Commentary - Good NCOs: you know them when you see them
January 23, 2009
It's harder to list the qualities of a good noncommissioned officer than you might think. But everyone who has been in the Army can name NCOs they think are great.
NCOs are the leaders who most directly affect our lives in uniform. Whether you are a commissioned officer looking back on a platoon sergeant, first sergeant or command sergeant major who served as a guide, right hand or confessor; or you are an NCO yourself, looking back at the sergeants who kicked you when you needed it, steered you when they could, taught you the right way to do it, and finally turned you loose to do it all yourself, Army careers are often shaped by the NCOs met along the way.
I spent 24 years in uniform. But two NCOs stand out for the influence they had on my own development. They were as different as night and day in many ways, but shared the values of true professionals.
Sergeant 1st Class Johnny Hughes was my first section chief. My initial assignment in the Army was at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, in the fire direction and control section of the only artillery battery on the post. Hughes taught me to be a Soldier. He was a quiet, soft-spoken guy - about as far as you could get from the yelling, swearing, tobacco-chewing NCO the movies had taught me to expect.
But, without all the bluster and noise, Sgt. 1st Class Hughes demanded and got the best out of every Soldier in the section. He knew everything we did - right and wrong - and praised or corrected, on the spot. And he could do anything. Whether it was showing us how to set a rabbit snare in the snowy woods with strands of commo' wire, or a shortcut to computing meteorological corrections for the guns, Hughes did everything better, faster, smarter, easier than any of us thought was possible.
If there was one lesson I took from him, it was that good NCOs have to be the absolute masters of everything their troops are asked to do.
After I left the Artillery as a young sergeant, I was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division headquarters. There I met Command Sgt. Maj. Douglas B. Hayes, the division's top NCO. His face will always come to mind when I think of great NCOs. Hayes was not a young man. But, on the wrong side of 50, he was still one of the toughest Soldiers in the division - 'hard as woodpecker lips,' as one of my friends would say.
Command Sgt. Maj. Hayes ran with a different line unit every morning. He then spent the day visiting training, wandering through motor pools, stopping by mess halls ... He was everywhere. The general commanded the division, but there was no doubt who the face of the command team was. Hayes might not have met every Soldier in the 1st Cav., but I bet he came pretty close. Everyone knew who he was.
There was nothing mild-mannered about Command Sgt. Maj. Hayes. I overheard him provide some pretty colorful "guidance" to individuals who failed to perform to the standards the commanding general set. But I also saw him spend hours of his own time fixing problems for individual Soldiers when he learned their battalion command sergeants major had run into obstacles they couldn't surmount.
For all his gruff exterior and intimidating aura, Command Sgt. Maj. Doug Hayes taught me that the needs of every single Soldier are important to the performance of even the largest units.
There are lots of other Johnny Hughes and Doug Hayes NCOs in uniform today. They are the ones who set the pace, enforce the standards, get the mission done and do everything to ensure no Soldier is left behind. It may be hard to list what makes them great - but we know them when we see them.
David W. Kuhns Sr. is editor of Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.