FORT LEWIS, Wash. - Retired general Barry R. McCaffrey, on post to speak Feb. 18 to I Corp junior officers, credited the NCO Corps with a large part of why he made the Army his career.

"One of the major reasons I stayed in the Army was for the privilege of hanging around infantry NCOs," he said.

McCaffrey graduated from West Point in 1964 and reported to the 82nd Airborne Division, where many of his NCOs had seen combat in the Korean War. Some already had Vietnam experience under their belts, "older men who knew their business and were accustomed to being in charge."

By the time he took over a company in Vietnam, however, the experience had thinned.

"There were only two of us who were over 25 years old, only two of us who had more than two years in the Army - the first sergeant and me," McCaffrey said. "Both of us were on our third combat tour. The first sergeant had been in that company as a rifleman in the Korean War."

Because of the current conflicts in Central and Southwest Asia, he said, experience in the NCO corps is widespread and deep. They know their jobs and re-enlist to stay with units where they feel at home.

"Now you turn around and look at the staff sergeant squad leader and the guy's got 10 years in the Army. He's got three combat tours. He can teach you how to dismantle the machinery he's accountable for."

Those experienced NCOs form the best de facto training cadre for young officers, he said, while keeping them out of trouble until they settle into their surroundings.

"I normally tell lieutenants 'When you show up in your unit, you are 100 percent legally in command of that platoon or section and we will hold you accountable for what it does or fails to do,'" McCaffrey said. "Having said that, the reason it's going to be easy for you to do that is ... you've got the most professional NCO corps in the country's history running it."

The retired general said he learned to count on the NCOs with whom he served, for knowing when to step on the gas and when to ease off.

"(Working with NCOs) is one of the fun sources in the Army. That's why I tell people it adds to the joy of being a Soldier," McCaffrey said. "Obviously NCOs are one of the great strengths of the Army."

Don Kramer is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian