Five silver dollars sit proudly on my mantle above my fire place. They represent the gratitude that five newly commissioned officers chose to give me over any other non-commissioned officer they had come to know in their burgeoning military careers for teaching, guiding, and mentoring them on the road to becoming an officer in the United States Army.
I remember proudly rendering the first salute to each of these officers. The pride I felt on their day was not because they had selected me as their first salute. The mirror shine on my jump boots, the care with each ribbon, picking the tiniest ball of wool from my beret was because I was proud of them, my new lieutenants. It was important that I represented their effort. They were out of the nest, on their way to make decisions that would affect the lives of enlisted soldiers like me.
I am a member of a time-honored corps, which is known as ‘The Backbone of the Army
Last week, the voice of the internet shouted in horror and glee as the Army public affairs office (PAO) approved pictures of a two-star general shooting his annual pistol qualification that went viral. It was painfully obvious to anyone who has received basic pistol marksmanship training that this leader had not. As internet snipers took aim and fired round after round at the general, all I could do was shake my head. “Where is this man’s Sergeant Major?”, I wondered to myself. All manners of what-if’s, maybe’s, and speculations over the level of training inherent to the branch, the camera angle, and to a lesser extent, the technique (what does John Wick have to do with this?). At the end of the day, a picture was taken displaying poor weapons manipulation and assumed worse marksmanship ultimately embarrassing an officer and his command. To that, I say where was his senior enlisted advisor? While it is unlikely that a flag officer is ever going to need to fire his or her weapon in combat, it is still a required combat skill; more importantly, some modicum of proficiency is required to effectively lead from the front. Every officer has an NCO counterpart who advises him, injects common sense, and keeps things like this range travesty from happening.
The duties of the NCO’s have always included the training of soldiers, officer and enlisted alike. The tradition of the silver dollar is largely believed to date back to the colonial days of our country. A newly minted officer would be assigned a seasoned NCO who would train him in soldiering. The monthly wage of the sergeant was one dollar, which the officer was responsible for paying. While we NCO’s are no longer compensated by our officers, the duty is still there. This duty does not stop with commissioning. Non-commissioned officers have a responsibility for ensuring all soldiers in their care, regardless of rank, are trained to the standard.
“Officers of my unit will have maximum time to accomplish their duties; they will not have to accomplish mine.”
This would seem to be a simplistic view, particularly if seen from the platoon level, typically the lowest level of influence for an officer (based on infantry organization). The higher officers and enlisted rise in rank, the greater the responsibility, and the further the distance from the grit and joy of tactical training. At the field grade level, getting to the range becomes a task that is bumped for briefings, meetings, and the like. I don’t know a single officer or senior NCO in the combat arms branches who wouldn’t rather be shooting than slaving on Power Point (nor do I care to), but this is the reality of middle management. Much of this business is vital to keeping the cogs of units turning.
Unfortunately, an increasing amount of this screen time is not vital to anything other than checking the block on knee-jerk reactions or someone’s contrived or redundant pre-deployment checklist. Anyone who has served in our military in the last decade can attest to the ever-increasing number of hours spent completing required online training or unit briefings. There is no end to this. It seems that every new policy requires a new briefing or block of online training. Policy makers seem to forget that increasing training requirements does not increase the number of hours in the day, weeks in the year, or years on a service contract. Time is finite and should not be borrowed against lightly.
The problem is easy to identify. Where is the solution to this? The answer lies in multiple avenues of approach and responsibility. First and foremost, senior non-commissioned officers must have the candor, savvy, and dare I say sack, to speak up and accurately advise their officer counterparts. It’s not a fight. It’s a rapport. It takes a certain amount of finesse for a knuckle-dragging NCO to convey the “why this is a shit idea” to an officer who has just spent hours of brain power on formulating a plan. The NCO must keep a foot firmly planted in both ends of the pool: on the line with the troops and in the office with his staff. Too much time in either one, and effectiveness of both leadership and management erode. If he doesn’t leave the office, the NCO becomes a paperweight, someone to be walked around in the halls on the way to actually getting something done. On the other end of the spectrum, if he despises his officers, and relegates himself to just be with the troops, he can’t express their voice to anyone making policy or decisions. Meanwhile, officers have the responsibility to listen to their NCO’s. Too often I see field grade officers giving a patronizing nod to their senior enlisted out of tradition, and then pull their hair out when everything seems to be falling behind, when their excel spread sheets are filled with red rather than green. Finally, our civilian leadership at the Pentagon and above have a responsibility to recognize that we are the fist of foreign policy, not a social experiment. Stop handing down your social priorities. This is a volunteer organization made up of a cross-section of the population. This means that the social norms of the population will mold the social norms of the force. It may take time, but it certainly doesn’t require a briefing every time someone has the inkling that their feelings are hurt. Let us do our jobs.