People First: When Soldier development transcends rank

By Emily O'NeillMarch 5, 2021

(Photo Credit: O'Neill, Emily L CIV HQDA ASA FMC) VIEW ORIGINAL

When Soldiers are asked about mentorship, they may think about someone who provides professional guidance and encouragement – a leader who is likely a rank or two above their own, offering advice from one officer or NCO to another.

For Col. Brian Smith, who works within Special Operations Command, and Sgt. Ricardo Antunez, a financial management technician with the 25th Infantry Division Sustainment Brigade, mentorship took on a unique form during deployment.

Smith and Antunez were recently part of a 12-person multi-service Resource Management team assigned to support the Combined Security Transition Command in Kabul, Afghanistan. Their mission was to provide the full spectrum of financial management for funding, which paid for the manning, training, equipping, and maintaining of Afghan Security Forces.

With a such small shop of financial management personnel needing to accomplish a large-scale mission, Smith said that even the most junior person needed to be professionally developed at an accelerated pace.

“Our junior NCOs and officers were required to fill roles that normally are executed by much more senior ranks—and all within a highly stressful and dangerous environment,” said Smith. “The junior Soldiers had to quickly get 'comfortable' with engaging with colonels and generals. It provided them with tremendous opportunities to punch above their weight.”

Describing his leadership style as approachable and collaborative, yet challenging, Smith was tasked with developing his team to operate well above beyond expectations, including new personnel who were inexperienced in the Finance and Comptroller field.

“When I received a brand new first lieutenant and sergeant who knew very little about managing money or accounting, I sat both of them down week one and said that they had the opportunity to change the Finance and Comptroller world,” recalled Smith. “They thought I was crazy, but I threw them in the proverbial deep end, and way outside of their comfort zones.”

That brand new sergeant was Ricardo Antunez.

Uncertain the path he wanted to take after graduating high school, Antunez joined the Army because he wanted to invest in himself.

“Originally, I expected it to be like working as a bank teller for Soldiers,” joked Antunez, recounting his initial impressions of what he imagined his job would be in the Army. “Needless to say, that was not the job. Being a Soldier is the first job I have, and being a financial technician comes in as a close second. I have learned to appreciate this balance and embrace it.”

Antunez said the biggest lesson he learned from his deployment was learning to trust his gut--and that leaning on a strong mentor meant having the top cover needed to develop himself as a Soldier and as a financial technician.

“Col. Smith encouraged me through empowerment, and enabled me to work as I saw fit, diving into resource management at full speed,” said Antunez. “He trusted my judgement, and his trust enabled me to get out of my comfort zone because I knew he was on my side.”

Smith maintains a list of mentorship philosophies, one of which is to invest and underwrite risk in subordinates. He shared that he always tells his Soldiers that they’ll get credit for their good ideas when presented to leadership, but he’ll take blame for the bad ones -- which he believes removes fear from being innovative.

And what he saw in Antunez was a dedicated Soldier who wasn’t afraid to fail.

“Sgt. Antunez is one of the brightest and most dedicated young NCOs that I have come across - trustworthy, dependable, self-starting, inquisitive, and exuding confidence,” said Smith. “He worked hard, stayed late to educate himself and worked well with a team to quickly get up to speed and become an expert in a field. He is the exact right leader that we need to bring change to the Finance and Comptroller NCO Corps.”

The opportunity to influence change may have come sooner than expected for Antunez. An information paper he wrote on recommended changes to the Finance and Comptroller profession made its way to the Pentagon--and onto the desks of Lt. Gen. Thomas Horlander, the senior ranking Finance & Comptroller officer for the Army, and Sgt. Maj. Darnell Cabell, the senior enlisted advisor for the Finance and Comptroller field.

“Col. Smith was encouraging everyone in the Resource Management office in Kabul to write. One day, he asked me to write about my experiences as a junior NCO,” said Antunez. “I was hesitant at first, but told him I would do it. After learning my paper had the attention of Lt. Gen. Horlander, I was speechless. I was told that anyone can have an impact on the Army, but I hadn’t seen it until Lt. Gen. Horlander reached out to me and told me he enjoyed reading it.”

Lt. Gen. Horlander credited Smith for his role in developing Antuntez, adding that the Army is a treasure of talent that transcends all ranks and positions.

“As leaders, it is our responsibility to find that talent and develop it, giving every Soldier the opportunity to be the best that he or she can be,” said Horlander. “Mentorship is a key component of professional development and talent management. Col. Smith exemplified that when he took Sgt. Antunez under his wing and helped develop him into the professional Soldier and leader he is today. We should all walk in his footsteps!”

Sgt. Maj. Cabell echoed similar sentiments, adding that he encourages NCOs to seek mentors who can foster professional growth.

“This is a great example of investing in our Soldiers, and how NCOs like Sgt. Antunez can seek growth and opportunity within our profession. We must capitalize on this effort at all levels, putting people first by providing mentorship and training.”

Since returning from deployment, Smith and Antunez have spoken publicly about the power of mentorship and developing teams. During a YouTube Livestream on the ASA (FM&C) page, the two were reunited virtually to share lessons learned.

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“I hope that 10 or 15 years from now, a more senior Sgt. Antunez will pay forward the impact, experience, and opportunities he’s gained – and perhaps cite the 'crazy Colonel' who invested in him,” said Smith. “With mentorship, the most challenging thing is to bridge the generational gap and ensure that the total Soldier concept is developed.”

For Antunez, he plans to learn as much as possible, and said that he is excited to see how the Finance & Comptroller profession will change in the coming years. “I have been encouraged to ‘leave my foxhole better than I found it,’” he said. “And I intend to do that everywhere I go. Not only for the organizations themselves, but for the people who work in them.”