an orange hooded smock and was difficult to single out of the rain-soaked mass of mammoth Clemson Tiger football players who were taking on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Oct. 3 in a highly anticipated college football contest between two Top 25 teams. Why Rodriguez was present during Clemson’s 24-22 win was apparent — he was a special teams star and wide receiver for Clemson from 2012 to 2014. He just missed making the St. Louis Rams’ 53-man roster in September.

But it was more than football prowess and a prime-time matchup that drew Rodriguez to his former school. The date was significant for another reason, the anniversary of a day when Rodriguez’s diminutive — by football standards — frame stood out in gallant fashion.

On Oct. 3, 2009, Rodriguez was involved in the Battle of Kamdesh, one of the deadliest skirmishes for U.S. forces during their involvement in Afghanistan. The fight occurred at Combat Outpost Keating near the town of Kamdesh in the Afghan province of Nuristan. In the predawn hours, a hail of gunfire descended on the outpost, which sat in a narrow valley surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains near the Pakistani border. A force of about 400 Taliban fighters assaulted the compound from five vantage points in the mountains.

COP Keating was defended by 50 American Soldiers, an Afghan National Army unit and its two Latvian Army trainers. The American Soldiers, assigned to B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, had been at the outpost since May. Having faced enemy fire almost daily in the difficult-to-defend complex, the Army had planned its closure. The all-out attack Oct. 3 hastened those plans.

As insurgents targeted the outpost’s mortar pit with a barrage of bullets, others nearly overwhelmed every other spot within the football-field sized compound from their positions in the mountains. A simultaneous attack was carried out on nearby Observation Post Fritsche, which cut off support to COP Keating for most of the day. Taliban forces breached COP Keating and inflicted casualties within an hour of the attack. They wouldn’t be completely driven back until late in the afternoon.

The American Soldiers and their allies fought fiercely in defense of COP Keating, killing an estimated 150 Taliban fighters. Later in the day, OP Fritsche was secured and able to provide indirect support. Overhead, two U.S. Air Force F-15E fighter bombers helped coordinate airstrikes. Eventually, COP Keating was secured.

Eight of the 50 U.S. Soldiers defending the outpost were killed and 27 were wounded in the battle, which lasted 12 hours.

One of the wounded was Rodriguez. A bullet penetrated his shoulder and shrapnel shredded his leg and neck. Like other Soldiers in the unit, Rodriguez stayed in the fight throughout the day despite his wounds. Afterward, a bevy of awards for valor were awarded to survivors of the battle. Two of them — Staff Sgt. Clinton L. Romesha and then-Spc. Ty Michael Carter — were awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor. Rodriguez was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal with valor device for his actions. But the recognition didn’t offer consolation for the loss of fellow Soldier and close friend, Pfc. Kevin C. Thomson. Rodriguez befriended Thomson upon arriving at COP Keating. Weeks before the Taliban attack, the pair made a pledge to each other that they would pursue their dreams after leaving the Army. The assault ended those dreams for Thomson and left Rodriguez distraught.

The following year, Rodriguez was discharged from the Army, ending a four-year career that included tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He enrolled at Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, three months after returning home. But the rigor of classes couldn’t ease the scars of combat. Rodriguez turned to drinking to cope with his diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. The following fall, he decided to make good on a promise he made to his friend in the rugged Afghanistan mountains.

“I felt like I’d been given this second chance at life,” Rodriguez told ESPN in 2012. “I don’t want to waste it. I don’t want to waste the oxygen that somebody died for for me to have.”

His dream was no small feat — Rodriguez wanted to play football at a Football Bowl Subdivision school. He began the journey to the longshot goal by working out three times a day and sticking to a strict diet. A friend helped Rodriguez create a video showcasing his speed, quickness and soft hands to distribute to coaches throughout the country. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney stood out to Rodriguez among the 50 coaches who contacted him. In the summer of 2012, he scrambled to get his transcripts and eligibility requirements in order to enroll at Clemson that fall and join the football team as a walk-on.

Rodriguez’s determination came to fruition. He played in 37 consecutive games for the Tigers through three seasons. He scored his only touchdown on a 2-yard end-around play against The Citadel in 2013. His college career was dotted with various awards for players who display inspiration and merit.

After graduating in December 2014, Rodriguez went unselected in the National Football League Draft the following spring but received an invitation to play with the St. Louis Rams. He suited up for all four of the Rams’ preseason games but was eventually cut from the final 53-man roster. Despite falling short on NFL aspirations, Rodriguez served as an inspirational story in the run-up to the 2015 NFL regular season. He took to Twitter after his release to encourage others to chase their dreams and cherish the time it takes to reach them.

“I’ll never see this as a failure or opportunity wasted. I encourage all to pursue what you love and make the most of your life on this earth,” Rodriguez wrote.

He returned to his alma mater this month to promote coming book-signing events for his co-authored tome, Rise: A Soldier, A Dream and A Promise Kept. He also discussed the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Heroes Gala in New York City, a November event at which he will be honored.

Rodriguez currently lives in Hermosa Beach, California. The movie rights to his story have been sold to TriStar Productions.

Compiled by Pablo Villa

Go to 1:30 of the video above to hear Daniel Rodriguez tell his story to ESPN.

The new NCOER and the need for graduate-level counselors

By SGT. MAJ. WILLIAM E. WHITE JR.
The United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps

Rating officials face significant opportunities and challenges as part of the Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Report system update, which begins Jan. 1. Both the opportunities and challenges stem from the fact that U.S. Army Human Resources Command will be tracking rater tendencies and constraining senior rater profiles. This increased accountability will help focus the target group for promotion and increase the percentage of strong NCOs selected for the next rank. It will also be a mammoth leadership challenge, specifically for senior raters who will carry the burden of informing the majority of NCOs during their Annual Performance Review that they are not the “Most Qualified” NCO in their peer group. To achieve the potential benefit, we rating officials must accept the challenge before us — to do our jobs better and make our Army stronger. Leaders must begin laying the foundation for success now, and the key to that success is simple: effective counseling.

Consider these three facts: Inflation of NCOERs has been the accepted standard for years; the NCOER is not the problem, but rather the rating officials’ execution of the evaluation; senior raters have not previously been required to conduct counseling.

These are not easy facts to face. But, as leaders, we must step back from the situation and view it objectively. From a purely logical perspective, in any group of NCOs, only one can be the best. However, the inflation of NCOERs over the years has led to far too many NCOs receiving “1 and 1” ratings, which AR 623-3 defines as “the cream of the crop and … a recommendation for immediate promotion.” We have taught ourselves and our young NCOs that only a “1 and 1” is acceptable and, therefore, far too few of our NCOs are being honestly and accurately assessed. Not every NCO is the cream of the crop. Not every NCO deserves a recommendation for immediate promotion. If senior raters were already executing noninflated reports based on consistent counseling, there would be no reason to implement a constrained senior rater profile because senior raters would be self-regulating.

The lack of self-regulation, resulting in consistently inflated NCOERs, has led to systematic regulation: the constrained senior rater profile. Under this new system, which limits senior raters to no more than 24 percent of evaluations assessed as “Most Qualified,” 76 percent of rated NCOs will now only be “Highly Qualified” (or “Qualified” or “Not Qualified”) on their evaluations. This will be the first time that many NCOs are told they are not the best among their peers. That will be a hard pill to swallow for many, even if they know deep down that the NCO to their left or right is usually one step ahead of them. Effective counseling is the best remedy leaders have to address this situation.

Counseling by the book

We already have Army doctrine and regulations providing leaders with guidance regarding performance counseling. The current NCOER system requires raters to counsel rated NCOs quarterly. The new system requires senior raters to counsel the rated NCOs at least twice during the rating period.

ATP 6-22.1, The Counseling Process, states, “Counseling at the beginning of and during the evaluation period ensures the subordinate’s personal involvement in the evaluation process.” The primary purpose of quarterly counseling, as defined in AR 623-3, is “telling the rated NCO how well he or she is performing.” These definitions are fine minimum standards, but effective counseling is far more important than enforcing a subordinate’s “personal involvement” or cataloguing a list of tasks completed or not.

ATP 6-22.1 outlines the basic structure for counseling. Anyone in position to senior rate a NCO should already understand the four stages of counseling, the various types of developmental counseling and the three basic skills required of a counselor. One section of this ATP, however, provides important information that our new NCOER system will likely make critical for counselors.

With at least 76 percent of NCOs now assessed as less than “Most Qualified,” counselors will need to understand “Addressing Resistance.” Traditionally, resistance to counseling has been a situation associated with negative performance or disciplinary counseling. In the case of laying the foundation for success with the new NCOER, counseling resistance may become a more frequent issue to face, and as the ATP states, that resistance may come from either the counseled individual or the leader conducting the counseling.

The subordinate’s resistance is easy to foresee. More than a few NCOs will be resistant to the idea that they are not being evaluated as “Most Qualified.” This will lead to some resistance from the counseled NCO, but our current inflated NCOERs should indicate that some resistance to counseling will also come from leaders.

The leaders’ resistance may stem from a hesitance to be completely honest about their assessment of an NCO. Every senior rater would like to think that he or she is consistently providing honest assessments, but if this lack of forthright assessment didn’t exist, there would have been far more NCOs receiving 3s or even 4s on the current NCOER.

Senior raters owe it to their Soldiers and to the long term health of the Army to provide honest and specific evaluations of a rated NCO’s potential. Though we leaders are charged with developing our subordinates to the limits of their potential, we are not responsible for ensuring that all our subordinate NCOs get promoted. This false notion, however, is alive and well. Quite often, when a rating official executes an honest evaluation that assesses an NCO at less than “Among the Best” and “1 and 1,” the rated NCO is surprised by the less than stellar rating and feels betrayed by his or her leader. If a rating official conducts regular effective counseling, however, there is no reason for the rated NCO to be surprised.

Counseling beyond the book

When an NCO has just been told, perhaps for the first time, that he or she is not “Most Qualified” for promotion, one of the first things he or she will want is an answer to some version of this question: “How do I change your mind?” or “How do I get ‘Most Qualified’?” or “What did ‘Joe’ do that I haven’t?”

The answer is, there is no clear answer. The training materials for the new NCOER explicitly state that most NCOs will be rated “Highly Qualified.” Senior raters will no doubt find they have to make a hard choice between two or more competent and fully qualified NCOs. When assessed against the standard of duty performance, the two NCOs may appear virtually equal, with similar experience and results during the rating period. It will be up to the senior rater to decide who is the most qualified, and that will probably come down to small details and a subjective assessment of the NCOs’ comparative potential. In short, there is no way for a senior rater to provide a checklist of items for a “Most Qualified” rating.

Staff Sgt. Shannon Knorr, Headquarters and Headquartets Company 1st Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment, and 1st Sgt. Bryan Smethurst, first sergeant HHC 1-211 AR of the Utah National Guard, conduct an end-of-tour counseling session in Kunduz province, Afghanistan, on Nov. 18, 2012. (Photo by Sgt. Duncan Brennan)
Staff Sgt. Shannon Knorr, Headquarters and Headquartets Company 1st Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment, and 1st Sgt. Bryan Smethurst, first sergeant HHC 1-211 AR of the Utah National Guard, conduct an end-of-tour counseling session in Kunduz province, Afghanistan, on Nov. 18, 2012.
(Photo by Sgt. Duncan Brennan)

Instead of providing a checklist, rating officials must be prepared to clearly define the performance standards against which the NCOs they rate are being assessed, but this is only a first step. The act of senior rating — considering an NCO’s potential — is more subjective. At some point, senior raters will have multiple NCOs who perform exceptionally well against the performance standards. This is when a senior rater must make a subjective comparison between NCOs to identify the “Most Qualified” among a pool of “Highly Qualified” NCOs. Senior raters must be prepared to “own” their assessments and use the NCOER counseling to mentor subordinate NCOs. This ownership begins and ends with honest and effective counseling.

Leaders at all levels must mentor raters and subordinate leaders on effective counseling. The emphasis here is on effective counseling. Leaders and Soldiers should not be satisfied with counseling that does little more than provide a list of tasks to be accomplished or a list of deficiencies to be overcome. Certainly counseling has to address the standard quantifiable subjects such as Army Physical Fitness Test performance, schools attendance, primary duty performance assessments and individual qualifications, but more than this, counseling has to address the intangible elements that traditionally set the great NCOs apart from the good ones. The importance of initiative, determination, resilience, lifelong learning and broadening opportunities, to name just a few, must be part of the mentorship an NCO receives in counseling.

Most importantly, counseling should be a frank, two-way discussion between the counselor and the NCO that includes the NCO’s strengths and weaknesses and how those strengths and weaknesses manifest themselves in the performance of daily duties. This requires a balanced discussion involving both positive reinforcement of what an NCO is doing well, along with candid feedback about where the NCO needs to improve. The leader must also listen to the Soldiers and their perception of their own performance, strengths and weaknesses in order to fully understand their developmental needs. Having had that two-way discussion, the leader can then focus on mentoring the subordinate on ways to emphasize strengths to minimize or mitigate weaknesses and providing resources and opportunities to the counseled NCO to directly address those weaknesses.

Of course, the subordinate NCO also has a role to play. The best mentorship in the world is wasted on an NCO who does not want to accept constructive criticism and seriously consider how to apply it to grow. These NCOs exist throughout the Army and are the ones most likely to be upset and vocal when they find they are among the 76 percent rather than the 24 percent. Frankly, NCOs who consistently refuse to accept and apply counseling provided to them should be rated “Not Qualified.” Refusal to seek and apply constructive criticism is a failure of the Leader Attributes “Character” and “Intellect,” and the Leader Competency “Develops,” and should not be assessed as “Qualified” at any level.

It is critical that we all recognize that counseling requires preparation on the part of the counselor and the individual counseled. This preparation and counseling require a commitment to consistently make the time. Time is a leader’s most precious resource, and a leader’s time should be prioritized for those activities that only the leader can do and which provide a high payoff when the leader uses his or her time for that activity. Counseling must be a leadership priority.

Effective counseling is a consistent dialogue between leader and Soldier that provides mentorship, direction, coaching, development and, perhaps most importantly, trust on both sides. Ultimately, this is where the NCOER process transitions from an administrative responsibility to a leadership function. With coordinated effort among raters and senior raters to produce honest NCOERs supported by frank counseling and dedicated mentorship, the NCOER process becomes a real tool for leader development and enhancement of potential. Long-term dedication to this effort will benefit the Army exponentially as we grow a more competent and potential-laden NCO corps. If the next generation of leaders maintain a dedication to mentorship and counseling, they will be capable of propelling the Army further than the current generation can conceive, and that will be the measure of our success.

All the ideas above are quickly summarized in the words of retired Col. Joe Buche, who said, counseling “is not designed to make you feel good about yourself. It is designed to help you improve your performance and therefore feel good about yourself. … Graduate-level leaders listen to counseling and use it as they approach the future. Amateurs leave counseling sessions [complaining] about their boss. Decide to which group you wish to belong and act accordingly.”

Let us, as an NCO Corps and as leaders, decide to be graduate-level counselors who build graduate-level leaders for the future of our Army.

Sgt. Maj. William E. White Jr. is the sergeant major of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.

Fusion center’s NCOs spread IED lessons to keep Soldiers ‘left of boom’

By JONATHAN (JAY) KOESTER
NCO Journal

The report published by the Irregular Warfare Analysis Cell features a map with scattered red dots indicating where improvised explosive devices have detonated. But the map isn’t of Iraq or Afghanistan. The map is of the Asia-Pacific region, an area with a surprisingly high number of IED attacks occurring in U.S. partner nations.

The map is part of a Monthly IED Activity Report produced by the Irregular Warfare Analysis Cell of the Asia Pacific Counter-IED Fusion Center on Fort Shafter, Hawaii. The report helps create awareness of what is going on in the Pacific, said Sgt. Maj. Michael Bennet, the senior noncommissioned officer at the fusion center.

“On average more than 100 IEDs go off in the Pacific region every month,” Bennet said. “A lot of people don’t understand that and don’t know that. The Pacific has the second-highest number of IEDs in the world. Whether we like it or not, operating in the Pacific is operating in an IED environment.”

The “fusion” part of the Asia Pacific Counter-IED Fusion Center comes from combining four core functions: irregular warfare analysis, partner nation engagement, identity activities and training.

Irregular warfare analysis

The Monthly IED Activity Report is a synopsis of the cell’s intelligence on irregular warfare in the Pacific region. IEDs have become such a large part of irregular warfare that 90 percent of the cell’s effort is put toward countering IEDs, said Master Sgt. Jose Padilla, the Irregular Warfare Analysis Cell noncommissioned officer-in-charge.

Padilla said a large part of his mission is making sure NCOs understand the threats in the Pacific and keeping the fusion center’s trainers as up-to-date as possible on the latest IED changes and threats.

“I check the reports every day, and if there are things changing, I pass that on to the trainers to make sure we stay up to date,” Padilla said. “My main mission is making sure our trainers know what’s going on.

“Understanding the counterinsurgency and the counter-IED fight is important even as we leave Afghanistan and Iraq because IEDs are the easiest and cheapest way for small, nonconventional forces to fight,” Padilla said. “We need to continue to train our Soldiers to understand that these types of fights aren’t going away. We can’t let the knowledge that we have earned with death and blood go to waste because we think we’re done with that fight.”

Partner nation engagement

The danger from IEDs to U.S. forces in the Pacific differs from the danger in CENTCOM, but the danger is there, Bennet said. Working with partner nations in the Pacific means that when they are targeted, U.S. Soldiers are put in danger, as well.

“As we align back with our partners and work with them, we have to take into account that, although (those placing IEDs) may not be targeting us, per se, if we’re in the same vehicle or working together, then we’re both targets,” Bennet said.

Engagement with partner nations helps both sides when knowledge is shared, said Sgt. Jeremy Myer, partner nations NCO at the fusion center. As an example, he named the Philippines, where Filipino soldiers’ experience in dealing with IEDs and knowledge of English makes them excellent at teaching U.S. Soldiers about the counter-IED fight.

Staff Sgt. Johnny Bowen, NCOIC for the Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, counter-IED training team, agreed that his experience in the Philippines taught him a lot about the IED threat.

Sgt. 1st Class Kindu Delaleu, operations/training/logistics NCO at the Asia-Pacific Counter-IED Fusion Center, points out some of the IED devices Soldiers can be forced to deal with in the Asia-Pacific area. (Photo by Jonathan (Jay) Koester)
Sgt. 1st Class Kindu Delaleu, operations/training/logistics NCO at the Asia-Pacific Counter-IED Fusion Center, points out some of the IED devices Soldiers can be forced to deal with in the Asia-Pacific area. (Photo by Jonathan (Jay) Koester)

“The experience for me in the Philippines was great,” Bowen said. “The Filipino soldiers really want to show you what they go through. It really hit home, and it showed me there was a really big threat. It’s mind blowing the things they actually do there with IEDs in the Philippines, attaching stuff to twigs, things that you would never even think about. We walked through the training lanes with them and it scared the life out of me. They show you just how small and simple some of these devices are. It really makes an impact on the Soldiers.”

“This year alone we have 25 engagements in 12 countries all over PACOM (United States Pacific Command),” Myer said. “These are various exercises with various countries and subject-matter-expert exchanges. We share knowledge, and they share knowledge with us. That’s how we combat the IED problem, because it’s worldwide and it’s always going to be there.

“The countries that have a lot of IEDs have reached out to us,” Myer said. “India has a pretty big IED problem. They are good at fighting it because they’ve seen it a long time. They’ve reached out to us as far as learning how to track where the bomb makers are and how to track the bomb makers’ finances. They are good at combating IED, but as far as tracking the network, we are helping them with that.”

Identity activities

Tracking the network is the focus of the Identity Activities division, which consists of biometrics and forensics capabilities. Although Soldiers have gotten better at spotting and minimizing the effects of improvised explosive devices, it takes forensics and biometrics work to put a stop to the devices before they can do any damage — or as Bennet says — to get “left of boom.”

“At the fusion center, we tie it all together with forensics and biometrics,” Bennet said. “Network identification is where we stop and get left of boom. If we can stop and arrest the transporters, the bomb makers, etc., then we truly get left of boom.”

Part of getting good forensics and biometrics is training NCOs and Soldiers to properly gather material after an IED blows up. With proper care, the evidence can then be analyzed and matched to who might have placed the device.

Training

Training Soldiers on how to spot and counter IEDs is the final piece of the fusion center puzzle. And as with all Army training, NCOs are at the forefront.

The training the fusion center provides is detailed, sophisticated and tailored to a unit’s needs, Bennet said.

“We tailor our training to meet the needs of the deploying and operational units,” Bennet said. “For example, if you have a unit that is never going to leave a port because they are a waterborne unit, then we tailor our training to port-type devices.”

The training taught at the fusion center is focused on the types of IEDs found in the PACOM region. That means focusing on jungle warfare versus the desert of the Middle East. However, the training is useful no matter where a unit deploys, said Sgt. 1st Class Kindu Delaleu, operations/training/logistics NCO at the fusion center.

“We’re making sure that everyone who is receiving that training, they can go to CENTCOM and pretty much just have to learn what the threat is over there and they can tailor whatever we taught them,” Delaleu said. “The threat changes. TTPs change. But how you can identify the threat can be universal.”

With the “T3: Train The Trainer” program, the fusion center works to create master trainers, who can then return to their units and continue the teaching process.

“We try to focus on the key audiences of team leaders, platoon sergeants, platoon leaders, so that way we can turn them into the trainers,” Delaleu said. “They can then facilitate their own training and train their junior Soldiers into those war-fighting individuals who would be able to identify these threats.”

To make the training as realistic as possible, the fusion center uses its forensic capabilities to re-create, down to the smallest detail, devices that blow up in partner nations, Bennet said.

Sgt. 1st Class Omar Jackson, left, a trainer with the Asia Pacific Counter-IED Fusion Center, demonstrates the Improvised Explosive Device Effects Simulator (IEDES) to Republic of Korea Army soldiers near Jangseong, South Korea. When initiated, the IEDES gives off an audio and visual signature during counter-IED training. The Korean soldiers were participating in a train the trainer course and are now qualified to teach counter-IED principles and tactics to their own soldiers. (Photo courtesy of Asia Pacific Counter-IED Fusion Center)
Sgt. 1st Class Omar Jackson, left, a trainer with the Asia Pacific Counter-IED Fusion Center, demonstrates the Improvised Explosive Device Effects Simulator (IEDES) to Republic of Korea Army soldiers near Jangseong, South Korea. When initiated, the IEDES gives off an audio and visual signature during counter-IED training. The Korean soldiers were participating in a train the trainer course and are now qualified to teach counter-IED principles and tactics to their own soldiers. (Photo courtesy of Asia Pacific Counter-IED Fusion Center)

“Everything that you see in our fabrication center has blown up as recently as three days ago, in this area of operations,” Bennet said. “Our fabrication center, they reverse engineer it to the exact device. If you see it here, this isn’t a mock up or a close-to, this is the exact thing that blew up. We do that with all our training and put that Pacific flavor on it.”

Will Dietz, one of the training aid fabricators at the fusion center, said the IEDs found in each nation are slightly different, based on what the device makers have on hand. Information sharing with partner nations helps Dietz re-create the devices. Working together completes the circle of training, he said.

“We’ve reverse engineered some of the circuits with accurate representations from some of our partner nations,” Dietz said. “That’s been key, the information sharing. That really comes into play. We try to show them that if you capture this type of information, and share it with the rest of the counter-IED forces, then we can all better train to operate in such an environment.

“The overarching goal is to provide the information and tools necessary for the Soldiers,” Dietz said. “If I can impart some information into one Soldier that keeps him alive and saves his butt one day, then my job is done. That’s the main goal.”

NCO leadership

With training being such an important part of the fusion center’s mission, NCOs naturally take the lead in that mission. Adding to their role as trainers is the experience NCOs have gained during the past 15 years of dealing with IEDs, said Sgt. 1st Class William Glander, NCOIC for the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, counter-IED training team.

“I think the important thing is a lot of noncommissioned officers nowadays — especially your staff sergeants, sergeants first class — those are the guys right now in the Army who were boots on the ground and doing all the hard stuff,” Glander said. “These were the guys actually looking for these IEDs, finding them with their own hands and feet, and sometimes finding them the hard way. Right now the Army is in a good position where they can pull from that pool of NCOs. We still have that experience and knowledge in the Army. We can use that to our advantage right now.

“The noncommissioned officers are usually the ones finding these IEDs,” Glander said. “You can’t beat real-life experience. That’s the most important thing NCOs can bring to the counter-IED fight.”

Sgt. 1st Class Jason Topping, operations/training/logistics NCO at the fusion center, said NCOs complete the teaching circle, allowing lessons learned to be passed to the next generation of Soldiers.

“NCOs are the people who are coming back after a deployment and then imparting that knowledge back onto us, so we can develop newer products and engage the Soldiers who are going back out, so it’s completely cyclical,” he said. “NCOs are the link between experience and training. We have to form that bridge and, as best we can, train the inexperienced.”

Lt. Col. Gary Bolos, then director of the fusion center, said he counts on his NCOs to be the face of the Army, especially in places where the fusion center has only NCOs leading training.

“The NCOs execute all the tasks for counter-IED training,” Bolos said. “They are the face of the Army for us in many places. We don’t have officers at the counter-IED training teams in Alaska or Korea, for instance. So the NCOs shoulder that responsibility. They are the government lead in those places. We have some tremendous NCOs out there who can do that and shoulder that load. The NCOs here have to have the initiative and the flexibility to do stuff that we don’t normally require of NCOs.”

The NCOs at the fusion center said knowledge about the threat of IEDs in the Pacific and understanding the damage IEDs can do keeps them focused on their mission every day.

“During the past couple of years, with the kinetic activity that is happening with IEDs, both in CENTCOM and here in the PACOM area, things change almost daily,” Topping said. “There’s always new technology, or the bomb makers figure out something that is new to them. They go out of their way to find new ways to hit us with IEDs, so we have to go out of our way to find new ways to combat them.”

“I’m definitely inspired by this mission,” Delaleu said. “I didn’t know much about booby traps, IEDs, and how they affect people on deployments when I first got into this realm. This job, it gave me the opportunity to learn that IEDs are the No. 1 killer. I want to be be able to tell Soldiers, ‘This is what’s actually happening. This is what’s happening today, and this is what’s happening tomorrow.’

“We’ve had a case where a Soldier came back from a real-world deployment and said, ‘Thank you,’” Delaleu said. “Because the information we provided and the training we tailored for them actually worked. Just to hear that gave me the inspiration I have today.”

As long as those red dots continue to pop up on the monthly IED report, the mission of the Asia Pacific Counter-IED Fusion Center will be critical to protecting Soldiers. And until those dots disappear, NCOs such as Bennet, Delaleu, Topping, Bowen, Myer, Glander and Padilla will be hard at work gathering knowledge and training Soldiers on the best ways to protect themselves.

Master Leader Course’s launch is one step in overhaul of NCO education

NCO Journal staff report

A new Master Leader Course pilot begins this week as part of a revamping of NCO education and professional development.

“As you may or may not know, the Master Leader Course is now official,” said Command Sgt. Maj. David S. Davenport Sr. of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, speaking Oct. 14 during a forum at the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition.

Command Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Command Sgt. Maj. David Davenport, shares his experiences with cadets during a recent visit to the U.S. Military Academy. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Vito T. Bryant / U.S. Military Academy Public Affairs)
Command Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Command Sgt. Maj. David Davenport, shares his experiences with cadets during a recent visit to the U.S. Military Academy. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Vito T. Bryant / U.S. Military Academy Public Affairs)

The first pilot of the course for sergeants first class is now being taught at Fort Bliss, Texas. The new course will eventually be required for promotion to master sergeant and is part of a renewed emphasis across the Army on NCO education.

There’s a push to eliminate the current backlog of over 14,000 NCOs who have not gone to their required professional military education, or PME, Davenport said.

“Deferments are causing a huge disruption,” Davenport said. In the future, instead of just saying that an NCO can’t go to school due to an operational conflict, commanders will need to say when that NCO can go to school, Davenport said.

PME requirements for promotion will no longer be waived for NCOs, he said, beginning next year.

Enforcing education requirements comes as a widening of STEP, which stands for selection, training, education and promotion. It was first used to require master sergeants and first sergeants to attend the Sergeant Major Academy to get promoted and now it’s expanding to all NCO ranks.

It’s simple, but everyone must understand, Davenport said, “You will not be promoted until you attend the appropriate level of PME.”

Other upcoming changes include:

  • Establishing the NCO Professional Development System (per HQDA EXORD 235-15
  • Renaming of the Warrior Leader Course to Basic Leader Course
  • Using a Digital Job Book that documents all training for Soldiers as part of the Digital Training Management System, or DTMS
  • Redesign of the Sergeant Major Academy
  • Establishment of the Institution for NCO Professional Development, or INCOPOD
  • Development of an Executive Leader Course for command sergeants major
  • Publicizing more broadening opportunities for NCOs
  • Providing a “Digital Rucksack” to students that includes course materials, apps and technical manuals
  • Requiring Army Service School Academic Reports or DA 1059s to include date of a Soldier’s last physical fitness test, along with a height and weight statement

The effective date of the last change and others may be determined by a proponency conference taking place this week, Davenport said.

The changes will be “revolutionary,” not just “evolutionary” like past changes to NCO professional development, said Davenport and retired Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston, who served as moderator for the panel discussion.

“Noncommissioned officers and their Soldiers must be ready to perform (their) missions in an increasingly complex world in which they find themselves today,” Preston said.

“This is an opportunity for the NCO Corps to take charge of NCOES, of how we educate our non-commissioned officers,” said retired Command Sgt. Maj. John D. Sparks, who is now director of TRADOC’s Institute for Professional Development.

“You’ve got to own NCOES,” Sparks told NCOs in the room about rebalancing the NCO Education System.

“Training is the fulcrum for manning and equipping,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Scott Schroeder of U.S. Army Forces Command.

“We must develop systems and policies” that enable PME to sync with deployments and operational missions, Schroeder said. He and retired Lt. Col. Ernie Boyd of FORSCOM discussed the new Sustainable Readiness Model, or SRM, which will be used for Army Force Generation.

Many broadening opportunities for NCOs exist in the Army today that are not used to full advantage, Sparks said. Davenport said there will be a “shaking up” of broadening opportunities, to ensure all of the opportunities are widely known.

“We’ve got to define what broadening is,” Schroeder said, explaining that the term is used for everything from fellowships to drill instructor assignments.

A “hybrid solution” needs to be developed to meet both operational and educational requirements, Schroeder said. More frequent classes might be one solution, he said.

Leveraging technology might be another, Davenport suggested.

One thing is certain, Schroeder said: “We can’t go back to where we used to be. We can’t continue to do business as usual.”

The solutions can’t be made “in a stovepipe,” Schroeder said, and must be discussed “across our staff sections.” While G3 (operations and training) is usually the proponent for schools, G1 (personnel) and other sections also need to be involved.

More guidance on NCO professional development is expected in December, Davenport said, with a third fragmentary order to be released in the spring.

NCOs pivotal in boosting U.S. military’s language skills

By CLIFFORD KYLE JONES
NCO Journal

One of the world’s premier foreign language schools has a six-year plan to boost the quality of its graduates’ communication skills, and the military’s noncommissioned officers will play a key role in getting them there.

The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center intends to boost its standards by requiring about 25 percent more proficiency from its graduates. A key part of that mission — called the “2-plus plan” — is an increase in the use of immersion training.

The school, in Monterey, California, uses two types of immersion, and is exploring other methods to enhance its linguistic training. Most students go through an immersion facility operated by DLIFLC just off-campus, and just fewer than 20 percent of basic language students take a four-week trip outside the continental United States as part of their education.

 

Students in the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center's Arabic program take part in a cultural exercise. (Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones / NCO Journal)
Students in the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center’s Arabic program take part in a cultural exercise. (Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones / NCO Journal)

“What we have found through statistics is that after doing an immersion, students come back more confident, more capable in their listening, certainly more capable in their speaking,” said Army Col. David K. Chapman, the institute’s commandant. “And on standardized tests, they improve, generally about 20 to 25 percent. They have better scores once they return.”

Those reasons alone would be enough for Chapman to implement the plan to increase the number of students who are able to participate in OCONUS immersions to about 50 percent in six years’ time. But he sees other positive outcomes from the OCONUS immersion, as well — albeit effects that are more difficult to quantify.

“What we can’t measure is the career impact,” Chapman said. “How willing is someone to re-enlist because they got that opportunity? How much more excited about their jobs are they? But I can tell you with nonempirical data, they’re super excited about it. They all come back and they rave about the immersion program. Not just the language, but the culture as well.”

The institute’s command sergeant major, Command Sgt. Maj. Matildo Coppi, said NCOs who work in linguistics, both at the institute and in the field, were among the driving forces behind the push toward increasing immersion training.

“They saw that there was a gap that needed to be filled,” he said. “We huddled with our chief of staff, and it was briefed up to the commandant. He really put that objective out there: to increase our immersion footprint.”

Coppi also says NCOs will be critical to helping the institute achieve its 2-plus plan. Students at the institute take the Defense Language Proficiency Test as a condition of their graduation. It tests listening and reading skills in a foreign language, grading each ability on a scale of 0 to 5, with 0 being no proficiency and 5 denoting a native speaker with an intimate familiarity with the culture. The institute requires a score of “L2, R2” from its graduates, meaning a limited working proficiency in both listening and reading the target language.

The goal to require “L2+, R2+” scores of its graduates translates to about a 25 percent improvement in students’ listening and reading skills, and “is getting closer to that native or heritage speaker type of arena,” Coppi said.

A score of “L3, R3” might indicate a heritage speaker, meaning someone whose parents spoke the language natively and was raised to speak it and could be described as an expert in the language, Coppi said.

In six years, graduates “are going to be force multipliers, enablers, for those combatant commanders or regionally aligned forces commanders, so they can have not a competent linguist, but more of an expert linguist,” Coppi said.

At every level, Coppi and Chapman said, an NCO is helping to lead the student along the path.

During a typical OCONUS immersion, an NCO is in charge of students before and during the trip. He or she would double-check documents and make sure that everyone gets to the airport on time before the trip, then ensure that students get to their classes on time once they arrive. An immersion consists of four to five hours a day of instruction at a partnered institution of higher education in the country being visited and a number of organized field trips and other activities designed to expose students to the culture of a country.

Persian Farsi students and faculty at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center prepare traditional Persian meals as part of their cultural learning. (Photo courtesy of DLIFLC)
Persian Farsi students and faculty at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center prepare traditional Persian meals as part of their cultural learning. (Photo courtesy of DLIFLC)

Sgt. Renee Green has been in charge of two groups of students visiting South Korea, the first in 2013 and another early this year. She didn’t have the opportunity to participate in an OCONUS immersion as a student at the institute, but after she graduated, she was stationed in South Korea, so she was able to see how valuable it was to live in a country where her target language was spoken.

“My language improved, because I was using it and I had to use it. And that’s the benefit” of immersion, Green said. “The students have to ask questions. People there don’t know what they know.”

In a classroom setting, instructors have a pretty good idea of where students are with vocabulary and grammar and tailor conversation and instruction to that level, she said. But when the students visit another country, they are forced into conversations and topics outside of what they’ve learned in class.

“They just talk, and you have to figure it out,” Green said. “That’s the benefit I got when I was stationed there” and what she sees in the group’s she has led.

As the groups’ NCO, she was also charged with facilitating immersion. As a fluent speaker, all of her interactions with the students were conducted in Korean while they visited Seoul. And during downtime, she sometimes helped students find a cultural experience to develop their language skills and cultural awareness.

“When I went two years ago, some of the students were a little more introverted and not as open to just going exploring,” Green said. “Being that I had lived in [Seoul] before, I have a pretty good idea of the city. I asked them what they liked to do and found events that matched their interests, so that way, when they’re there, they’re immersing themselves.”

For instance, if the students enjoyed baseball, she might encourage them to attend a South Korean baseball game. She tried to avoid allowing them to fall into the stereotypical Seoul activities of nightclubs and high-end shopping that the city itself seems to promote.

“That’s what I think the goal of the DLI immersion is — finding the history behind everything and seeing the real culture, not just the culture they’re promoting,” she said.

During her two visits as an NCO, Green has visited the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea; reached the top of the Seoul Tower, a communication and observation tower at Seoul’s highest point; attended the National Theater of Korea, the South Korean version of Broadway; traveled to a traditional village for the day; learned Korean calligraphy; taken a tour of a tunnel dug by North Koreans in an attempt to reach Seoul; and learned how to make kimchee — “that was pretty cool.”

She said her favorite event, though, is watching the students when they first arrive at Seoul National University and immerse themselves in the college experience.

“The first thing they do is they all buy sweatshirts,” she said.

Students visit four-year universities, but the institute has been accredited since 2002 by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and has granted more than 11,500 Associate of Art degrees in foreign language.

Immersion2
A professor speaks to students participating in an overnight immersion at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center’s immersion facility. (Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones / NCO Journal)

Eileen Mehmedali, assistant director of the institute’s Immersion Language Office, helps coordinate both the OCONUS immersions and the immersion scenarios all students undergo as part of their training in Monterey. Her office works closely with the NCOs in both settings, receiving daily updates from the NCO in charge during OCONUS trips and relying on NCOs at the immersion center to counsel students and be in charge during overnight immersions and ensure the target language is spoken at all times.

Every student in his or her first semester participates in a one-day immersion that lasts from morning to evening. Many students in their second or third semesters participate in an overnight immersion that lasts two days. Mehmedali said the mornings generally consist of structured activities that are task-based and job-related. Those activities might involve role-playing — for instance, operating a checkpoint in Afghanistan or a taking part in a peace-keeping mission in another part of the world. As the day progresses, the job-based activities taper off and cultural exercises come to the fore. Students might participate in a simulated Iraqi wedding, play traditional Korean games or cook a traditional meal from the culture they’re studying. Students staying overnight might also watch movies or other videos that they write reports on and present about the next day.

Coppi notes that NCOs can be particularly helpful in improving the local immersion experience.

“From a noncommissioned officer perspective, we’re amping up our efforts out at the local immersion so that we can mimic and mirror those things that service members experience abroad,” he said.

And Mehmedali said those efforts are beneficial.

“It’s very difficult to replicate the culture here, but we try our best,” she said. “And the possibilities are endless, even on the isolation immersion side. If you put your mind to it, if you have committed and enthusiastic personnel and instructors, then anything is possible. Obviously, I would love to send every student on an OCONUS immersion, but that’s not possible, it’s not practical, that’s not the reality we’re living right now. We will be growing, which is encouraging. But in the meantime, this is a goldmine — the isolation side of the immersion facility — that we’ve just scratched the surface of. There’s so much more that we can do and develop.”

In addition to the on-site immersion center and the OCONUS immersions, DLIFLC is exploring options for a third type of immersion experience for its students — one that takes place in a U.S. city with a large concentration of native speakers of the target language. Safety is a paramount concern in any OCONUS immersion, Mehmedali said, so some target languages are difficult to coordinate immersions for because of instability or diplomatic relationships. Also, as the political situation has changed in some countries, the institute has had to discontinue its immersions there, as recently occurred in Egypt. However, the institute has piloted immersion programs in the Iraqi and Levantine dialects of Arabic at San Diego State University, and it has begun exploring a similar program with the Persian language Farsi at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The expanded immersion programs, both OCONUS and stateside, are just more evidence that the importance of linguistic skills to the Army shows no signs of abating.

“Language and culture matter,” Coppi said. “The business that we’re in requires us to go abroad. It’s an away game, whether it’s a humanitarian act, to prevent something from happening, or to shape conditions.”

He says that when he considers the Army’s Operating Concept, “Win in a Complex World,” he sees direct correlations to the training conducted at DLIFLC.

The first paragraph of the TRADOC pamphlet reads, “The Army Operating Concept (AOC) describes how future Army forces will prevent conflict, shape security environments, and win wars while operating as part of our Joint Force and working with multiple partners.”

Coppi said, “As I look at ‘prevent,’ ‘shape’ and ‘win,’ I could easily attach language and culture to all three of those tenets.”

U.S. Army Recruiting Command would appear to agree. During a recent visit to the institute, the commanding general of USAREC, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, said, “It’s nice to come here and see the investment we are making in young men and women and the growing appreciation that we really need to cultivate language capability in our Army.

“We are absolutely committed to ensuring that quality applicants are coming to the Army,” which includes linguists, he said.

Chapman, who speaks Serbian, Russian, Greek and is about to do an immersion program in French, argues that for the U.S. military to understand the world in which it’s operating, its officers and NCOs must develop their language skills.

“To speak someone’s language is to know them. You can be a U.S. military member assigned to Germany and you can drink the beer and eat the bratwurst and do all those things that you think make German culture, but until you’re speaking in their language and talking to them about their problems and their views on American policies or whatever the discussion is, you’re not really getting it.”

The need among the NCO Corps may be even greater, Chapman said.

“It opens so many doors from an NCO perspective. A lot of officers across the world will have a level of English that allows them to communicate some. It’s not such the case with NCOs,” he said. “A lot of our partners’ NCO corps aren’t nearly as developed. And frankly, they don’t put the responsibilities on their NCOs that we do on ours. And so being able to speak their language is very important, particularly with coalition operations, coalition training, it’s all just really critical.”

The DLIFLC’s enrollment reflects that importance: 97 percent of the institute’s students are enlisted. That’s a statistic Coppi knows is important.

“The noncommissioned officers are the glue, that backbone,” he said, “so the more who are out there who know about language and culture or who have walked through the halls, the better off the Army is.”