The noncommissioned officer is known as the backbone of the Army. They are present at every single level from team leader up to Sergeant Major of the Army. Their roles and responsibilities vary as greatly as their positions. In some positions they serve as the arm of execution, taking an order and employing their soldiers to accomplish the mission. In others they manage taskings, ensure compliance, and validate that the system is working smoothly. But there is an invisible line to the NCO corps which, once crossed, makes these senior leaders nearly irrelevant.
A sergeant fills the role of a team leader, managing two to three personnel. Two teams (and therefore two sergeants) make up a squad, which is managed by a squad leader, generally in the rank of staff sergeant. A squad is the smallest fighting force that the Army goes to, both teams supporting each other either in attack or defense. The roles and responsibilities of a team or squad leader are to ensure combat and physical training of their soldiers, as well as develop them as leaders. They are hands on, demonstrating what right looks like through their actions and mentoring soldiers as they promote them.
Depending on the unit, three or four squads will make up a platoon which is managed by a platoon leader and a platoon sergeant. The platoon sergeant is likely to remain in that position for 24 or more months, making the platoon sergeant the arm of continuity while the platoon leaders often rotate out every twelve months. Platoon sergeants manage the administrative functions of the platoon, tracking soldier information, schools, and training. The platoon leader focuses more on planning and upcoming events. In a combat role, the platoon sergeant generally manages the support by fire or mortar element, making them an integral aspect to the fight.
The final level within the company is the first sergeant. This is the manager and mentor of the entire company. They establish and oversee the standards in both combat and physical training, and ensure it is employed down the line through subordinates. They are an administrative asset as well, establishing trackers, understanding systems, and being mentors to their subordinates. As with the platoon sergeant, it is common for a first sergeant to manage two or more companies during their time, making them a mentor for new company commanders as well.
Then something disturbing happens. The next level of command for an officer is battalion command. This is often reached after 17 – 20 years of experience. The peer during this is the command sergeant major (CSM) who will often have the same amount of experience as the commander. This means that the role of the CSM is no longer to effectively mentor and guide a new officer, but to be a peer to that officer instead, a command team. If the officer is strong, there is not much for the CSM to do. Instead, they are often found focusing on inane aspects of military service such as the exact height that grass is allowed to grow around post, or the placement of hands in or around one’s pockets. They create and enforce standards that may not make much sense to anyone but themselves. This is seen in the Marine Corps where it is deemed unprofessional to place one’s wallet or keys in their pocket, so Marines stuff it in their sock instead.
The CSM is a role that can be filled by people with a wealth of experience. They can be the balance to a commander that fails to see or understand the needs of their soldiers, or they can be a detriment to the organization through unrealistic and unnecessary standards. The services need to take a look at the roles of the sergeant major and assess different ways to make them relevant again. While we all appreciate that the grass is cut to exactly 7/8” across the post, having a successfully mentored NCO corps, or holding training to a standard for proper techniques learned over two decades would be a much better asset.
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