By Kristen Kushiyama, CERDEC Public Affairs and OutreachApril 22, 2009
He always considered himself the quiet guy in the back of the classroom-not one to make a fuss, flying under the radar.
But Sgt. Matthew R. Phelan is not at the back of the classroom anymore. He is making up for his high school anonymity by distinguishing himself as his command's top Noncommissioned Officer (NCO).
Phelan earned recognition as the NCO of the Year for the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM).
On March 30, Phelan reported for duty at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), Md. where he spent four days in rigorous competition with other NCOs from across RDECOM, a major subordinate command of the Army Materiel Command (AMC).
Phelan represented the Communications-Electronics, Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) at Fort Monmouth, N.J., one of RDECOM's nine subordinate organizations.
"As NCOs, we have to continue to improve ourselves by educating ourselves and setting the example. What these NCOs have done today is step up among their peers by taking a step forward and accepting this challenge," said RDECOM Command Sgt. Maj. Hector G. Marin about the participating NCOs.
The competition tested the Soldiers on their physical, intellectual, soldiering and leadership abilities.
Phelan, a communications technician with the CERDEC Intelligence & Information Warfare Directorate (I2WD), trained for nearly 20 days to prepare for the competition with the help of his sponsor, Staff Sgt. Daniel E. Smith.
While Phelan's experience as a twice deployed Soldier to Iraq with the Third Infantry Division (3rd ID) increased his leadership and soldiering abilities, he had to train and focus on additional skills to win the NCO of the Year.
Smith, also from I2WD, helped train Phelan by scheduling him time to work with weapons at a civilian firing range; setting up a mock board interview panel to grill Phelan with questions about Army history, leadership and current events; and focusing on other topics to be covered during the competition.
"Something like this takes a lot of preparation and mental toughness to get ready to compete," said Smith, "and Sgt. Phelan has done a great job staying focused."
Before Phelan left for the competition, the NCOs at CERDEC were confident they had a winner on their hands according to Sgt. 1st Class Debra Tanacea of I2WD. By the end of the first three days, Phelan didn't disappoint as he completed all his tasks and was 60 points ahead of his competition.
Perhaps Phelan's potential success as an NCO and NCO of the Year candidate was spotted early in his career when he attended Warrior Leader Course (WLC), the first leadership course NCOs must complete. There, Phelan was named on the Commandant's List for finishing in the top 20 percent of his class.
This previous success was not going to help Phelan against his fellow RDECOM competitors: one NCO from Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass. and two NCOs from Army Research Laboratory at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
In addition to the Army Physical Fitness Test, Common Task Trainer, weapons tests and obstacle course, competitors took a 25-question, knowledge-based test focusing on Army history and leadership, followed by an essay on one of three provided topics.
Phelan focused his essay on Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, a Soldier with B Company, 11th Engineering Battalion, 3rd ID, who was killed in action while protecting his men en route to Baghdad International Airport in April 2003.
"Since I was with the 3rd ID, I chose to write about Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith," said Phelan. "He made the ultimate sacrifice to defend his Soldiers and not let his mission fail. All of the values and creeds that are instilled in us from Day Zero in the Army are what he showed that day."
While Phelan was able to complete all of his tasks, he did find the board review to be more challenging than the rest. The review was a personally intimidating undertaking for the once-quiet school kid who preferred the back of the room.
Meticulously dressed in his Army Class A, service dress uniform, Phelan stood front and center being interviewed by a panel comprised of Command Sgt. Maj. Marin, three sergeants major and one first sergeant who drilled him on a variety of on-the-spot questions ranging from leadership and Army history to current events.
After successfully completing the board interview, it was determined that Phelan took highest marks in the competition.
Phelan now has his sights set on the next level, this fall's AMC NCO of the Year competition, and a team of RDECOM and CERDEC NCOs will help prepare him for the task.
"I know the mistakes that I made this time, and I look forward to the next round so I can improve on those mistakes," said Phelan.
"It takes preparation from both the Unit and the Soldier. It is an investment in time and energy that will last throughout a Soldier's lifetime," said board panel member Sgt. Maj. Timothy Weatherspoon, RDECOM G3, operations sergeant major.
Smith also looks forward to Phelan competing at the AMC level and will continue to help Phelan become more polished and get in more study time for the next round of competition.
"There's no doubt in my mind the Sgt. Phelan will come away with first as the AMC NCO of the Year," said Smith.
"I am excited. This is a great learning experience in RDECOM, and now I'll get to hang out with more Soldiers," said Phelan who found training for the initial competition to be difficult due to the small number of active duty Soldiers within CERDEC.
While there are only a few Soldiers in CERDEC and I2WD, their support was invaluable and they really put out a team effort according to Phelan.
"It is important for me to have Staff Sgt. Smith there because he has been through these same types of boards and competitions. He knows how to guide me and give advice to get the best results," said Phelan.
The other NCOs offered support and encouragement while even placing some of their own lives on hold. Smith volunteered to sponsor Phelan because he saw it as his duty to train, lead and help his Soldiers in any way he could.
Since sponsors had to be with their Soldier every step of the way providing feedback and support, other CERDEC NCOs volunteered to be back-up sponsors for Phelan in case Smith had to return to New Jersey to be with his wife whose due date for their third child was the same week of the competition. However, back-up sponsors were not needed since Smith's son was born a week late.
"To win a competition like this, it takes a lot of personal drive. But it also takes a lot of good leadership," said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Scheidt, CERDEC Operations NCO. "Sgt. Phelan has outstanding leadership with Staff Sgt. Smith and Sgt. 1st Class Tanacea, both of whom are great NCOs and have helped mold him and get him to where he needs to be."
"It reflects a lot on his military leadership and it reflects a lot on him," said Gary Blohm, CERDEC director.
"With 2009 being the Year of the NCO where the Army is honoring its NCOs - the real backbone of the Army - it is a very significant accomplishment for Sgt. Phelan to win NCO of the Year," said Blohm. "We are very proud of him."
A humble Phelan said he is grateful for all of the support and accolades the civilian workforce has given him.
Not only are he and his co-workers thrilled about his accomplishments, his family is excited also.
Phelan said his wife of almost six years was very proud of him winning RDECOM NCO of the Year. She has been very encouraging and supportive of his career and his commitment to it, and for that, he said he is extremely grateful.
"She is a Jersey girl, but she's moved with me to Arizona and to Georgia. Plus, she has been through two deployments," said Phelan who lives with his wife and their young daughter in Piscataway, N.J.
Phelan's wife was his only confidant when he started talking to recruiters about joining the Army. He said he felt compelled to make a difference in the future of the nation by joining the Army after the events that took place on Sept. 11, 2001.
The university student, who would eventually earn top nods as a leader in his command, was a junior majoring in sociology with a concentration in criminology at East Stroudsburg University in East Stroudsburg, Pa. at the time of the attacks.
Set on finishing school, Phelan completed his bachelor's degree in 2002 before enlisting and he reported for basic training in April 2003.
After being stationed at Fort Jackson, S.C., Fort Huachuca, Ariz., Fort Stewart, Ga. and being deployed to Iraq twice, Phelan was stationed at Fort Monmouth in Oct. 2008.
Phelan provides insight and leadership from a Soldier's perspective to the scientists and engineers at CERDEC I2WD who develop rapidly deployable technology to Soldiers in the field.
As a uniformed CERDEC employee, "Sgt. Phelan has proven to be a valuable asset to CERDEC I2WD by providing our Soldiers and civilian employees with the leadership, commitment and professionalism required to ensure that each mission is accomplished safely and efficiently," said Anthony Lisuzzo, director of I2WD.
"It is an honor for the CERDEC and Fort Monmouth to be associated with an individual like Sgt. Phelan who has gone above and beyond anything we have asked him to do in order to achieve RDECOM NCO of the Year," said Blohm.