VICENZA, Italy -- Since the U.S. Army was formed on June 14, 1775, noncommissioned officers have served our nation in times of war and peace with distinction, professionalism, courage and dedication - oftentimes paying the supreme sacrifice.

The NCO Corps has continually distinguished itself as the world's most accomplished group of military professionals. The valorous and courageous actions of our NCOs fill volume after volume of military history books. NCOs have been celebrated for decorated service in military events ranging from Valley Forge to Gettysburg, to parachuting into Normandy on D-Day and battles along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to current conflicts in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan and complex environment of Iraq.

Army Secretary Pete Geren announced at the opening session of the 2008 Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exposition that 2009 will be observed as "The Year of the Noncommissioned Officer" to recognize the value of its enlisted leaders at all levels of command.

Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth O. Preston discussed the contributions of the NCO to the Army mission and why the service has named 2009 The Year of the NCO by stating, "This is an opportunity for us to showcase the contributions of the NCO Corps. It's those NCOs out there every day who are not only winning the fight on the global war on terror; they are also the ones who create command climate and train the Soldiers in their occupational specialties".

The Year of the NCO is a time to enhance the education, fitness, leadership and pride in service of our NCOs through programs that sustain and grow our NCO Corps. It is time to fully recognize their tremendous leadership, commitment and unwavering courage, and to inform key audiences about the responsibilities and quality of service of our NCOs.

With respect to enhancing the education during the year of the NCO, the SMA said there were three pillars of learning for all Soldiers in the Army. The first pillar of learning is institutional; which for the NCO is the Noncommissioned Officer Education System (NCOES).

NCOES is the keystone for NCO development and it provides MOS skill and leader training in an integrated system at four levels (primary, basic, advanced, and senior). NCOES is the vertical progressive ladder that provides formal education at critical points in the NCO's military career to properly prepare him to perform at the next higher level.

NCOES is also horizontally integrated with the commissioned officer education system, thus ensuring that commissioned officers and NCOs receive similar subjects and current doctrine during their respective educational courses.

Senior NCOs emerge from the Sergeant Major Course with an officer's strategic and operational understanding of the battlefield by studying the same lesson plan as Intermediate Level Education for Majors. This redesign of the NCOES curriculum has enabled many NCOs to take on new leadership roles and perform duties in various capacities that were normally associated with their officer counterpart.

One example of this expanded role that enhances NCO development is the NCO Congressional Fellowship Program; which when implemented will for the first time; assign two sergeants major to the House and Senate Armed Services Committee as official Army Legislative Liaison Officers.

The U.S. military also serves as a model for other countries, like Afghanistan, seeking to build more effective NCO corps. For example, the Afghan National Army has adopted the central role of NCOs in a world-class military. The Afghan Army's first sergeant major of the army, Roshan Safi, was a classmate of mine in USASMA Class 56.

NCOES also teaches our enlisted leaders critical thinking and problem solving skills and makes them an adaptive leader capable of using cognitive capacity skills and strategies to achieve understanding and to evaluate view points to solve problems. NCOs have the ability to think fast-make split second decisions under stress and understand that the second and third order impacts of these operational decisions could have strategic implications.

NCOES provides our NCOs with relevant products, innovative processes, and the education to further develop develops a leader that can operate effectively in any environment and is proficient in all aspects of being a Soldier. NCOs are effective communicators and capable of building effective teams, squads, and platoons by developing and mentoring their subordinates.

NCOs, based upon their wealth of experience and knowledge also have the responsibility to train and advise the newly commissioned officer. The NCO Corps is grounded in heritage, values and tradition, and today's NCO embodies the warrior ethos, values perpetual learning, and is capable of leading, training, and motivating Soldiers by providing constant care, by meticulous thought and preparation, by insistence on high standards in everything, by reward and punishment, by impartiality, and by an example of calm and confidence.

NCOs lead by example, train from experience, maintain and enforce standards, takes care of Soldiers, and adapts to a changing environment. NCOs are the "backbone" of the Army.