FORT KNOX, Kentucky -- Since functionally integrating three separate branches into a single division to manage the careers of some 5,000 sergeants major and command sergeants major across the force, Army Human Resources Command's Sergeant Major Management Division, or SMMD, has been building its team with an eye toward the future needs of the Army.

"Our senior noncommissioned officers are the backbone of the Army," said HRC Command Sgt. Maj. Wardell Jefferson. "The SMMD integration is making it possible for HRC to bring the collective insight and focus of this team to bear on developing strong and agile leaders in our formations while accounting for our sergeants major in terms of career progression and the needs of their families."

SMMD's latest milestone was the publication Aug. 8 of a Military Personnel Message, or MILPER, to the field, outlining criteria and procedures for the fiscal year 2018 Centralized Selection List (CSL) board for active component (AC) and Active Guard and Reserve (AGR) brigade and battalion command sergeants major and sergeants major key billet positions, said division chief, Sgt. Maj. Eric Thom.

The MILPER can be found on the HRC website at http://go.usa.gov/xTgTQ (CAC or DSLogon required). The board is scheduled to convene in late October and release of the formal slate is planned for April 2017. The FY18 board will be inclusive of all active duty E9s with 27 years or less of service, he said.

Eligible NCOs will be authorized to update their My Board File (MBF) information from Sept. 1 until Oct. 18, and all AMHRR/iPERMS update submissions must be received, error free, by Oct. 14. All criteria and procedures are detailed in the MILPER, Thom said.

"All eligible NCOs will be looked at for battalion, brigade and key billets. Everybody who falls within the eligibility criteria is going to be looked at. It's not an opt-in board, it's an all-in board," he said.

"It is critical that sergeants major across all components understand the importance of the CSL process, both to their own career development and to the Army at large," said Jefferson.

With CSL board coming up, Thom was looking forward to his first official visit as SMMD chief to the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, in early September.

"I am going to make an initial SMMD visit to USASMA on or about Sept. 6. That's because this is the largest concentration of our eligible population and these Soldiers will be very interested in what they can and cannot compete for. It will be an opportunity to talk to them before the board window closes," he said.

Thom said selected NCOs will be slated for both command sergeants major positions and for key billets. They will be managed through SMMD's Command Management Branch.

"If I could emphasize anything, I need people to understand that the key billets are on the same list," he said.

Thom reiterated the importance of key billets to the Army and to sergeants major planning their career development. These staff positions and are deemed so critical by their proponents that they must be filled at all times. That has created challenges and opportunities that are high on SMMD's agenda.

"The SMA has tagged us with redefining what a key billet is and then working with TRADOC and the proponents who have been right-sizing all E9 billets with respect to their skill level -- 6/7/8 -- to provide a sustainable model for our CMFs. This cannot be done without TRADOC as they own the spaces. We, HRC, manage the faces that fill the spaces, but they determine all the requirements for those spaces," he said.

When TRADOC conducted a proponents working group in early August, Thom was there to ensure a coordinated effort.

"I attended the working group to talk to them on some new codes that we are going to use, and make sure that we are all on the same sheet of music. Command Sgt. Maj. Davenport, the TRADOC command sergeants major, has been great when it comes to including us in this endeavor, ensuring we are working together and not heading in different directions," he said.

Thom said that in addition to proponents defining their particular key billet assignments, sergeants major across the Army must come to terms with the fact that being selected for a key billet is as much a professional endorsement as being selected for a command sergeant major position.

"People compete because they want that next level command sergeants major billet. The key billets are sergeants major billets and, frankly, a good portion of the field simply don't want to lose their wreath. Their mindset is: 'I made command sergeants major, so I have to stay command sergeants major.' The truth is, it is going to be very hard to do that. There will still be some, but they will be the minority. Most will have to move back and forth," he said.

Despite that misperception, selection for a key billet is both critical to the Army and a solid step forward in an NCO's career progression, said Thom.

"Key billets, which are critical sergeants major positions on division and corps staffs, are also very important in the development of our most senior noncommissioned officers," said Jefferson.

"I can tell you from personal experience, I've been able to go back and forth, and I've made it up to the three-star level," said Thom. "So it can be done. The two points to keep in mind are: first, key billets will open additional opportunities that command sergeants major billets alone will not, and second, all CSL billets trump non-CSL billets."

Thom said he was enthusiastic about leading the SMMD team, praising his Soldiers and civilians as top tier professionals who understand the importance of their missions to the Army and the nation.

"It's the team that really makes this thing run. People just don't understand how important these folks are. They are all superstars here. HRC has the ability to select from the entire Army, so you can bet if they work in HRC they are the cream of the crop in their career field," he said.

"To steal a line from Sgt. Maj. Dennis Eger (Nominative Sergeant Major Program Office chief), 'I have to write all my former HR guys, my G-1s and my S-1s, and apologize. I just didn't know what I didn't know,'" said Thom.

"The Army at large, and HRC's SMMD in particular, are devoted to growing and promoting the best senior noncommissioned officers in the world," said Jefferson. "The Army and the nation are relying on HRC to match the most experienced, agile and motivated leaders to those key positions that will shape our formations now and in the future. It is a critical mission."