Protecting the dumb and inexperienced… the NCO

The sergeant is the Army – General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Deciding to go back into the Army after college was an easy decision. I sought a US Army commission… not because I hated being enlisted or felt some need to wield power over others. No, I sought a US Army commission because my experience with Army officers were not always great. I was a personal driver for my platoon leader… a young lieutenant that didn’t know his ass from his head and never listened to his noncommissioned officers… his sergeants. I wasn’t a sergeant… but I knew the “backbone” of the US Army deserved better officers than this goobernut. I became an officer because I knew NCOs… sergeants… were the US Army… and I knew they deserved lieutenants that understood that.

My dad was a career Army NCO… I often joked with my sergeants when I was a lieutenant and captain that my dad was my first NCO. I understood how it was supposed to work. I understood that the US Army… the US military… is the powerful thing that it is was a direct result of its professional NCO corps. Our allies’ and adversaries’ militaries covet our NCO corps… when one says “professional military” one isn’t talking about its officer corps… one is talking about the NCO corps.

My first NCO that worked directly with me was… what I considered old at the time… a mid-30’s staff sergeant (E6). He was a 13F Fire Support Specialist. He was a forward observer… he was the primary enlisted supervisor of our 4 man team. I was the lone 2nd Lieutenant, he was the lone sergeant, and then we had two privates. We occupied one armored track vehicle that was our home when deployed. I was responsible for what we did… I gave orders… my sergeant ensured we executed those orders. I was a novice… a brand new and green lieutenant… he was experienced… he had been in the Army for over a decade… I had been in the Army for a year. I had been taught leadership and artillery skils… he was the embodiment of knowledge.

I met my first NCO two days after arriving to Germany… in the motor pool supervising the two privates doing maintenance on our tracked vehicle. He was in dirty and greasy olive drab coveralls, a wrench was in one hand and a maintenance manual (-10) in the other. As an NCO, he understood that supervising work meant participating in the work… one can’t be an expert unless one had done the work. My first lesson as a new L-T was immediate… one can’t supervise maintainance unless one could do the maintenance. To this day I can brag that I know how to conduct operator maintenance on a number of Army vehicles… both wheeled and tracked. I know what it is like to be in knee-deep mud and reattach a thrown track (this is when your vehicle loses it track and it takes plenty of ass and sweat to get the track back on and aligned).

I conducted my first initial counseling with my NCO three hours after meeting him in the motor pool. What does a brand new and inexperienced lieutenant counsel a sergeant on? What could I possibly say to this expert? US Army officers spend approximately 1-2 years in a job and then move on (and up) to different jobs. NCOs stay in the same job just with increased responsiblity. My first counseling set the precedent for every initial counseling I gave to every NCO I ever worked with. It was a simple counseling with a simple message that reflected what I adopted as my leadership style.

I am not the expert at this job, you are. I am not going to know everything, and I don’t expect you too… but I do expect you to know more than me. I, however, am ultimately responsible for everything we do or don’t do. I will take responsibility for everything. I will never dime you out… I will place our soldiers and you first. I expect you, as the NCO to place the soldiers and mission first. I expect you to teach, advise, and support me. We are the leadership team of this unit. I expect no less from myself than what I ask of you.

This worked in April 1995 when I assumed a Fire Support Officer position and it worked when I took command of an artillery company (battery) in April 2000. I had five leadership positions in the US Army, one Fire Support Team (FIST), one Combat Observation Lasing Team platoon (COLT), one ammunition support platoon, one howitzer platoon, and one battery. This means I had five sergeants that were my prime advisor and enforcer. It means I had five very intimate marriages… yes the US Army officer and US Army NCO relationship is one of marriage. Both individuals feed off each other’s strengths and weaknesses. From 1995-2001, I spent more time with NCOs than anyone else in my life. I learned… intimately… what sergeants are and what they do for the Army.

I had NCOs correct me when I was lost because I couldn’t read a map correctly. I had NCOs assist me when I made a bad decision… yet they never embarrassed me by correcting me in front of soldiers or other officers. I had NCOs support my quick decisions even when they didn’t agree with those decisions. I had NCOs call me a dumbass when I deserved it without actually saying the word “dumbass” and saying it in such a manner that I learned my lesson and never made that dumbass mistake again. I gained the confidence over the years to correct NCOs when they made mistakes… they were human too… without having to say the word “dumbass” yet conveying the meaning clearly… distinctly. I learned how to lead men because I had NCOs… men… the backbone of the US Army… instruct me on how to lead.

On October 10 of this year, an exemplary NCO died at the age of 92. Command Sergeant Major Basil L. Plumley was exactly what NCOs represent and were supposed to be. CSM Plumley fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. CSM Plumley was made famous in We Were Soldiers when Sam Elliot portrayed him… supposedly underplayed him… beside Mel Gibson in the film about the 7th Cavalry Regiment’s November 1965, Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam.

As typical with so many veterans, he told no war stories… yet he was legendary within the US Army. He fought in Italy at Salerno and participated in the invasion of Normandy in World War II. Later he fought with the 173rd Airborne Regiment in Korea. In Vietnam, he was… at the end of his military career… a Command Sergeant Major in the 7th Cav Regt. of the 1st Cav Division. He could get no higher rank… he had reached the pinnacle of his military career serving alongside his soldiers… and the officers he advised and taught… in the Ia Drang battle. The journalist Joseph Galloway made CSM Plumley known to the outside world when he wrote the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young. Galloway stated CSM Plumley was “… actually tougher than …” how Sam Elliott portrayed him in the film. CSM Plumley “… was gruff, monosyllabic, an absolute terror when it came to enforcing standards in training.”

In other words, CSM Plumley was the perfect NCO. CSM Plumley is a man… an NCO… that left a mark on his world. Every enlisted soldier and every officer credit their lives to NCOs like CSM Plumley. These men are truly the backbone of the US Army… for that I… and we… must be grateful.

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