Senior Noncommissioned Officers Key in Iraq, Afghanistan

The group is among America's Best Leaders because of courage under fire.

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Senior Enlisted Officers, U.S. Military

Fort Bliss, Texas—When the Army made the decision earlier this year to install the first noncommissioned officer to head the Sergeants Major Academy, there were concerns about whether an enlistee would be able to wield the sort of power it takes to change the way troops are taught to fight wars today.

"There was some angst," Command Sgt. Maj. Raymond Chandler explains from the office where he began his new job as commandant in August. "Change is hard."

That has been true throughout the military, particularly since Chandler's days as a young sergeant, when his unit practiced for weeks to pull off finely executed tank maneuvers. Admittedly complex, those pale in comparison, he says, with the leadership challenges senior NCOs face today. "Then, we were training for 'knowns.' " Today, NCO leaders are preparing their soldiers to "think through unknowns," a far trickier undertaking. Chandler cites the "three-block wars" in Iraqi cities as an example. In the face of attacks, or possible attacks, "you had to look at the threat and decide whether to escalate," he says. "You need that critical-thinking ability."

In America's two war zones, where troops have been spread thin, "there's a huge area of responsibility that's getting larger for NCOs," says Chandler. "Someone has to fill the void." Until recently, he adds, "we hadn't armed soldiers to do that very well."

That's in large part because the curriculum taught at places like the Sergeants Major Academy had changed little since 9/11. The current counterinsurgency often requires that enlisted soldiers be both fighters and diplomats and that senior NCOs be "frontline decision makers," says Michael Doyle, the academy's dean of academics, a newly created position that reflects the rapidly changing curriculum.

Synchronize. The revamped set of courses makes it clear, too, that soldiers today are more educated and more experienced. With a base of about 20 years of service and an average of three to four combat deployments, sergeants major who have come to the academy are increasingly involved in campaign planning during their deployments, says Chandler, using skills that the academy aims to hone. "We need to help them synchronize to be a better part of a team, to build that campaign plan." The aim is also to produce senior NCOs who can explain why, for example, a plan might need to be changed. "It's that creative and critical thinking," says Doyle. "We tell them, 'Challenge yourself, and explain to me why you feel the way that you do.' "

This increasingly includes, NCOs add, the need to take into account the impact Ameri-ca's current wars have on soldiers. When Command Sgt. Maj. David Yates, director of the Sergeants Major Course at the academy, was in Iraq, his unit was responsible for a piece of terrain the size of Delaware. He recalls one of his platoons returning from a monthlong scouting mission, then being chosen by a commander hours later to be the quick-reaction force for an evening operation. "You have to say, 'Let's think about this,' " notes Yates, who recalls the exhausted soldiers walking around in their workout clothes because their fatigues were being washed. "Sometimes, we have to be the sanity check, the voice of reason."

That role of senior NCO leaders has become particularly important as the wars rage on. "When we went into Afghanistan and Iraq, we didn't have a good understanding of how long it would take," says Chandler. As a result, "the Army had to renege on commitments it made. That caused a lack of trust among soldiers." Today, it falls to senior NCO leaders to help rebuild it.

At the same time, they must work to restore the trust of the local populations they serve and protect. At the academy, senior NCOs talk through the effects of possible operations, even as they shape how American soldiers fight and how they perceive military and civilian authority. "They have an impact," says Chandler, "throughout the Army." And they are helping to mold, he adds, the U.S. Army of the future.