NCO forges valuable partnerships with veterans at Natick

NCO Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Different animal’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Beret killed by IED in Afghanistan

NCO Journal staff report

Staff Sgt. Matthew V. Thompson, 28, of Irvine, California, died Aug. 23, of wounds received from an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Thompson was assigned to A Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. Thompson was on his first deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. He had previously deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

“He was an exceptional Green Beret, a cherished teammate, and devoted husband. His service in Afghanistan and Iraq speak to his level of dedication, courage, and commitment to something greater than himself,” said Lt. Col. Kevin M. Trujillo, commander of Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan.

“The Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan will honor his memory and sacrifice and his passing is a tremendous loss to all who were blessed to know him,” Trujillo added.

Thompson enlisted in the U.S. Army in March 2011 as a Special Forces candidate. Upon completion of Army Basic Combat and Advanced Individual Training, Basic Airborne Course, Special Forces Assessment and Selection and the Special Forces Qualification Course, he reported to 1st Special Forces Group as a Special Forces medical sergeant in August 2014.

Thompson’s military education includes Basic Combat Training, the Basic Airborne Course, the Advanced Leader Course, the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Course, the Special Forces Qualification Course and the Special Operations Combat Medic Course.

His wife of five years, Rachel Thompson, spoke to Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV after his death, and said Thompson was with a joint U.S.-Afghan foot patrol clearing IEDs when he died.

Rachel Thompson said her husband lost his life doing what he loved.

“He had the time of his life,” she told WTMJ, calling her husband “fearless.”

Another U.S. Soldier was injured in the attack, as were six Afghan troops, according to the Army Times.

Thompson is the second U.S. combat death in Afghanistan this year. Sgt. 1st Class Matthew McClintock died in Helmand earlier this year.

About 700 U.S. troops are deployed in Helmand, and about 10,000 deployed to Afghanistan. Just before Thompson’s death, the Defense Department announced another 100 Soldiers would be sent to that country.

Thompson’s awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Medal, Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development Ribbon (numeral 2), Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Basic Parachutist Badge and Special Forces Tab.

Thompson was posthumously awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, Bronze Star Medal with V device, and Purple Heart Medal.

— Lisa Ferdinando of Department of Defense News contributed to this report.

This Month in NCO History: Aug. 12, 1881 — Buffalo Soldier repels Apache attacks

1st Sgt. George Jordan was a Buffalo Soldier, part of the famed group of African-American men who served after the Civil War and into the 20th century.

As such, Jordan was not immune to the inequality faced by veterans of the segregated regiments. After his days in the Army, he struggled to find help when his health declined dramatically, being denied admission to the hospital at the now-defunct Fort Robinson in northwest Nebraska.

But on the battlefield, Jordan had few equals. His tenacity and bravery while part of the 9th Cavalry were unmatched. These attributes helped him learn to read and write after growing up illiterate. They helped him earn his sergeant stripes. And they helped him become worthy of the nation’s highest military honor.

Jordan was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1890 for his actions during the Apache Wars. The conflicts between the U.S. Army and the Apache nations were fought in the Southwest between 1849 and 1886. Jordan became a sergeant with K Troop, 9th Cavalry in 1879. At the time, the unit was stationed at Fort Stockton, Texas, and charged with maintaining order between the Rio Grande and Concho River from Fort Clark to El Paso.

In May 1880, Jordan led a 25-man detachment into the New Mexico Military District to protect Fort Tularosa from potential attack. The fort was near the present-day town of Aragon in Catron County, New Mexico. On May 13, Jordan received word that Apaches led by Chief Victorio were laying siege to the town. Jordan implored his troops to reach the area quickly through a forced march. On the morning of May 14, the detachment arrived at Fort Tularosa, finding the town intact. Jordan immediately had his troops build a new fort to protect the townspeople and a new stockade for their animals.

That evening, about 100 of Victorio’s men attacked, sending the townspeople scurrying under volleys of arrows. The town’s occupants found safety inside the newly built fort as the Buffalo Soldiers kept their attackers at bay. The Apaches staggered their attacks against the fort but Jordan successfully reorganized and mustered his men to repel each wave. His Soldiers even made a daring rescue to save all of the town’s cattle. The Apaches eventually relented after suffering several casualties. Jordan didn’t lose a man.

Protecting the town was an impressive feat, but it was what Jordan did 15 months later that cemented his place in the annals of Army history.

Jordan was one of 19 9th Cavalry troops actively pursuing Nana, a Warm Springs Apache chief who had ravaged areas of Texas, Mexico and New Mexico. The Soldiers were led by Capt. Charles Parker and had tracked Nana and his band of Navajos and Chiricahua Apaches into Carrizo Canyon. The canyon lay south of present-day Carrizozo Spring, New Mexico. Though not daunting in size, the outcropping was a treacherous place to come upon as it provided many high, hidden vantage points for an entrenched contingent to fire upon approaching enemies.

It is unclear how many enemy combatants the Buffalo Soldiers faced when they arrived at the canyon Aug. 12, 1881. Parker’s after-action report estimates that the opposing force had 40 guns. The Americans were easily outnumbered but would need to find a way through the canyon to continue the southward pursuit of Nana. That’s when Parker leaned on the battle-tested Jordan. The Buffalo Soldier was charged with taking a few men to head up the right flank along the gradual slope of the canyon to lay down suppressing fire along the opposite slopes as the rest of the group moved through. But the day didn’t go as planned. During their trek through the underbrush, Parker’s group came under fire from the slopes opposite Jordan. Jordan’s group returned fire from the other side, intermittently making the enemy retreat into the surrounding forest only to see them return further up the path to again cut off Parker’s progress.

While Parker was pinned down, the danger intensified for Jordan and his small detachment up above. They encountered hostile forces that had been posted on their side of the crest who had flanked them from the right. Parker rallied his men, positioning them so they were able to stave off their attackers in close combat while also periodically firing across the canyon at enemy forces that were shooting into the canyon below.

It is unknown how long Jordan and his men remained in this position, but his citation states, “he stubbornly held his ground in an extremely exposed position and gallantly forced back a much superior number of the enemy, preventing them from surrounding the command.” The desperate courage of Jordan allowed the unit to retreat back to Carrizozo Spring. The Americans lost one Soldier while inflicting four enemy casualties.

For his actions at Carrizo Canyon as well as Fort Tularosa, Jordan was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 7, 1890. Another NCO present at Carrizo Canyon, 1st Sgt. Thomas Shaw, also received the Medal of Honor later that year for actions during the battle.

Jordan left the Army in 1897. He originally joined in 1880 in Nashville, Tennessee. By the end of his service he had spent a decade as first sergeant of a troop renowned for its efforts against the Apache and Sioux. Jordan lived among other Buffalo Soldier veterans in Crawford, Nebraska, became a successful land owner and made headway in earning the right to vote.

Jordan became ill in the fall of 1904. He was turned away from Fort Robinson’s hospital and told to travel to Washington, D.C., to gain admission to the United States Soldiers’ Home. He never made the trip, as he died Oct. 24. Jordan was buried in Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Maxwell, Nebraska.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa


Camp Lemonnier offers NCOs joint, coalition development opportunities

NCO Journal

With its strategic location in the Horn of Africa, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti is an important part of the U.S. military’s efforts to combat terrorism in the Mideast and East Africa. In fact, Camp Lemonnier became the first and only U.S. installation on the continent of Africa shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The camp’s unique place on the African continent provides NCOs deployed there opportunities found at few other places.

Sgt. Maj. John Hilton is serving in Djibouti as an embedded liaison officer for the Center for Army Lessons Learned. He had simple advice for NCOs wondering why they might be sent to Djibouti and why it’s an important mission.

“I would tell them to take a look at the map and figure it out,” Hilton said. “Typically, if they have been in the military for some time, they have some smarts and they’ll see that Somalia is right under them; Yemen is right next to them. The strait right off the coast is the second-busiest shipping lane on the planet. So you have that strategic location that is in the nation’s best interest to be here.”

Graphic by Spc. James Seals / NCO Journal
Graphic by Spc. James Seals / NCO Journal

Hilton said Camp Lemonnier is a great place for U.S. Army NCOs to get joint experience with the other services, as well as with coalition forces.

“What they can expect is not what they experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said. “This is unlike any of their previous deployments. Expect that you are going to get joint experience. Whether you come over here to work on a joint staff or you’re an infantry squad leader in a battalion over here, you are going to be working with the other services by default.

“Expect that you are going to engage with at least the coalition forces and the Djiboutian forces,” Hilton said. “And chances are you’ll engage with the forces of one of the countries in our area of responsibility. So come over here with a mindset that you are going to be a trainer, to some degree, in addition to what you were sent here for.”

Those training missions end up giving NCOs an important opportunity to influence countries in the area, Hilton said.
“You are going to be the face of the United States,” he said. “If you are a medic, for instance, and there is a mission to train the medics in Burundi, you may be the only U.S. person a Burundian medic ever sees in his life. You literally are the face of the United States to some of these people. So you have to expect that what you do here will have a strategic influence.”

An assignment to Camp Lemonnier is also different because it is a combat deployment — to a garrison environment.

“This is a hybrid environment,” Hilton said. “Yes, it is a combat deployment. Yes, there is a threat, whether it’s kinetic or not, outside the gate. But inside the walls of Camp Lemonnier, this is a garrison environment. You have to be able to ‘flip the switch.’ If you’ve never operated in a garrison environment before — I mean the lifelong National Guardsman or Reservist who has never been in charge of Soldiers in a garrison environment — you are going to have a steep learning curve when you get here.”

Joint opportunities

With the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all sharing space on Camp Lemonnier, creative NCOs can find lots of joint professional development opportunities that would be hard to find elsewhere. One of those opportunities for junior enlisted is the Joint Corporals Leadership Development Course.

The course is designed for junior enlisted Marines preparing to be small unit leaders. But in Djibouti, members of all four services volunteer to take part in the course. The content and difficulty of the course doesn’t change, despite the participants from the other services being volunteers who won’t get official credit for the course.

Army Spc. Jerileigh Bouchard, civil information management analyst with the 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion, was one of those who volunteered for the course recently. She said she found the course useful despite a focus on the Marines.

U.S. Army Spc. Jerileigh Bouchard, a student in the Joint Corporals Leadership Development Course, lifts a weighted ammunition can during a combat fitness test in March on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. (Photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Daniel DeCook)
U.S. Army Spc. Jeileigh Bouchard, a student in the Joint Corporals Leadership Development Course, lifts a weighted ammunition can during a combat fitness test in March on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. (Photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Daniel DeCook)

“We learned a lot about basic warrior tasks,” Bouchard said. “We learned a lot about the history of the Marine Corps and how the Marine Corps works. It was really nice to see how another branch sees things and how they do things. Some of their tactical movements are a little different than what we do, so it was good to see that other perspective and just add it to my tool box.

“Even though I’m not in the Marines, it was helpful because we discussed leadership skills,” she said. “We had a public speaking thing. We had a land navigation course. We did physical training every morning, so there was a lot to take from it — not just Marine stuff.”

Bouchard said she enjoyed meeting members of the other military services during the course. It was her first experience working jointly.

“I had never really interacted with anybody who was in the other services prior to this class, except for my personal friends,” she said. “On an operational level, I hadn’t seen how the Navy or the Air Force or the Marines do their thing. I’d always been ‘Army, Army, Army,’ so it’s definitely different to see all these people working together.”

Army Spc. Nathan Sullivan, civil affairs specialist with the 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion, also successfully made it through the course. Both Sullivan and Bouchard said the physical training test they had to take at the beginning of the course wasn’t as bad as they expected — but the combat fitness test administered later was a different matter.

“The PT test was easier than I thought it would be,” Sullivan said. “Just different: I’m not used to doing pull-ups. The combat fitness test, however, was a lot harder than I expected it to be. That was a smoker. After we were done doing that, I was ready to go to bed.”

Sullivan said one of the main things he got from the course was inspiration.

“There is a lot of passion there in the Marines, and the leadership was giving us that passion during the course, even though we weren’t Marines,” he said. “Taking that passion and using it in the Army is something I hope to take with me.”

A student in the Joint Corporals Leadership Development Course takes the opening physical training test in March on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. (Photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Daniel DeCook)
A student in the Joint Corporals Leadership Development Course takes the opening physical training test in March on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. (Photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Daniel DeCook)

Bouchard said the course gave her a greater understanding of what is required of a leader. That preparation should help her eventually become an NCO.

“It helps you understand why leaders do what they do,” she said. “As a junior Soldier, I’m sure I’ve questioned something that an NCO told me, or wondered why they did it the way they did it. It helps you see where they are coming from and why they do it the way they do it. It definitely helped me think like a leader rather than as a junior Soldier.”

Senior enlisted opportunities

Camp Lemonnier offers plenty of professional development opportunities for senior enlisted Soldiers, as well. One recent effort is the Joint Forces Senior Enlisted Leader Professional Development Course, which is a coalition-focused mentoring and profession development session. Participants, in addition to members of the U.S. military, have been enlisted soldiers from Djibouti, Japan, Italy and Germany.

“It’s typically a half a day every other month,” Hilton said. “We learn the history and culture of each other’s armed forces. We learn what their noncommissioned officer rank structure is like, their NCO education system, what military life is like for them. We learn their capabilities, what their mission is here in Djibouti, and we start building those relationships.

“It’s led to mutual support between us,” Hilton said. “For instance, recently the U.S. Navy Seabees here on base assisted the Italians with some maintenance issues on one of their bigger trucks that they didn’t have the equipment for. It has increased that interoperability, coordination and cooperation.”

Senior enlisted Soldiers are also heavily involved in reaching out to the other countries in the Horn of Africa, Hilton said. They have participated in two engagements with the Kenyan military, and one with the Rwandan military. Future engagements are planned in Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania.

“The main focus is to show them how we use our NCOs,” he said. “Typically, we’ll go to their country first, for an initial meet and greet, get a tour of their training centers and things like that. Then we will bring them to Camp Lemonnier for two days.”

On the first morning of the engagement, the African countries’ senior enlisted soldiers receive a series of briefs. After introductions, the briefs are conducted by U.S. junior enlisted Soldiers.

Sgt. Maj. John Hilton is serving in Djibouti as an embedded liaison officer for the Center for Army Lessons Learned. (Photo by Jonathan (Jay) Koester / NCO Journal)
Sgt. Maj. John Hilton is serving in Djibouti as an embedded liaison officer for the Center for Army Lessons Learned. (Photo by Jonathan (Jay) Koester / NCO Journal)

“The main focus is the role of the NCO within the joint staff,” Hilton said. “What their responsibilities are, what their daily duties are, how they manage their sections. That’s not something that you typically see in another country’s military, the use of NCOs as staff members. So we try to showcase how we use our junior enlisted, our NCOs.”

The second morning, the engagement focuses on specific problems of the attending country. They will often receive briefs on how the U.S. military handles things such as mild traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder “because they suffer from those problems, as well,” Hilton said.

The sessions end with a town hall meeting, where senior enlisted leaders from the other countries take questions from the U.S. junior enlisted NCOs. Popular questions include age (“because these guys are old,”) what their typical day is like and if they have some of the same ethnic strife the Soldiers have seen in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The town hall has turned out to be more beneficial than I anticipated,” Hilton said. “The junior Soldiers in our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps get to see these gentlemen who have served their defense force for, some of them, more than 40 years. Because in these other countries they join for life. Our junior Soldiers find out they have the same issues we do. They miss their families just like we do. They have personnel and financial problems. They like hearing about what it’s like to be in the Kenyan army or the Rwandan navy.”

NCOs deploying to Djibouti should know that their mission is important and necessary, Hilton said. In addition, the opportunities to gain knowledge, especially from joint and coalition forces, are plentiful. Hilton suggests NCOs read up and study the area before they arrive, at the least completing Level 1 of Senior Enlisted Joint Professional Military Education.

“Bring your ‘A game’ when you come over here,” Hilton said. “It’s important, and the whole world is watching.”

Assignment to U.S. Embassy leads NCO to unexpected professional development

NCO Journal

Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Johnson has been deployed multiple times, but sometimes a mission still surprises him, such as acting as assistant liaison officer at the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti.

Johnson’s primary branch is civil affairs, where he typically joins a team of Soldiers to work with the local populace to identify the locals’ needs, wants and solutions. That’s what he expected to be doing in Djibouti, when he was called instead to the U.S. Embassy, serving as a line of contact between the U.S. Departments of Defense and State. It was not a job he felt ready for.

“When I found out I would be a liaison officer, I felt completely unprepared because this is not my background,” Johnson said. “But somebody is trusting in me. I want to be able to make this work and be successful on behalf of the Department of Defense and the Department of State to show that we can work together. I’ve learned so much.”

Johnson arrived in Djibouti from the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade out of Bristol, Pennsylvania. His main job is to make sure communication between the two departments remains smooth.

“I’m not always the direct chain, but I help facilitate,” Johnson said. “I set up meetings so that the commanding general and the ambassador can communicate and have the conversations they need at their levels.”

In addition, he facilitates access to the embassy for anybody from Camp Lemonnier or Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa who has business there. He helps others with their passports and plans bi-weekly security meetings between the U.S. Ambassador to Djibouti Tom Kelly, the Commanding General of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa Maj. Gen. Kurt Sonntag and other officials from Camp Lemonnier to discuss pressing issues.

“For example,” Johnson said, “how is Ramadan going to affect Djibouti? How is it going to impact workers here and missions going forward? And how can the Departments of Defense and State collaborate to assist and celebrate during Ramadan?”

As busy as Johnson is at the embassy, he also leads an impressive array of activities at Camp Lemonnier, said Maj. Philip C. Schaub of J9 (interagency partnering) for CJTF-HOA.

“As an active member of the Joint Senior Enlisted Council, Sgt. 1st Class Johnson organized and managed a campwide ‘Spring Fling’ event to provide fun, food and summer safety tips for U.S. Embassy employees and their families,” Schaub said. “He collaborated with all camp associates (USO, Red Cross, Joint Forces 5, Echo 6, etc.) to ensure a successful event. Johnson has volunteered more than 250 hours in support of Friends of Africa Volunteers. He participated in the French English Discussion Group and was the project lead for Troops to Teachers.”

Graphic by Spc. James Seals / NCO Journal
Graphic by Spc. James Seals / NCO Journal

Making connections with people as part of efforts like Troops to Teachers has been rewarding and has helped the mission in some unexpected ways, Johnson said.

“With Troops to Teachers, we bring Djiboutian students on the base temporarily to network, to discuss and to teach them English,” Johnson said. “They already speak five languages fluently. We got to know them and found out a few of them work at the airport. By chance, they’ve been able to assist us as a military with small, but important, tasks when we’ve needed help at the airport, just because we’ve already built that relationship. It’s unique and genuine.”

In addition to all the work Johnson does both at the embassy and volunteering at Camp Lemonnier, he still steps up in many other ways, Schaub said.

“On May 12, Sgt. 1st Class Johnson was enroute back to camp from the embassy when he observed smoke emitting from a local market,” he said. “Without hesitation, he stopped, secured his first aid bag and assisted those in need. He monitored the situation and assisted where needed. Johnson demonstrated his willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty that day.”

Though no injuries were reported, Johnson, with the help of a translator he found on the scene, helped people evacuate the market and phoned in requests for additional fire trucks. Afterward, Johnson made sure the translator was honored for his help.

“As an NCO, Johnson brings a unique set of skills to the job, a set of skills the foundation of which was created in boot camp and has been built brick-by-brick as he progressed though the enlisted ranks,” Schaub said. “It is clear that Sgt. 1st Class Johnson has had good mentors as he has progressed through his career because he is more than willing to assist junior enlisted Soldiers and ensure that not only the mission is always completed and successful but that the Soldiers learn from their experiences. This is what a good NCO does.”

Though he was not expecting to work at the embassy, Johnson said, the experience has made him a better NCO.

“This is something I never would have put personal time into, but now that I’ve had the opportunity to take advantage of it, it’s been good to get a better understanding of what the Department of State’s political officer does, what the economics officer does,” Johnson said. “I’ve learned how that enhances our job, our skill set and our mission here as the Department of Defense.”

Camp Lemonnier isn’t a large post, but on it are coalition forces, in addition to all four branches of the U.S. military. That mix offers another opportunity for NCO professional development, Johnson said.

“There are so many coalition forces here, so there is the opportunity to meet up on any night and just socialize,” Johnson said. “I participate with the French English Discussion Group because I have a little bit of background in French. You learn a lot by just talking to some of their military members, and doing things like going over to the French base and seeing what their conditions are like.”

Watching how the other branches of the U.S. military work can help NCOs think about solutions in new ways, Johnson said.

Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Johnson, 304th Civil Affairs Brigade, is serving as the assistant liaison officer at the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti. (Photo by Jonathan (Jay) Koester / NCO Journal)
Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Johnson, 304th Civil Affairs Brigade, is serving as the assistant liaison officer at the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti. (Photo by Jonathan (Jay) Koester / NCO Journal)

“The Army J6 (communications) versus the Air Force J6 operate very differently,” he said. “That’s something you learn and take back with you. It gets you outside of that train-to-fix vision of thinking just because that is what the Army has taught you. You can think, ‘Oh, I’ve seen the Marines do it this way, and the Navy does it this way.’ We have a variety of NCO organizations or associations here.”

For those looking to duplicate Johnson’s success, his recipe involves getting out of whatever comfort zone you are in and spending time building relationships.

“As an NCO, and as a person, if you want something done, you can’t sit back,” Johnson said. “You have to have initiative and you have to go out and put a face to the name. You can’t sit back and wait for an e-mail.

“Build the relationships before you need them,” Johnson said. “Where I sit as the assistant liaison officer, I go to the J6, because you never know when your communications are going to come down. Go meet the personnel office and say, ‘This is who I am. This is what I’m trying to do here.’ Build those relationships face-to-face, up-front. I think the Department of State does that very well. It’s something on the DOD side that a lot of people do very well, but it’s something we can do better.”

Johnson may not have been expecting his latest mission, but as NCOs so often do, he adapted and has become an important part of making the U.S. military’s mission in Djibouti successful.