717th MI Battalion course develops junior leaders
April 19, 2012
As the sun starts to slip behind the conifer trees on Camp Bullis March 28, eight junior enlisted Soldiers of the 717th Military Intelligence Battalion begin trudging down one of the dusty, winding roads in the middle of Camp Bullis. Normally engaged in a 24/7, global, strategic intelligence mission, today they are equipped with helmets, tactical vests, hydration systems, assault rifles and blank ammunition -- every bit like a squad ready for combat.
This is their fourth day on the installation and their third full day of training in the 717th Military Intelligence Battalion's week-long Junior Leader Development Course (JLDC). Their days begin early and last well into the evening. By the third full day of the course they had performed convoy simulator training, completed the leadership reaction course, rehearsed numerous Army Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills, conducted basic and advanced rifle marksmanship and spent time on the firing range engaged in advanced reflexive fire (close-quarters combat) shooting techniques taught by 1st Sgt. Billy Budd.
All day they executed battle drills and situational training exercises along the very road they now ruck-march along toward the vehicles that will carry them to the cantonment area and hot chow. Another training segment completed … or so they think.
Just after the lead Soldiers pass over a rise in the road, shots ring out, shouts go up and Soldiers scramble for cover. Basic clock direction and distance is shouted along the line to focus the squad on their attackers. Suppressive fire begins as the current squad leader shouts commands to maneuver his fire teams to engage and defeat the ambush.
One Soldier points out a couple of figures barely visible behind a small island of trees nearby. It turns out to be two of the five-member, all-noncommissioned officer training cadre. One of the pair is Sgt. Eric Neal, the noncommissioned officer who planned, resourced and executed today's lane training exercises.
"Leader roles are rotated throughout the course," Neal explained. "This affords every Soldier the opportunity to experience the mantle of leadership and the decision-making process and then to demonstrate what they've learned. It also, from that perspective, gives them pause and reflection on how important it is to be a good follower when you are not leading.
"If I was taking this course, I would have felt cheated if I hadn't been ambushed at least one more time before this training day was over," said Neal.
As the action proceeded, the Soldiers suffered "casualties," but so did the attackers, played by five other, seasoned NCOs of the battalion. After the exercise abruptly halts and the students gather to conduct an after-action review, one of the role-players admitted the young Soldiers reacted audaciously, causing the ambush not to go as originally planned.
These Soldiers are fast learners who came here to develop their leadership potential with an eye toward becoming NCOs.
"This is my third battalion command sergeant major position, and as far as I know, this program is unique," said Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Sinnard. "It is the only one of its kind in the 470th MI Brigade, and one of only a few in the Intelligence and Security Command. Quite simply, I haven't seen another one like it.
"It is not designed to replicate or duplicate Warrior Leader Course [WLC] but to augment that experience when it comes," Sinnard continued. "We focus on situation-based, hands-on leadership events rather than classroom instruction. This forces the Soldier to understand the burden of leadership, the Military Decision Making Process and the aspects of teamwork when not in a leadership position.
The course is run by the battalion's most experienced NCOs, all with deployment experience under their belts and most with Special Operations Forces (SOF) backgrounds. Sinnard noted that the 717th MI Battalions JLDC is open to any Soldier in the 470th MI Brigade, of any rank, who has not yet attended WLC.
"Although extremely resource-intensive, we run this course for several reasons," said Sinnard. "The first reason is that it's 'the right thing to do.' Most of these Soldiers come to us straight out of the training pipeline and will serve here in a strategic environment for about three years. On completion of this tour, the majority of them will receive orders to tactical units after attaining NCO promotions. Providing this level of training now prevents future problems later when they find themselves in leadership roles within those tactical units.
"Second, it pays dividends to both the unit and the strategic enterprise we support by producing more capable and confident Soldiers within our formations and on the mission floor.
"And finally, we do it for the Soldier," Sinnard asserted. "We see a very high percentage of JLDC graduates go on to WLC and graduate with recognition on the commandant's list, as leadership award winners or as honor graduates."
The command sergeant major explained that since such recognition directly translates into promotion points for Soldiers under the new promotion points calculation process, the JLDC gives Soldiers a competitive advantage over their peers at WLC.
Sgt. 1st Class Darrell Hudson, the NCOIC and overall JLDC coordinator, further explained that the goal of the course is to identify those privates and specialists on their way to becoming sergeants and to provide them with an introduction to, and basic grounding in, Army leadership both in the field as well as in garrison. He said that the unit saw a need for more tactical training, especially for its youngest Soldiers who reported to the unit straight from Advanced Individual Training or from the Defense Language Institute. This course supplements the Skills for Stripes program and sets the Soldiers up for success at the WLC.
"This is the battalion's investment in junior leadership development," Hudson said, noting that the 717th MI Battalion uses the Army's eight-step training model but constantly adapting to changes and making the most of available resources and facilities. Hudson said the battalion traditionally conducts the course twice a year but is looking to resource a third iteration while continuing to offer other units in the 470th MI Brigade an opportunity to participate.
"These Soldiers were recognized as performers ahead of their peers," said Hudson of the latest participants. "They were nominated through their companies by their first sergeants and screened both medically and administratively."
Spc. Gerald Lott, one of the participants, said the course far exceeded his expectations.
"The NCOs have our best interests in mind," said Lott. "They correct us so that next time we can do better."
He said one important aspect of the training was regular peer assessments, wherein each Soldier identifies one thing each other Soldier did well and one thing each other Soldier needs to improve.
"The hardest part of the course was assuming a leadership role in combat scenarios," said Lott, who transferred to the 717th MI Battalion last November. "We have not been through combat. … The course built up our confidence."
Pfc. Matthew Miller, another relative newcomer to the battalion, had no doubt the course prepared him for leadership and what lies ahead at WLC.
"We received a lot of tactical and classroom training to get us ready to be NCOs," said Miller. "The hardest part was the high operations tempo when we were in the field. From the peer assessments I learned what I need to work on.
"I learned so much," Miller concluded. "It's really good training."
Before the week of training ended, the Soldiers combined a multitude of what they had reviewed or learned in a "capstone exercise." Provided with a training mission scenario to acquire intelligence, they put their land navigation, first aid, communications and combat skills together with their newly honed leadership skills into an all-afternoon exercise that involved not only maneuvers in the natural areas of Camp Bullis but also infiltrating a mock village and clearing a building of "snipers."
"Some are natural leaders, others are capable of becoming leaders with the proper development," said Sinnard about the course participants. "In most cases it is 'in there'; we just help bring it to the surface. … We expose them to opportunities to develop their unique leadership styles."
Sinnard said that promotion to sergeant, in which a junior enlisted Soldier first joins the NCO Corps, is easily the most important milestone in what will be the rest of his or her military career.
"This is their first transition from 'average Soldier' in the rank and file to leader," said Sinnard. "The hardest transition troops face is moving from being a specialist (E4) to being an NCO (E5) and shouldering the responsibilities that come from being a leader.
"That move is a game changer. Some make it while others struggle, it is incumbent upon the current NCO Corps to prepare them for that transition" said Sinnard. "They should never forget the hard fact that the Army promotes them to NCOs and continues to promote them based on trust in their demonstrated leadership and continued leadership potential."