The Best Defense

Ok, let's talk about the views of NCOs

By "A. Grumpy Sergeant"
Best Defense guest grouch

Thanks for asking me as an NCO how things are going and how we can improve. 

Overall I think we're doing okay in the section. It's good that you introduced yourself to everyone, told us a bit about yourself, and let us know what your standards and goals for the section are. I think the most important reason for a successful section or unit is a healthy NCO-Officer relationship. We both need to know what our respective roles are and maintain standards (tactical, technical and ethical), and we need to help each other succeed.

How was my last deployment? If I may be candid, sir, my last deployment was frustrating. We had a toxic NCO-Officer situation; as a result the section overall was miserable. Most of the soldiers left the unit as soon as we returned home and a few left the military altogether. On the officer's part, he was not very competent in his branch. And worse, rather than spend time getting up to speed and talking with his NCOs and lieutenants (most of whom had deployed before and knew some useful stuff), he avoided interacting with most section members. And because he was insecure, he didn't hold his NCO to a good standard. I gotta tell you sir: That was a time I really felt an officer needed to be relieved. And he was a major. Ultimately I blame his leaders for tolerating him. Guess they put loyalty over competency, I don't know. Maybe that's a larger issue with our Army's personnel manning system. Clunky. In World War II all sorts of officers were relieved.

He also had a bad attitude towards women and minorities. It's not like he had a poster of Nathan Bedford Forrest on his wall; it was a subtle (and occasionally nasty) attitude that affected the way he treated some members of the team. I am tired of having to give equal opportunity and sexual assault/harassment classes, but the problem is not just with privates. Anyway, the kicker was, our platoon sergeant had all the same problems, so it was a perfect storm of toxicity.

To my eternal shame and regret, I criticized them in the presence of subordinates. Complain upwards, not downwards, I was taught, and I failed to uphold that standard of professionalism.

Sir, let me stress the major was the exception, not the rule. I have served under many good officers -- West Pointers, former infantry NCOs, ROTC, National Guard, and direct commissions. I don't assume one category is any worse or better than the other, like some NCOs do. We have a lot of smart officers who genuinely care about soldiers.

I do think the NCO-Officer relationship needs to be explained at all levels of leadership. These days it seems like we learn it in a school for an hour, and then that's it. Of course, with all the deployments there wasn't much time, but now that they're are winding down a bit, it's time to do some basics. The NCO-Officer thing needs to be explained and discussed at all levels -- squad leader, platoon sergeant, first sergeant, sergeant major, and the same for the Officers Corps.

Sir, I will treat you with respect, loyalty and integrity. I want our mission and you to succeed, not just take care of soldiers. I will never again criticize a leader in the presence of subordinates. I will keep and maintain a leader's book, counsel soldiers in a timely manner, and know what they're up to, unlike my last platoon sergeant. By the way, sir, did you know Specialist Jones has a Master's degree in political science? Yeah, she was a teacher. If we go back to Afghanistan, Sergeant Smith was a police officer who was born in Turkmenistan. He's a good troop and can get up to speed quickly on Dari.

Anyway, I don't need micromanaging, just give me adequate time and resources for a task. By all means, ask me what's going on, I'll be candid with you and won't give you the "stay in your lane" comment. Some NCOs misuse that.

And sir, here's that PowerPoint presentation you asked for. If I may ask a favor, sir, could you not let anyone else know I know PowerPoint? Thank you, sir. 

A "Grumpy Sergeant" is just that. Grumpy served in the U.S. Army and Army National Guard for 12 years. Grumpy did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as an NCO and later went back there as a civilian contractor, which made Grumpy grumpier. These opinions are Grumpy's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S Army, the U.S. Army National Guard, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.

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The Best Defense

Tom is again handled gingerly in an official U.S. military pub -- and that's good

In the new issue of Joint Forces Quarterly, retired Army Col. George Reed, now at the University of San Diego, writes that, "Former Washington Post journalist and author Thomas Ricks launched a public salvo against the war colleges in a series of blogs where he actually called for their closure, describing them as both expensive and second-rate. While his criticism is sometimes hyperbolic and tends to be disregarded by those within the system, he raises some good points and serves as a watchdog of sorts as evidenced by his recent accounting of personnel changes that resulted in the reduction of civilian professor positions at the Army War College."

I love how I always seem to get such arm's-length faint praise in official military publications -- Look, I ain't saying I like the guy, but you got to pay attention to part of maybe one or two things he says, sir.

As for closing costly and ineffective military institutions: Perhaps the thoughts do appear hyperbolic to those of small imagination. Yet in my experience, what seems unimaginable one year may become reality in another.

For me, the bottom line is a bit like our discussion of strategy the other day: If the military establishment begins to feel too comfortable with me, I would feel I was not playing my role. The founding fathers, in their wisdom, gave us an adversarial system. If I were bear-hugged by the U.S. military, sought out as a speaker who would be reassuring and not ruffle any bird colonels' feathers, I would worry that I was not being sufficiently critical.

So I will take the uneasiness as a sign of health.

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