By Ian Graham, PentagramFebruary 6, 2009
The Year of the Noncommissioned Officer is well underway and NCOs are being honored Army-wide, but Fort Myer Military Community Command Sgt. Maj. Jefferson Varner III wants to ensure that the year-long celebration of enlisted leaders isn't limited to those currently serving.
"We wouldn't be here without retired folks," Varner said. "The Army's focusing on active duty NCOs, but what the retirees have done for us is so important." While visiting the Armed Forces Retirement Home in the District of Columbia Friday, Jan. 30, Varner met with four retired NCOs who served at different times in the Army's history.
They talked about how the Army has changed, the development of programs available to enlisted Soldiers during their service and about the evolving role of the NCO.
Robert Armstrong, a retiree who fought in the Korean War and was a part of the occupation of Japan after World War II, said his work as an NCO affected his leadership abilities long after he had retired.
He managed a team of workers at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania after he left the service; another team leader had been an officer in the Navy. "The guy couldn't figure out why my team was always performing so well. He said stuff like, 'I was a commander, I was an officer,'" Armstrong said.
"So I asked him, 'Well, when you were in the Navy, how did your chain of command work'' He explained that the Admiral would pass down an order, and he'd pass it along to his chief, and it would get done. I told him, when I was in the Army, I was that chief making sure your orders got carried out."
The role of the NCO may have changed on the surface since he retired in 1979, Armstrong told Varner, but what really mattered about the job didn't. He said, as valuable as a college education is to a military leader, it's hard to replace the experience most enlisted men gain.
Charles Felder, a veteran of the Marine Corps, the Air Force and the Army, joked that he'd earned enough rank during his service that he should have retired as an E-10, but because he lost rank every time he switched services, he didn't make it that high.
Felder served in the Vietnam War. Varner told him that he was worried about the recognition and respect NCOs receive outside of the military.
Within the service, people know the weight an NCO carries. But outside of the service, a lot of people hear "sergeant" and don't know the difference between a staff sergeant and a sergeant major. "I never really had a problem with recognition," Felder said, though he did agree that most people don't know the difference.
"I always worked based on the position and my qualifications. My skills came from my NCO training, and I used them, not my rank, to qualify for jobs outside of the service."
Gwen Hendly, a veteran of the Women's Army Corps, retired in 1986 after serving 20 years in military medicine.
She explained that although the WAC was kept largely separate - barracks, basic training and many jobs were kept segregated by sex - the hardest part for women was trying to attain higher rank in the NCO Corps.
"Women couldn't make rank well; the higher ranks were tougher because women weren't eligible for certain schools because of our non-combat status," Hendly said.
But in spite of the problems she saw as a woman in the Army, she said her service was invaluable. It felt like she was doing more with her life than her peers, and that she was giving herself more opportunities.
"I didn't really go back home very often," she said. "But when I did, it was disappointing more than anything to see these people I knew who hadn't moved on to bigger or better things."
Carrol Collins, a veteran of World War II, retired in 1962. During his time in the service, he took advantage of the education programs the Army offered him.
Though not as sophisticated as the modern Army education centers, he said during his 30-month tour in Africa and Italy, he was able to take correspondence courses through the U.S. Armed Forces Institute.
He also tried to pick up local languages when the Army didn't specifically train him for the area. He used his high school French to learn Italian while he was there. He also learned Hungarian, Korean and Japanese as he worked various counter-intelligence jobs around the world.
"At one point, I knew as many as seven languages, but the more of one language I learned, the more of another I forgot," Collins said.
Felder said although the education system has changed and grown over the past 50 years, it's reassuring to see the Army's dedication to Soldiers' education. "There has to be continuing education from when a Soldier takes his first leadership position," he said.
"You can learn a lot from experience, but there's a lot of book-learning that needs to be taken in."
As for ways they feel current Soldiers could show respect to those who served before them, the four agreed that Congress needs to take more steps in caring for Soldiers after the fighting is done.
"A lot of people working [on Capitol Hill] haven't been in the service and never will be," Collins said. "They might think us retirees are getting what we need, but they don't know our situation. They can't understand what it means to be a veteran."
Sheila Abarr, public affairs officer for AFRH, said it's important to remember the view of the retiree as well. "I think that the same way people see retirees, the retirees see today's active duty - as making a sacrifice to keep America free," Abarr said.
"There's a mutual respect, but the relationship isn't as close as it should be." The Armed Forces Retirement Home is a community for service members who retired after 20 years in the military (at least half of which in the enlisted ranks). It's funded by a fee assessed on enlisted Soldiers, a trust fund and Congressional appropriations.