FORT STEWART, Ga. - Born and raised in New Iberia, Louisiana, Sgt. Maj. Ryan W. Willis enlisted in the United States Army in 1992 as an automated logistical specialist at the ripe age of 17. His first assignment was with the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia.

Over two decades later, his career has come full circle. He is retiring this year after 26 years of service as the Marne Division's supply sergeant major.

In between his assignments at Fort Stewart, he has had an impressive career which includes multiple deployments to the Middle East, two tours in the Republic of Korea, an array of unique assignments and a host of key development leadership positions.

For Willis, one thing is abundantly clear - he is markedly passionate about the noncommissioned officer corps.

"As NCOs, we have to make sure we have our seat at the table," said Willis. "We have to be more than just someone who gets orders and executes. It's imperative that we are a part of the decision making process."

Willis used the example of military experts that are usually seen on television interviews. He expressed that most of the time he found them to be high-ranking officers.

"You rarely see NCOs or enlisted personnel speaking on behalf of the Army on a national level," said Willis. "Maybe it's a matter of rebranding the corps and having people get a better understanding of what it is that NCOs bring to the fight."

Willis noted former Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler as an enlisted Soldier who proved how capable and imperative NCOs are to organizations.

"The United States Army Sergeants Major Academy always had colonels in the position of commandant," said Willis. "Until Sergeant Major of the Army Chandler became the first enlisted commandant and successfully held that position for several years."

"That just goes to show you that we have the opportunities to step up and make things happen and get things accomplished at the same level as our commissioned counterparts," said Willis.

Willis said instilling greater pride in the NCO corps may inspire young junior Soldiers to stay enlisted and make a career out of it.

"You always hear, 'Hey Soldier, you're high-speed, why don't you go warrant officer' or 'you should go green to gold'," said Willis. "No! We keep pulling from our greatest. What message does that send?" asked Willis.

Willis said the curriculum for the USASMA is a collegiate-level course, equipped with master degree-level papers and education requirements. He encourages young Soldiers to take advantage of tuition assistance and make time for their civilian education in the infancy of their careers to set themselves up for success.

"It's more than just to set yourself up for after the Army, although that is just as important," said Willis. "But when you are in a battle-buddy team with an officer who has been to college and then Captains Career Course, you'll have a better understanding of the mechanics of the planning process."

As for life after the Army, Willis plans to use the experience he has gained throughout his tenure, coupled with his zeal for the NCO corps, to trademark the corps in a more positive light. He hopes to inject a better understanding of the corps and their function to those who may not be familiar with an NCO and what they do.

"Words have meaning," said Willis. "You have officer, you have warrant officers and then you have noncommissioned officer. 'Non' before any word in some ways brings about a negative connotation. So someone who doesn't know much about our rank structure might wonder if there's something less than about the enlisted side."

Willis said one way to combat that is to possibly have an enlisted corps - with privates and specialists, but with junior NCOs being called junior enlisted advisors and senior NCOs having the title of senior enlisted advisor.

Willis is opting out of a traditional Army retirement ceremony, and instead is going on a retirement tour to personally thank those who have made an impact throughout his career.