FORT BLISS, Texas - The U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy welcomed the 645 senior noncommissioned officers of Sergeants Major Course Class 59 during opening ceremonies Aug. 8 in the Kenneth W. Cooper Lecture Center East Auditorium at the academy here.

Distinguished guests, family members and USASMA faculty joined Class 59 students in filling the auditorium to capacity for the event, which marked the official start of the nine month course designed to prepare senior NCOs for the role of sergeant major.

According to academy records, Class 59 includes 521 active Army Soldiers, 64 Reserve Soldiers, nine National Guard Soldiers, two Marines, two members of the Coast Guard, and 47 international students representing 33 countries.

Col. Donald Gentry, the academy commandant, kicked off the ceremony. "You've worked very hard to get here - Welcome, Class 59 - I'm honored to spend the next nine months with all of you," he said. His words ignited a loud "Hooah!" from the crowd.

Guest speaker Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth Preston applauded the accomplishments of the senior NCOs, whose selections for the course reflect their career-long commitments. Preston also recognized the many pioneers in attendance to include retired Sergeant Major of the Army William Wooldridge, the first to hold the Army's top enlisted position.

While the students possess decades of experience at nearly ever level of enlisted leadership, Preston explained that the course and the roles these NCOs will soon play require them to take a broader and more strategic approach than ever before.

He shared what he'd seen during his recent travels to battlefields and units throughout the world, challenging Class 59 students to use the next nine months to share and learn from each others' experiences, while constantly thinking "Be, Know, Do" at this higher level.

According to USASMA leadership, Class 59 students are expected to benefit from increased technological resources to meet Preston's challenge. The class will eventually transition from the course's traditional books, field manuals and courseware to the academy's new internet-connected Thin Client computer system, which USASMA personnel are currently installing and receiving training on.

In an earlier interview regarding this new technology, Command Sgt. Maj. Raymond Chandler, USASMA command sergeant major, said the thin client is a great tool, but the ongoing course redesign is what will have a profound effect on future graduates, to include Class 59 students who will experience 28 rewritten lessons.

The students will receive instruction via a small group participatory learning process, supplemented by extensive guest speakers and subject matter experts, to include a later visit from Preston.

"I'll be back later in your course to talk with you even more," Preston said to Class 59 during Friday's ceremony, as he urged the senior NCOs to take full advantage of all the course offers - "You never know ... one of you sitting in this auditorium now could very well be a future Sergeant Major of the Army."

In addition to attending classes, Class 59 students will also have the opportunity to further their civilian education and volunteer in the El Paso community. Past classes have completed hundreds of civilian degrees and dedicated tens of thousands of volunteer hours to local causes.