ATLANTA (Army News Service, March 5, 2009) -- Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston met with Soldiers at Fort McPherson and Fort Gillem, Ga., Feb. 27, as part of a Year of the Noncommissioned Officer event there.

Preston said meeting with Soldiers is a way to stay abreast of the challenges facing leaders as they prepare their units and organizations for upcoming missions. He visited with Soldiers from U.S. Army Forces Command, U.S. Army Reserve Command, and U.S. Army Central Command during the event.

When not testifying about the Army on Capitol Hill, the top NCO in the Army is traveling throughout the 80 countries where U.S. Soldiers are serving.

He recognizes it's impossible to see all the Soldiers face to face.

"I could go to a new place every day and not reach all the units in a year," said Preston, the 13th sergeant major of the Army in its history.

So he's found a way to use technology in his favor.

On the Army's Web site, through "The Year of the Noncommissioned Officer" link, there is a blog tab. Preston said blogging provides a two-point benefit.

First, it provides the SMA with the means to transmit the goals of Secretary of the Army Pete Geren and Army Chief of Staff George W. Casey Jr. out to the Soldiers in the field.

Second, Preston receives questions and valuable feedback from those same Soldiers, helping him to keep a finger on the pulse.

The importance of feed back to Preston was evident at the two large group meetings he conducted at Fort McPherson.

At both the Association of the United States Army breakfast held at The Commons at Fort McPherson and the noon meeting with troops at the G-1 Atrium at U.S. Army Forces Command headquarters, Preston followed his message to the Soldiers with question and answer sessions.
Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis M. Carey, FORSCOM's command sergeant major, warned the more than 100 Soldiers gathered at the atrium not to let the opportunity slip by and ask the hard questions.

Preston fielded questions on everything from "dwell time," meaning how much time Soldiers will stay in one place, to the effectiveness of the military training teams.

"Across the board right now, Iraq and Afghanistan both, the MTT teams have made a huge difference," said Preston.

He went on to say the experienced NCOs on the MTTs are the way of the future. Coaching, teaching and mentoring other nations' militaries and helping them set up their own basic training units and NCO academies is one of many tasks for today's NCO.

With all the different missions out there, more than ever the Army needs NCOs that have the critical thinking skills, said Preston, the longest standing sergeant major of the Army. These skills include the understanding and the education to really know and see how their mission ties in with the larger mission, he said.

Enhancing the education and training of NCOs is an important factor during the 2009 --The Year of the Noncommissioned Officer.

Preston said the idea started with Secretary of the Army Pete Geren and was then brain-stormed between himself and Chief of Staff of the Army George Casey Jr.

Casey recognized that the NCO corps was the "glue" that was holding the Army units and organizations together throughout the seven-year War on Terrorism, said Preston.

The first initiative then became to let those sergeants know their efforts were appreciated and recognize them for their efforts.

Next, Preston said, the Army needed to tell the political leaders and the taxpaying American public just how great these front- line leaders are. So, there is a push to get the NCOs' stories out.

Finally, the Army is striving to improve the preparation of the NCO.

Preston said the average Soldier receives 42 days of formal military education between advanced individual training and sergeant's major academy. It's not enough.

We already have systems in place, said Preston. We don't need more systems; we just need to enhance the ones we already have, he said.

Providing NCOs with quality tools through training and education is taking care of junior Soldiers, especially in this time of stress.

"If there's anything that keeps me awake at night right now, it's stress on the force," said Preston. Preston went on to explain it's not just the ones who are deployed who feel that stress, it's those who are preparing to deploy and it's the Soldiers left behind to pick up the slack after the others have deployed. It's coming home from deployment, packing up the family and moving. It's the impact of the economy from trying to sell a house.

The indicators of all that stress are the increases in suicide and divorce, said Preston.

Preston spoke about the new suicide prevention classes being provided to both Soldiers and civilian workers. These classes are designed to assist in identifying the signs of potential suicide in their colleagues.

In addition to creating an awareness of how stress affects those around us, Preston said transformation will help remove some of that stress.

Transformation makes us more expeditionary and able to get to the fight quicker, said Preston. He said it not only makes our organizations more relevant and ready, but having our modular units look the same offers more predictability and stability for Soldiers and their Families.

An unpredictable situation Soldiers and their loved ones have had to deal with is when the servicemember gets wounded - a situation Preston says the Army thought it were prepared for. Outpatient Soldier populations continued to grow, said Preston. He said the Army is taking on more responsibility with a structure that was not designed to handle the numbers. Preston said the Army knew it had to increase its capability to assist the increasing number of wounded.

"We stood up 36 Warrior Transition Units across the Army," said Preston. "There's a system out there designed to accommodate 12,000 wounded warriors."

In addition, there are nine community-based transition units, said Preston. He said the Army has found Soldiers heal faster the closer they are to home, so it developed these centers to do just that.

Preston also said the Army now has the right leader-to-led ratio to provide proper care to the wounded warriors.

He said wounded warrior care was something the Army had to learn as it went.

"It's not like we could go to the library and get a book on how this is all done," said Preston. "We're building and manning the facilities to take care of a problem, learning as we go and writing the doctrine at the same time."

Preston said Army leaders are also writing the modular Army doctrine for Army transformation as they go.

"It's leaders leaving a situation better than when they first arrived," said Preston of the Army command's changes. "I can't think of any other organization, or service or country that could have possibly done this except the United States Army."

(Peter J. Chadwick serves with the U.S. Army Garrison Public Affairs Office at Fort McPherson, Ga.)