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Year of the NCO seeks to dispel enlisted stereotypes

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Capt. Kurtis Schaaf and Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Barwick, both of C Company, 6th Engineer Battalion, talk in the battalion’s orderly room Monday.

photos by Sharon McBride/Fort Richardson PAO

Capt. Kurtis Schaaf and Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Barwick, both of C Company, 6th Engineer Battalion, talk in the battalion’s orderly room Monday.

Sharon McBride
Fort Richardson PAO

The U.S. Army officially kicked off the Year of the Noncommissioned Officer Jan 7.

But what is this year supposed to be all about?

According to Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, one of the initiatives is to let the American public know what a "national asset" they have in the Noncommissioned Officer Corps.

"We want to inform the country, inform the Congress  and also inform young people about what NCOs do for our Army and help them better understand what an exciting opportunity and a career the choice of being an NCO in the United States Army is," Geren said in a Jan. 6 Army News Service press release. So where do youth normally learn what the Army is all about?

According to Col. E. Casey Wardynski, the concept originator and project manager for the U.S. Army's official video game America's Army, if there isn't an ROTC instructor at their school or if they don't have a relative serving in the military, youth most often learn about the Army from movies or from video games that promote common Army stereotypes.

Staff Sgt. Mirta Cabrera with the Early Entry Command Post

Staff Sgt. Mirta Cabrera with the Early Entry Command Post

Take a stroll through the entertainment aisles at a local department store, and the sheer number of entertainment opportunities centered on the Army can literally be overwhelming, but ironically, Army life isn't always depicted correctly on the silver or video screen, Wardynski said.

Staff Sgt. Mark Sibayan, 164th Military Police Company, agrees the public often does have a false knowledge of what the Army is all about and said he hopes the communication goals of the Year of the Noncommissioned Officer will overcome some of those false perceptions.

"People in the public always hear about privates," said Sibayan said. "They always hear about the officers, but nothing about the ranks in between. They have no idea what the NCO Corps is.

"They have no idea we are the backbone and most often the ones that keep things going," he added. "If they have (heard about NCOs), they also have this preconceived notion that NCOs don't have an education."

In today's Army, the difference between officers and NCOS is narrower, he said. 

"Most senior enlisted have degrees but choose to stay enlisted," Sibayan said.

A lot of Soldiers enter basic training with degrees as well.

 "At any given time, they can literally choose to go to (Officer Candidate School) to become an officer, but they choose to stay enlisted," Sibayan said. "There's a reason for that."

He explained it's probably because NCOs have more "hands on" time with Soldiers.

"Good NCOs always put Soldiers first," Sibayan said. "Once you're gone, the only ones to take your place are the Soldiers you help bring up. So in a way, NCOs shape the Army – especially the future Army."

Command Sgt. Maj. Charlie Lane, 17th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, agrees the distinction between the ranks in today's Army is becoming more blurred.

 "As noncommissioned officers, we are the backbone of the Army, but staff sergeants are convoy commanders," Lane said.

It's not uncommon for NCOs to hold positions that are traditionally reserved for officers, Lane said.

"I think this year is an opportunity for us to be put on display," Lane said. "To showcase all the great things we have done over the years."

Capt. Kurtis Schaaf, C Company, 6th Engineer Battalion, said the role of an NCO is often independent of an officer's but is designed to meld.

As a young lieutenant, Schaaf said he was a platoon leader in Iraq.  It was during this timeframe he met an NCO he said he will never forget.

"Sgt. 1st Eric Stahl," Schaaf said. "He will always go down in my mind as one of the finest NCOs I have ever worked with. He is also one of the most intelligent NCOs I've worked with.

"He got a bachelor's degree while working as a 'Joe,' but I think he stood out because he cared about troops," Schaaf said.

Although both Soldiers had college degrees, Schaaf said solutions often don't come from books or from predetermined Army doctrine.

While deployed to Iraq, the NCO and officer team often faced unique problems with construction and rebuilding missions.

According to Schaaf, there were several occasions in which they had to come up with their own solutions.

Staff Sgt. Mark Sibayan with the 164th Military Police Company.

Staff Sgt. Mark Sibayan with the 164th Military Police Company.

"We taught each other to be flexible and to seek input from every single person that was involved, whether it was an E-2 or an O-2," Schaaf said.

He said if the mission sent them outside the wire, everyone always had a say.

"I think an officer and NCO relationship should always be that give and take," Schaaf said. "I hope (Stahl) got something from (working) with me, because I got a lot out of (working) with him."

NCOs are often described as the moms or the dads of a unit.

Staff Sgt. Mirta Cabrera, Early Entry Command Post, agrees. She is a single parent with four children.

According to Cabrera, there are a lot of similarities with parenting and being an NCO, however there's a fine line between the two.

"Of course I don't talk to my Soldiers like I do to my 6-year-old, but I tell my kids and my Soldiers to always strive to do their best," Cabrera said.

She said she also expects the same from herself, and even though others around her encourage her to make the switch to the officer corps, she said she's happy right where she is.

"I enjoy being an NCO," Cabrera said. "I enjoy putting the uniform on.  I have a lot of pride in being an NCO."

It's that pride that will be celebrated throughout 2009.

Geren said the Army will also develop new initiatives that enhance the training, education, capability and use of the NCO Corps; showcase the NCO story to the Army and the American people; and honor the sacrifices and celebrate contributions of the NCO Corps past and present throughout the year.