“No one is more professional than I.” A group of nearly 100 Soldiers stands in the auditorium, proudly reciting the Creed of the Noncommissioned Officer. In a matter of moments, each will take his or her turn walking across the stage to be honored for completing the Basic Leader Course – a milestone in the career of enlisted Soldiers.
For these individuals, the graduation ceremony doesn’t signify that their training has come to an end. Rather, it signals the beginning of the next chapter in their Army careers – a chapter in which they will be called upon to teach, coach and mentor the next generation of Soldiers.
The NCO creed continues on to say that “all Soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership,” and these are words that the more than 30 cadre and staff members at Fort Drum’s Noncommissioned Officers Academy live by, said the NCOA’s commandant, Command Sgt. Maj. Phil K. Barretto.
From the command staff who write curriculum and plan training exercises, to the instructors who spend long days working with the students, to the administrative and logistical support staff, every member of the team contributes to the success of the organization, Barretto said.
“It is the job of every member of the cadre and staff at the NCO Academy to make sure that we are teaching these Soldiers to ‘lead from the front,’” he said. “That starts with us. Everyone here takes a great deal of pride in what they do, and that trickles down through the ranks and to the Soldiers who are coming through the Academy.”
The BLC is the first institutional leadership training within the Noncommissioned Officer Education System. The mentally and physically challenging course is designed to provide NCOs an opportunity to refresh their memory of Army doctrine and hone their tactical and technical skills.
“In basic training, we emphasize that the Army is an organization that is very much standards-based,” Barretto said. “When Soldiers get to their units, they adapt to their environment and sometimes fall into a routine where they are focused on daily tasks. BLC brings Soldiers to those basic skills and introduces them to how to teach the Soldiers in their units to keep those skills sharp and exceed the standard.”
During the 22-day military occupational specialty non-specific course, students take turns leading their peers in physical training, marching and carrying out a variety of drills, exercises and skills tests.
In addition, the course curriculum places a great deal of emphasis on leader development, safety and risk management, critical thinking and problem solving.
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Nennig, one of the NCOA’s 12 small group leaders, said that these skills are critical, as a reduction in the size of the Army means that Soldiers must take more initiative and be more adaptable than ever before.
“Up to this point in their Army careers, these Soldiers have been told – here is the task and here is how to perform that task,” he said. “As a leader, you have to be able to visualize the desired end result, think critically as to how you are going to move forward, and communicate your objective to your Soldiers.”
Barretto said that this is an important shift in mentality and an essential part of helping future leaders to develop confidence in their abilities.
“I always tell my instructors – learning requires two-way communication,” he said. “This generation is smart, and they want to understand how things work. If we just give them the answer instead of guiding them and letting them find it on their own, then we are doing them a disservice.”
Nennig pointed out that, quite often, the students learn as much from communicating and collaborating with their peers as they do from the cadre.
“We don’t really think of ourselves as instructors, but more as facilitators of the knowledge and skills that the Army requires noncommissioned officers to have,” he said. “There are as many as 96 students within the Academy at any one time. They possess more knowledge than 12 instructors. We value their input and perspective.”
Just as it is important for students to learn to be adaptable, instructors also need to learn to be sure that they aren’t so focused in on curriculum that they lose sight of the importance of interactive learning, said Sgt. 1st Class Jim Smith, deputy chief of training and a former small group leader.
“The key is to recognize when there is an opportunity to enhance learning and to take the time out of whatever you are doing to communicate with the students,” he said. “It’s not taking time away from teaching – it is adding value and context to the content that you are teaching.”
In the classroom, students learn about Army doctrine, structure and regulations. They learn about leadership styles and discuss – at length – the importance of providing feedback and support to Soldiers within their units, Smith said.
“One of the biggest things that we try to convey is that good leaders are involved in their Soldiers’ lives,” he said. “They need to take the initiative to mentor and guide their Soldiers every step of the way, rather than waiting until there is a problem to step in. A dedicated leader pays attention and works to help Soldiers before a small issue can become a larger problem.”
While the knowledge students gain in the classroom setting is vital to their development as leaders, it is important that NCOs are able to leverage this knowledge and apply it with confidence – especially in a tactical situation, said Sgt. 1st Class William Richard, senior small group leader.
“A lot of these Soldiers have never been in a combat environment before,” he said. “They come from all military occupational specialties, and some of them don’t have experience in performing squad functions that are essential in a combat situation.”
Richard said that one of the greatest learning opportunities for students at the BLC is completion of a large-scale situational training exercise. Students are split into platoons and given an operations order, detailing a simulated combat mission. The squad and team leaders must decide how to accomplish their mission, adapt to challenges they face along the way and keep all of their Soldiers safe.
“When real bullets are flying through the air, sometimes people freeze,” he said. “If we can provide them with realistic, high-quality training exercises, it gives them a chance to develop their skills and to gain confidence in their ability to lead their Soldiers, accomplish the mission and make sure that everyone comes home safe.”
Facilitating the BLC can be challenging at times, Barretto said. The team works hard to make the most of the 22 days that they have with each group. Once a class is completed, the NCOA cadre and staff regroup, discuss what they learned during the cycle and begin planning for the next class to arrive.
It’s an intense and fast-paced environment, but it is rewarding to be a part of shaping the future of the Army, said Staff Sgt. Matthew Hullum, a small group leader.
“We get to see the future leaders of the Army come through and know that we can make an impact on them – that we can be a part of motivating them to go back to their units and make a difference in the lives of those they lead,” he said.
Nennig added that while the knowledge the Soldiers take away from the course is important, it is up to them to take the initiative to provide the teaching, training and mentorship that their Soldiers need.
“The motivation, the professionalism and the dedication to ensuring that the knowledge they learn here is passed on to those in their units – that is what the Basic Leader Course is about. It’s about stepping up – every single day – to provide the excellent leadership that their Soldiers deserve.”