BTO: West Point NCOs are a vital part of cadet learning experience
October 29, 2009
As a vital part of the U.S. Corps of Cadets staff, detachment sergeants provide cadets a wellspring of guidance on technical and tactical knowledge, as well as team-building skills necessary for new officers to accomplish their missions.
Colonel Mark McKearn, USCC brigade tactical officer, understands the role of the tactical noncommissioned officer and how a TAC NCO contributes to educating cadets about the professional military ethic.
This year's recognition by the Army as the Year of the NCO, he said, is an opportunity for West Point cadets to learn from NCOs before working with them in the Army.
"That recognition, I think, helps the cadets better understand and appreciate the Army they're soon to join," the Beloit, Wis., native, said. "That is, an Army run by noncommissioned officers."
The Army often credits the officer corps with contributing most of the vision and guidance needed to accomplish missions and the NCO corps with most of the "nuts-and-bolts" planning and execution.
McKearn contends that even without execution help from many officers, the NCO corps would continue to fulfill the missions given to them.
"If the officers stepped completely back from execution and provide just vision and guidance," he said, "noncommissioned officers are still going to make it happen."
Recently, West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Buster Hagenbeck visited Iraq to hear from comrades and leaders on what traits the next battlefield leaders should possess in order to earn success in combat. His back brief to the staff reinforced their remarks as goals for the cadets.
"Cadets need to be as physically fit as possible. They need to be well-trained at their basic skills (marksmanship, first aid and common Soldier skills), and they need to understand and work with NCOs more," McKearn said about what skill sets cadets need to have upon leaving the academy as second lieutenants.
The Brigade Tactical Department and Department of Military Instruction, which most of the NCOs assigned to the mission (academy) side of the house, work with the cadets on a daily basis to foster the officer-NCO connection.
During summer training, cadets learn how squad leaders-typically a sergeant or staff sergeant--lead eight Soldiers in a field environment.
It's the responsibility of that leader at the lowest level of leadership to understand what the desired end-state is and how to accomplish the mission.
"If you take out a squad leader, then you leave eight-to-nine members of the squad leaderless," McKearn said. "Take out a platoon leader and you have four squad leaders that are, provided you have intent and they understand what you have to get done, executing (the mission)."
Cadets also learn that squad leaders have the ability to influence their team through mentorship and professional development, McKearn said.
The detachment sergeants directly counsel the Yearlings and the Cows-who serve as team leaders and squad leaders, respectively, in the Corps of Cadets-to show how mentorship works.
Throughout his career, McKearn learned how to work with NCOs to benefit the entire organization.
After his graduation from West Point in 1981, McKearn went to Korea as an aviation officer to be a section leader and property book officer for a detachment of about 250 Soldiers.
Through day-to-day interaction with his supply sergeant and his other sergeants, he learned not just about property books, but also inventory and the importance of maintaining accountability for equipment to take care of the unit.
"That job, learning accountability as a property book officer, has paid dividends more than any other job I've had in the Army from a technical standpoint," McKearn said.
The professional connections he fostered with NCOs would continue over the years. A crew chief, who worked with McKearn in two of his company-level commands, later became a warrant officer under McKearn as an aviation battalion commander. Another sergeant with a history of working for McKearn also became a warrant officer in the same battalion.
As the brigade tactical officer, McKearn does not have the noncommissioned officer counterpart a commander normally would have to conduct business within the brigade.
On occasion, when in need of a second opinion on something, he will walk down the hall to ask USCC Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Mahoney for his input.
"You're always going to get a straight answer out of an NCO," McKearn said. "They're going to tell you if it's jacked up or not, or when you need to step up or back down."
The senior NCOs who come to work as TAC NCOs receive "an eye-opening experience" in working with cadets, McKearn said. At West Point, those sergeants begin to understand what the military is looking for in future leaders on the battlefield.
"Most of them spent their entire careers in the trenches, where the important things in the Army are happening every day," McKearn said. "(Coming here) gives them an opportunity to broaden their horizons. For some of them, it gives them a chance to get some education ... but, more importantly, it gets them to see how we develop leaders out there."
For McKearn, the greatest benefit of West Point's TAC NCO corps has been its formal and informal, day-to-day encounters with the cadets.
It's an experience that cannot be gained in a classroom or with a grade, or measured in terms of utility.
"You can't quantify the value of mentorship that happens in a passing discussion in the hallway," McKearn said, "or when an NCO goes by the barracks room and sits on a bed next to a cadet to talk to them about their service, a personal issue, something they're struggling with or something they want to try."