NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Their job is to keep good Soldiers in uniform and, according to U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, they're among the best.

Sgt. 1st Class Michelle R. Smith, an active-duty NCO assigned to Fort Eustis, Va., and Staff Sgt. Dawna N. Brown, a National Guard Soldier assigned to Fort Knox, Ky., were recently awarded the title of TRADOC Career Counselor of the Year for their respective service components. Staff Sgt. Stephanie D. Miller, a former drill sergeant assigned to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., now holds the title of TRADOC Retention NCO of the Year.

The three winning NCOs were among 16 others in their field, TRADOC-wide, who qualified for an appearance before the command's Career Counselor/Retention NCO of the Year Board conducted on Aug. 20 at the Omni Hotel in Newport News. TRADOC Command Sgt. Maj. David M. Bruner served as the presiding official. The remaining panel was comprised of senior-level NCOs from various organizations in the command.

"Our career counselor winners will represent us at the Army-level competition early next year," noted Sgt. Maj. Khadijah Sellers, Command Career Counselor for TRADOC. "There is no service-wide competition for Retention NCO of the Year; however, we still recognize the tremendous contributions of these NCOs who augment their respective retention teams at the organization/installation level. Staff Sgt. Miller has set her sights on transferring to the Army Career Counselor specialty in February 2009. Soldiers like her, working outside their military service occupations to support the commander's retention mission, are a true asset whose efforts can't go unrewarded.

"All of the NCOs - to include those who qualified to compete at this level - should be very proud of what they accomplished here; I know we're very proud of them," Sgt. Maj. Sellers added. "This competition speaks volumes about the level of expertise these warriors offer. We're recognizing their contributions to our Soldiers and military families ... how they help them understand the value of their volunteer service and the advantages of staying in uniform. What they do for the Army is vital to maintain our institutional knowledge base. Sustaining the numbers in our ranks has never been more important than it is today, and these folks are communicating that message to Soldiers on a daily basis."

During the competition, each candidate's ability to discuss current Army programs and policies that impact retention was evaluated, as well as the thinking-out-of-the-box skills that "truly makes them effective" in the business, Sgt. Maj. Sellers said. Before heading back to their home stations, the candidates shared some of their views.

"We need to be the Soldier's Soldier," said Sgt. 1st Class Smith, an 11-year Army veteran who hails from Trenton, N.J., and is currently assigned to the Aviation and Logistics School at Eustis. "Our credibility is our shared experience. They (Soldiers) need to see us out there taking PT tests, qualifying at the range, going to the field, deploying to Iraq, doing everything they're doing. That's the only way to connect on their level. They're willing to share their concerns because we've been there."

"It goes back to the bottom line of the career counselor's creed - that we're the honest brokers for the Soldiers and the commander's eyes and ears," said Staff Sgt. Miller, a native of Richland, N.C., who initially joined the Army Reserves and then transferred to active duty in 1992. She is currently assigned to Fort Leonard Wood's 14th Military Police Brigade.

"And we're not just taking care of our troops; we're taking care of their families," Staff Sgt. Miller continued. "So we have to put ourselves in all of those shoes in order to be successful. That's why I talk to Soldiers as if it's me sitting on the other side of that table. And the question people in our profession need to ask is, 'would you give that same advice to your son or daughter'' That's what makes you effective."

Staff Sgt. Brown highlighted the fact that she's fairly new to the retention business, and Soldiers tend to respond well to her fresh perspective. She joined the active Army in March 2001 and later transitioned to the National Guard. She is currently the Reserve Component Career Counselor for Fort Knox.

"I see my viewpoint as not being stuck in the past," the New Castle, Pa., native said. "That's a big plus in my opinion, because I'm not biased about things the Army does now in comparison to what they did back then. I can help Soldiers focus on what lies ahead from my perspective, and I think they appreciate it."

All three winners agreed that family separation and/or time away from home station have become the biggest factors that influence a Soldier's decision to re-enlist. That consensus led to a positive plug for the Army Family Covenant mission. The emphasis on better housing, improved outreach services, additional child care, and so on does make a difference, the NCOs said.

"I think it's important for Soldiers to understand that Army retention is not just a numbers game," Staff Sgt. Miller remarked. "We want our troops to stay because we believe in the positive aspects of a continued military career. I also see the Army as a great big family, and it's our job to take care of our own. That's what makes this job the best kept secret in the world ... that sense of caring."

Reflecting on the opportunity to share their views in front of the board, the winning NCOs said it was one of the most rewarding experiences of their varying careers.

"What made it special was their interest in what we were bringing to the table - what we would do to change the Army, the retention program, the way we do business," Sgt. 1st Class Smith said. "And, based on their comments afterward, it was pretty obvious that the panel was genuinely interested in what we had to say. I really appreciated that."

Sgt. 1st Class Smith said she offered the idea of getting rid of bonuses and simply making military pay tax free. The TRADOC CSM built on that thought with a proposal to offer a 10 percent break at the 10-year-service mark, followed by an additional 10 percent every year following that until it reached 100 percent at 20 years.

"He kind of flipped it, and I actually liked his idea better because it rewarded the long-term Soldiers who are truly committed to a full career," she said. "I don't know if the military could ever make something like that happen, but it's exciting to know that I was given the opportunity to make the suggestion and the sergeant major showed so much interest in what I had to say."

Staff Sgt. Brown also appreciated the opportunity to reflect on the future of the Army. "I can't remember a time when I felt more important," she said. "They made you think in terms of being one of the service's top leaders; like you were the next one to write the policy messages and the regulations. That made it challenging and far more exciting than I expected."

As for the overall win, the NCOs once again shared similar sentiments to the tune of "I was shocked" and "it was a struggle to hold back the tears."

"I do feel the need to point out the fact that this was an all-female win," Sgt. 1st Class Smith said. "It's significant in my opinion because it reflects the possibilities that exist for women in our military forces. We can be as successful as we want to be, and I couldn't help feeling proud when that final name was called, which happened to be mine, and I realized that three out of the five women who competed here ended up winning."

One of the board members - Sgt. Maj. James Jay, Reserve Component Career Counselor for TRADOC - said he was concerned about junior NCOs taking care of the Army of 2020 until he met this year's candidates. Now he's encouraged. When the competitors were asked about the way ahead for tomorrow's Army, their answers showed vision and concern for the future of both the service and its Soldiers, he said.

"It's a comfort to know these NCOs represent tomorrow's force. Their commitment to Soldiers and their families is evident."