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Staff Sgt. Rhea Ball of the U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center undergoes training at ATC's Military Operations in Urban Terrain site.

A Soldier assigned to the U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center for the past two years outpaced all but one competitor during a four-week Basic Noncommissioned Officer Course for transportation Soldiers at Fort Eustis, Va., earning the distinction of honor graduate.

Staff Sgt. Rhea Ball, whose military occupational specialty is 88 "Mike," or truck driver, drove himself hard while at the school, passing all of the NCOs in his class except for one younger Soldier, who pulled ahead with slightly better scores to become distinguished honor graduate.

Ball, an Army Reservist with the 946th Transportation Company in Delaware when he took the assignment at ATC, said he was grateful to several people at the test center who paved the way for his course attendance, including Master Sgt. Jason Wyatt, his first-line supervisor; Master Sgt. James Orr, the NCO in charge of Soldiers at ATC; and Col. Jeffrey Holt, ATC's commander.

Fueled by gratitude for what they had done for him, Ball was determined to cross the BNCOC finish line with distinction. As the driving force behind his enrollment at the school, Orr went the extra mile and then some to get him enrolled, Ball said. Orr also gave him some parting advice before he left for Fort Eustis.

"The last thing Master Sergeant Orr said to me before I left was, 'Try to come back on the commandant's list,' and I told him I would do it," Ball said. "How could I come back with anything less' A lot of guys who went there said, 'Hey, I'm just going to get the 1059 [the Department of the Army's Service School Academic Evaluation Report]. I couldn't just do that, especially with this command and all they've done for me. So there was many a long night studying over my notes and the books."

By becoming an honor graduate, he exceeded the requirements for making the commandant's list, which is the third level of distinction BNCOC graduates can attain. The hard work he put into becoming honor graduate - in the classroom, during hands-on exercises and in preparation for BNCOC's physical fitness test - paid off, he said. While other attendees took time off from their studies to do some sightseeing over the weekends, Ball reserved that time for learning as much as he could to hone his NCO skills.

"I didn't go down there to sightsee," he explained. "We had two tests that were on a Monday, so I studied over the weekends. The more competitive you are, the better you do."

Nonetheless, even studying didn't make the exercises and tests easy, he said. A hands-on convoy commander's exercise was particularly challenging for BNCOC attendees, Ball said. The pace of activity during simulations of real-world missions was demanding.

"The first week was a lot of classroom stuff on transportation, and the second week we were in a simulator room, where we worked off of computer simulators, and once you had to be the convoy commander," he explained. "You had to set up the whole mission, do your mission plan, do your briefing, and establish what vehicles go where and who goes in which vehicles. You also had to do security and things like that."

Even though the convoy commander's exercise was almost "overwhelming" at times, with one exercise scenario requiring him to manage 36 Soldiers in a convoy, Ball appreciated the skills it taught and reinforced, training he appreciates because he is slated to deploy to Iraq at the end of this year with the 304th Transportation Company of Massachusetts, the Army Reserve unit to which he is currently assigned.

"They gave you your mission, and you had something like twenty-five minutes to put it all together, set up your vehicles and all," he said of the BNCOC convoy commander's training. "That was probably the toughest part. We had it for a week long, and we were doing something like four or five scenarios a day. Being that I've never done it before, I tried to get in as much time as convoy commander or assistant convoy as I could. Especially getting ready to go over to Iraq and run convoys, I wanted to get as much experience as a convoy commander as I could possibly get."

The upcoming assignment in Iraq is not his first in that country, Ball said. While serving with the 946th Transportation Company, he deployed for his first tour to Iraq in October 2003. He had been in the active Army from 1981 to 1992, and he saw his enlistment in the Army Reserve in 2003 as an opportunity to serve the United States in a time of conflict.

"I worked for myself for about ten years after I got out of active duty, and I was in the position where I could come back in the reserves because I didn't have any more employees," he recalled.

While in Iraq, from October 2003 to February 2005, he served with the 302nd Transportation Company, an Army Reserve unit headquartered at Fort Eustis. The unit conducted operations in and around Balad. While there, he became a driver for an Iraqi civil defense corps, but he was also involved in training Iraqi soldiers.

"I was actually a driver for them, but we would go out and do foot patrols with them and teach them how to set up vehicle checkpoints and things like that," he said. "I did that for the whole time I was over there. The 82nd (Airborne Division) actually started (that mission), and I was with them at first over there. I think the 82nd left in April or May 2004, and a National Guard unit from California took over from the 82nd, so I just stayed on with them. We would teach the Iraqis different combative skills, even a little bit of public affairs. We would go out to the wire with them every day and do patrols of the local places around Balad. It was exciting. The unit I went over with, the 302nd Transportation Company, ran the Corps Disposition Center."

Ball said he is prepared to return to Iraq and serve the United States again, and the skills he learned at BNCOC will stand him in good stead as he conducts the mission there.

He said his mission at ATC was one he feels privileged to have had, particularly from the Soldier's perspective he could provide is key to helping the Army field systems that give Soldiers the edge on today's and tomorrow's battlefields. Soldier operators, maintainers, testers and evaluators have the personal experience to know how most Soldiers would be likely to use and maintain a military weapon system or piece of equipment, he said. Being able to provide that perspective made him eager to show up for work each morning.

"Even though we are not supposed to show up until eight o'clock, I get in at 6:30," he said. "When a test comes, no matter how little or how simple it is, I give it one hundred and ten percent because that is why they brought me here. It could be anything from a hydration system to a barrier, and I needed to check every aspect of it and ask, 'Is this something the Soldier would use, or is there a safety hazard here'' It's been the opportunity of a lifetime, probably the best job I've ever had - and one of the best commands."

Page last updated Thu October 8th, 2009 at 09:06