Thank the Senior NCO Who Trained You
Thank the Senior NCO Who Trained You
Noncommissioned officers have a well-deserved reputation for training, leading and inspiring individual soldiers, crews, other NCOs and small units. I’d like to stimulate thought on a topic that gets less attention but has an enormous impact on Army readiness: the unique role that senior NCOs fulfill in the professional development of commissioned officers.
Senior NCOs had an outsized impact on my professional development. They inspired me with their exceptional character, competence and commitment. Senior NCOs patiently trained me, counseled me when necessary, and helped me become the leader that soldiers deserve and the nation demands of its commissioned officers.
Army Doctrine Publication 6-22: Army Leadership and the Profession states: “An ideal Army leader serves as a role model through strong intellect, physical presence, professional competence, and moral character.” Some great senior NCOs in particular influenced me. I suspect every officer could easily generate their own list of senior NCOs who assisted their development.
Ideal Role Model
I reported to the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in March 1992. The battalion commander welcomed me and assigned me to the 2nd Platoon of Company A. He told me Sgt. 1st Class Edward Phillips was the best platoon sergeant in the battalion. His parting guidance was that Phillips had been acting platoon leader for months, and that he did not need me.
I introduced myself to Phillips and asked when we could conduct our initial counseling. He smiled and requested that I allow him to counsel me first. This was unexpected, but I agreed. I learned more about leadership during that discussion than at any class at West Point or Fort Benning, Georgia.
Phillips spent the next nine months teaching me to be an infantry officer. We walked through the barracks on weekends. He taught me how to operate, clean and inspect the platoon’s weapon systems. He gave me the confidence and the tools to navigate a difficult relationship with our company commander. Phillips taught me how to plan, resource, execute and conduct after-action reviews of live-fire exercises. Eventually, he taught me how to make sound decisions and lead the platoon in his absence.
The battalion jumped into the Joint Readiness Training Center, then at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, in September 1992. Phillips served as a jumpmaster on that operation, so was unable to exit the aircraft. He linked up with me on Day 3 of the field training exercise. The platoon thrived because he had trained us to operate in “Little Groups of Paratroopers” with disciplined initiative and a thorough understanding of the commander’s intent.
I vividly remember the day our battalion commander told Phillips that the Army had selected him for promotion to master sergeant and that he would serve as our company first sergeant. Despite his increased responsibilities, Phillips continued to guide me. I graduated from jumpmaster school and was eager to conduct my first safety duties on an airborne operation. It was no coincidence that I was assigned to the jumpmaster team of Phillips and Command Sgt. Maj. Vincent Myers. These two senior leaders gave me the confidence to inspect the aircraft and safely exit paratroopers on a mass tactical jump at night.
The Army gave me the opportunity to command Company B, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, at Fort Stewart, Georgia, from 1997 to 1998. Sgt. 1st Class Vincent Askew served as the platoon sergeant for 2nd Platoon. He was regarded as the best platoon sergeant in the battalion and had recently graduated from both master gunner and Ranger schools.
Our battalion commander fired a lieutenant in a different company and transferred him to the 2nd Platoon of Company B. A few months later, the battalion commander asked me to rank the lieutenants in the company. I rated the new lieutenant as the No. 1 platoon leader. The commander was shocked until I reminded him that Askew had spent the past four months training and investing significant time in this lieutenant. The same lieutenant who lacked confidence and competence now led a lethal, cohesive and honorable platoon.
I served as battalion operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In late December 2004, I briefed a battalion operations order to move the unit by air and ground from Kirkuk to Mosul. First Sgt. Kenny Agueda pulled me aside after I issued the operations order and candidly told me the plan was unsatisfactory. I had focused too much on the tactical movement and not enough on unit actions once we arrived in Mosul.
He reinforced the areas that required the most work, then reassured me that we could fix the situation by issuing a fragmentary order and conducting a thorough combined arms rehearsal. He helped me do both, and the mission was a success.
Agueda moved from Company A to Headquarters and Headquarters Company upon the unit’s redeployment to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. I went from serving as the battalion operations officer to serving as the battalion executive officer.
Our unit struggled to maintain readiness while transitioning from a light formation to a Stryker infantry unit. Again, Agueda was a catalyst for positive change and ensured his company and the battalion understood commander’s intent for our myriad and complex missions. He helped me train the battalion staff and was a source of strength following the tragic deaths of several soldiers.
Best of the Best
First Sgt. Mike Lamkins led Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 11th Infantry Regiment (Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course), at Fort Benning from 2009 to 2011. His company would fluctuate in size from 200 to 750 second lieutenants.
Lamkins made it a point to know everyone assigned to his company. He could explain the optimal sequencing of schools that would prepare each officer to depart Fort Benning ready to lead a rifle platoon. His insightful comments during battalion training meetings were invaluable. He trained all the officers in the battalion, especially me.
Lamkins and I departed the unit at about the same time and together reported to the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. He continued to educate, train and inspire me at Fort Bragg; at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California; and especially in Afghanistan. He served as the brigade plans sergeant major and kept the unit and me on azimuth.
Our unit, Task Force Fury, deployed to the Zharay and Maiwand districts of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in February 2012. This area was the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace and historic sanctuary.
I served as the deputy brigade commander, and Sgt. 1st Class Todd Carpenter served as the fire support/targeting NCO in the joint operations center. I initially was overwhelmed by the complexity of the targeting process and in awe of the Taliban’s understanding of American/NATO capabilities and limitations. I would have struggled to make difficult targeting decisions without Carpenter standing next to me. He is the single most competent leader with whom I have served. His understanding of the rules of engagement, risk estimate distance, collateral damage and ways to avoid civilian casualties is unparalleled. He recommended the most advantageous platforms, munitions and direction of attack every time. Carpenter saved countless American and Afghan lives during that deployment.
The U.S. Army is fit, disciplined, cohesive and lethal because of our senior NCOs. We can never recognize or thank them enough.
Col. Scott Halstead, U.S. Army retired, is director of the Association of the U.S. Army’s Center of Leadership and is the On Leadership editor of ARMY magazine. He retired from the Army in 2021 after serving as an infantry officer and deploying during Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Resolute Support. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, in 1991.
This article was originally published in Army Magazine.