FORT LEWIS, Wash. - I have a lot of memories about my interactions with noncommissioned officers. Heck, I was one for 22 years. But nothing holds a more visceral memory than the twin thoughts of NCOs and PT.

I can't think of an area NCOs play a more central role in than keeping Soldiers physically ready to do their jobs. I am sure that every Soldier carries memories similar to mine.

I thought I was in pretty good shape when I enlisted in the Army. I was a runner and had worked in the Oregon woods fighting forest fires. How tough could the Army be'

Like every young Soldier, I learned that the answer was "pretty darned tough." They just wore you down. I could do 40 or 50 pushups when I enlisted, but that didn't prepare me for the hours I seemed to spend in the front leaning rest position. A good civilian workout had included two or three sets of pushups. In Echo Battery, at Fort Sill, the pushups and grass drill didn't stop until the drill sergeants lost interest - and they seemed to have incredible powers of concentration.

But basic training was followed by AIT, and I will never forget the day the battery was dropped and the tactical NCO kept counting and counting. He kept us down until we were well past 100 and I realized I still had a lot left in me. It was a simple thing, but I really felt on top of the world.

That taught me a valuable lesson about being challenged and the importance of NCOs. Being fit is all about being pushed beyond what you think you can do. The growth you experience is more than physical; there are all the other benefits of confidence, pride and teamwork, too. And behind all that, were my NCOs.

Those lessons were reinforced many times over the years. Being a Soldier always meant pushing on beyond the point where you wanted to quit. It was usually an NCO who kept you going.

Of course, eventually I earned stripes and found myself in the role of the guy doing the pushing. I had to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the troops and then plan PT and other training that would make them stronger, faster, better at the tasks they faced.

There were always technical and tactical skills to be taught, drills to practice, tasks to be performed. And every one of them benefited from a foundation of physical fitness. Because it underlay everything else, keeping my Soldiers physically ready always held a central place in what I did.

My view wasn't always universally held. I remember other public affairs leaders making statements about their subordinates and saying something like "He's in lousy shape, but he's a great journalist." I always thought that was a crock of nonsense. How could support Soldiers - whether journalists, mechanics or supply clerks - be good at their jobs if they couldn't hang with the other Soldiers they were assigned to support.

I tried to push my guys hard and I saw the results. I sent Soldiers off to hump for days at a time with light infantry units; I deployed them with tank units; I sent them off to go through airborne and air assault schools. Then I saw them grow to be drill sergeants and platoon sergeants and first sergeants. And they never failed to complete a mission because they lacked the will to keep going. Can any NCO have a more satisfying feeling than that'

No matter what your MOS, no matter what your unit, from Stryker brigade combat team to finance detachment, it is important to have the stamina and the strength to see you through long hours, unexpected obstacles and combat missions. You are all Soldiers, and can all feel justifiably proud if you know you have what it takes to face those challenges and come out victorious.

And when you feel that pride, I bet you can all share it with an NCO who made you do more than you thought you could.

David W. Kuhns Sr., a retired Army sergeant major. is editor of Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.