The Role of an NCO
Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) are the backbone of the Army. They serve as the key trainers for soldiers, both Officers and Enlisted alike.
Officers and NCOs are always paired up throughout operational structures. The NCO acts as the primary advisor to the officer using their experiences to mentor and train the Officer through their operational experience. NCOs provide continuity in units due to their institutional knowledge.
Commissioned by the Army and not the Executive Branch of the United States Government and that is why they are called “Non-Commissioned Officers.”
This pairing of NCOs and Officers allows the NCO the ability to take over in any situation in the absence of their appointed officer. The American Army is the only Army in the world that places so much trust in the experience of the NCO.
The embodiment of the professional NCO is Sergeant Major (SGM) Jerry.
Jerry will tell you that he never did anything special; that he was just doing his job. I saw him risk his life to save the lives of others and for one simple reason, in his words, “… because you were my friend.”
Jerry is a soft-spoken, giant of a man. Standing over 6 feet and 5 inches tall he is a large presence. A man of few words he lets his deeds speak for him.
He is the sort of NCO who commanding officers cherish, because men like Jerry win battles. Legendary commander, General William DePuy said, “The average of man, like nine out of ten, does not have an instinct for the battlefield, do not relish it and will not act independently except under direct orders” (Hastings 2006). Jerry in action is that one man in ten, maybe one in a thousand.
He never flinched when it came time to fulfill the hardest duty of an NCO in combat. He was willing to engage the enemy and wade into danger when instinct called for normal men to flee.
Time and again in Afghanistan I saw him show a gift for judging a combat situation. Assessing whether a position could be held, advising our Afghan soldiers while under enemy fire and exercising excellent tactical judgment. He would always move to the sound of the guns and help a friend in need.
I experienced this first-hand on two occasions; he saved my life risking his own. At the end of the day, each battle that is fought is won by the better gun in the fight- and how well the gunfighter can react and how much fire there is in his belly.
It’s all about courage and the willingness to die for your buddies. In this ugly act no warrior is a better example of NCO leadership than Jerry. His entire career has been about him helping others.
I have never seen him claim experience, he didn’t have but I have seen him downplay his own role in heroic events. He would never sacrifice what he knows is right for what is convenient or expedient, but stand by his values at the cost of his career but never his humanity.
His life has been the life of a leader- one of values, courage and commitment. This is the ultimate mission of an NCO.
Jerry’s motto is, “The prime measure of your own performance is the performance of your soldiers.”
May 20, 2004, Rusafa Neighborhood- Baghdad, Iraq
Jerry deployed to Iraq with Alpha Company, 2-162 Infantry Battalion during Operation Iraqi Freedom II in 2004. The battalion was attached to the 39th Infantry Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard, which operated by 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division (Association 2013).
2–162nd Infantry was tasked with supplying a military assistance training team to the fledging Iraqi Army. Stationed at FOB Volunteer in the Rusafa neighborhood of Baghdad, which lies to the south of Sadr City.
Jerry, then a Sergeant First Class, was on a training team occupying an Iraqi bunker that was used as a headquarters by Companies A and B, of the 301st Iraqi National Guard Battalion (later to renamed the 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 6th Division) (Kerry 2008).
Jerry was talking with his Iraqi counterpart when enemy small arms fire broke out at the main gate. Jerry ran to the front gate into the area where the firing was taking place. Without regard for his own safety, he exposed himself to direct enemy small arms fire to support the Iraqi National Guard Soldiers assigned to guard the gate and under fire.
Jerry was able to disarm and secure the perpetrator by himself and diffuse the dangerous situation. He employed the Iraqi Soldiers he was advising in Overwatch Positions to enhance security.
His actions provided an example to the Iraqi National Guard Soldiers of how to aggressively close with the enemy. These procedures proved saved lives later in the deployment during multiple enemy engagements on combat patrols Jerry led.
Assigned to a 17 man Oregon Army National Guard Embedded Training Team (ETT), Jerry, now a Master Sergreant, deployed to Afghanistan in March 2008. The team was responsible for mentoring an Afghan National Army (ANA) battalion.
September 20, 2008, Kandahar, Afghanistan
There is an old saying that states, “War makes bad men worse and good men better,” and Jerry came alive during combat.
Fighting and destruction of human life are terrible, but it seems in these terrible times some men seem to show the highest qualities of manhood. There are many names for it- courage, sacrifice of self for the sake of something held higher. In days of old this trait was used to describe knights- chivalry.
It has been said that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point. For Jerry, that testing point came seven years ago, in an Afghan valley desert where he risked his life to save the lives of his friends after an incredible explosion destroyed a vehicle in his convoy.
When asked why jumped from the safety of his own truck to rush forward to see if he could render aid. He simply said, “I only did what anyone else would have done.” The truth is Jerry did something no one else did that day.
He subjected himself to the possibility of a secondary explosive device to provide critical medical attention for three severely wounded American Officers and two Afghan interpreters. He saved the life of two and worked for 45 minutes to try and revive a third casualty after he expired of his wounds.
That day, he set the highest example of personal bravery by his valor and calmness under stress. He helped organize a security perimeter and evacuated casualties once the MEDEVAC helicopter arrived. At the end, he personally led the recovery of the remains of the fallen and the evacuation of the wreckage of the vehicle.
His actions that day were directly responsible for saving the lives of two men, I was one of them.
Minutes after the explosion and I came awake from being unconscious I heard Jerry calling my name. I knew that he would come for me and pull me out of that vehicle, no matter what it took. The courage he displayed that day reflects every virtue that defines his life.
It was written a long ago that, “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet, notwithstanding, go out to meet it.” Jerry saw the danger before him and went to meet it because he knew he was needed.
That a man would willingly risk mortal combat rush to the aid of a wounded comrade or to recover the remains of a fallen comrade or is difficult for many people to understand. Jerry, in the face of a horrific event was unwilling to abandon his friends. He would never leave anyone behind. This means little to the loved ones of the warrior who perished in the face of battle to help save a friend, but it means everything to the men fighting alongside each other.
Jerry’s story is the tale of an NCO who loves others more than he loves himself.
The NCO as a Leader
A good NCO is both a teacher and a leader. As Marine Corps vet Karl Marlantes writes in “What It Is Like to Go to War,” “Warriors must touch their souls because their jobs involve killing people. Warriors deal with eternity.” To understand how the military is forging the modern warriors all you have to do is look at a good NCO, like Jerry, to learn how soldiers need to learn to be both violent and sensitive.
Death is an occupational reality for Soldiers who do the brunt of the fighting. Teammate, buddy, and friend: by whatever term used for this band of brothers, it simply means that “I love you”; I will, if necessary, die in an effort to save you and preserve your earthly remains for the sake of others who love you- your nonmilitary family (Couch 2009). It is not a cliché, it is the definition of the warrior ethic of the NCO.
In Jerry’s character and conduct, a leader can find guidance and a model for their own behavior. His stoic, unflappable command is the aim of every leader on the battlefield.
His moral courage, patience, and quiet loyalty to his chain of command along with his common decency and respect for others are the critical starting point for effective leadership in an army of a democratic society.
These qualities are the character traits most prized and respected in the Armed Forces of the 21st Century.
Association, 1st Cavalry Division. 1st Cavalry Division History, Order of Battle. August 20 , 2013. http://www.first-team.us/tableaux/apndx_03/ (accessed August 25, 2013).
Beattie, Doug. Task Force Helmand: A Soldier’s Story of Life, Death and Combat on the Afghan Front Line. London : Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Bruning, John. The Devil’s Sandbox: With the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry at War in Iraq. St Paul, MN : MBI Publishing Company, 2006.
Couch, Dick. The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228. New York: Random House, 2009.
Hastings, Max. Warriors: Portraits from the Battle Field . New York : Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group., 2006.
Kerry, Mark. Tigers of the Tigris. Indianapolis, IN: Dog Ear Publishing, 2008.
Marlantes, Karl. What It Is Like to Go to War. New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011.
McAllister, Patricia. OEF Embedded Training Team: Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures : the First 100 Days. Leavenworth, KS : Center for Army Lessons Learned, 2008.
Newark, Tim. The Fighting Irish: The Story of the Extraordinary Irish Soldier. New York : St. Martin’s Press, 2010.