U.S. Soldier earns top NATO award
Sgt. 1st Class Aaron M. Welch, a U.S. Army NATO Brigade Soldier assigned to the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps Spain in Valencia was named the 2021 NATO Force Structure Top Soldier of the Year. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army Photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

SEMBACH, Germany — A U.S. Soldier assigned to the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps Spain in Valencia was named the 2021 NATO Force Structure Top Soldier of the Year.

Sgt. 1st Class Aaron M. Welch, a G3 operations noncommissioned officer who hails from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, was selected to receive the award by a panel of judges based on his impact on his organization during the previous year.

Some highlights of Welch’s impacts include providing counsel and mentorship while supporting the establishment of Spain’s first officially recognized sniper school, mentoring sniper teams from the Spanish Parachute Brigade and Special Operations School, and sharing information on his combat experiences in Afghanistan during the Allied Land Command’s Command Senior Enlisted Leader Conference.

“This is the first time I have ever worked on a corps or even division-level staff, but I have worked with many multinational partners in the past developing solutions through the [Security Force Assistance Brigade] or my sniper times, teaching and mentoring our partners in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Welch.

Welch has had a varied military career serving as a sniper with the 10th Mountain Division, an infantry platoon sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division, a senior drill instructor at Fort Jackson, S.C., and a team leader and first sergeant with the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade. He has deployed five times to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I think I’ve been lucky in my assignments and what type of people and organizations I have worked with,” said Welch. “So when I came here it was just easy to kind of reach out and help our partners in those areas where I have some experience.”

Welch attributes much of his recent success, not only to his training and combat experiences, but also to a new Allied Land Command program called NCO Empowerment Enabling Decisions or NEEDs. The purpose of NEEDs is to encourage and enable noncommissioned officers to accomplish more for their commanders and officer counterparts than what a traditional NATO staff uses their NCOs for.

“NEEDs was kind of my catalyst for doing all this extra work that I did,” said Welch. “I was trying to fall in line with the program. I read about it, worked with the LANDCOM CSEL and just kind of ran with it.”

U.S. Army Col. Jerzy Zubr, the U.S. senior national representative in the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps Spain, said he is proud to have Welch in the unit and serve as an example to others.

Selection as the 2021 NATO Force Structure Top Soldier of the Year is “quite an achievement which underscores the high quality of our Army's NCOs and recognizes the professionalism, skills, experience and high human quality of Sgt. 1st Class Welch,” said Zubr.

U.S. Army NATO Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Bryan J. Valenzuela said he was not surprised when he heard about Welch’s accomplishment because of the praise he has heard over the past year.

“He is one of the reasons our NCO Corps is a shining example to our NATO partners of how important our role as NCOs is to the U.S. Army, our Soldiers, officers and families,” said Valenzuela.

Welch also credits his colleagues and leaders in his unit for making sure he had the time and opportunity to help outside his normal duties in the unit. He also said he looks forward in the coming year to supporting the Allied Land Command’s NEEDs program get a solid start.

Welch’s advice for young NCOs looking to make a difference in their unit is “if you see something that needs to be done or could possibly be a good idea, just go for it. And don’t be afraid to be told no.”

U.S. Army NATO Brigade provides support to Soldiers and their families to provide ready and resilient Soldiers to the NATO alliance, maintain our joint and multinational partnerships and enhance the alliance. The brigade is the U.S. Army support element for units at 81 locations in 22 countries.