U.S. Army 1st Sgt. John O’Connor, the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command Headquarters Battery First Sergeant, earned the James A. Shipton Award and was named the U.S. Army 2022 Missile Defender of the Year during a ceremony on Jan. 20 in Alexandria, Virginia.
“The Soldiers of Alpha Battery, 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment supported the Eastern Flank and modernized the battery, completing the first ever Maneuver Short Range Air Defense gunnery and Stinger Live Fire,” said O’Connor. “They did all the hard work and were exceptional, I simply provided purpose, direction, motivation, but it was their accomplishments that earned me those awards.”
The James A. Shipton award is named for Brig. Gen James A. Shipton, who is acknowledged as the founding father of the air defense artillery branch. The award is presented to an individual ADA officer, noncommissioned officer or enlisted soldier whose achievements are judged superior to their peers based on the criterion of leadership, tactical and technical proficiency, selfless and community service, and commitment to excellence. The recipient’s performance, military bearing, innovation, and dedication must have resulted in significant contributions to or enhanced ADA’s warfighting capabilities, morale, readiness, and/or maintenance.
U.S. Army Capt. Conor Knapp, commander of 11th Missile Defense Battery, nominated O’Connor and was confident he displayed all these qualities.
“O’Connor is aware of the fact, more than any other leader I’ve met, that his role is a role of service,” said Knapp. “He has the humility and demeanor to put his Soldiers, his unit, and the mission before himself. However, he also has the courage and audacity to speak up for a strict adherence to the standard and a demand for excellence. In possessing both these values of humility and courage, he is an invaluable mentor to subordinates and peers and I personally grew enormously from commanding a battery with him as my first sergeant.”
O’Connor led his unit through a multi-faceted mission set in which his Soldiers were tasked to both modernize and “fight tonight.” He guided Alpha Battery, 5-4 Air Defense Artillery Regiment through the fielding of the Army’s first four prototype M-SHORAD systems. Through O’Connor’s vast technical and tactical expertise, Alpha Battery spearheaded the fielding and implementation of the M-SHORAD Stryker variant from initial testing to the first live fire on the German Baltic Sea coastline. O’Connor then used lessons learned to develop the first M-SHORAD Tactical Standard Operating Procedure. In less than one year Alpha Battery validated the ability to employ M-SHORAD through a 1600-kilometer tactical road march across five NATO countries culminating in a stinger live fire in Estonia. Many of the M-SHORAD experts groomed by O’Connor in Alpha Battery are now subject matter experts in other SHORAD units. O’Connor was at the forefront of Air Defense modernization and his efforts are now proliferating across the ADA enterprise.
In the midst of modernizing one platoon, Alpha Battery maintained two Avenger platoons. O’Connor planned and resourced a robust and complex training plan that resulted in his unit being recognized as the most proficient Avenger battery by the battalion's standardization team. His leadership directly contributed to resounding success when Alpha Battery deployed two platoons, with no notice, to two separate countries immediately after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in order to provide air defense coverage to NATO’s eastern flank. O’Connor routinely circulated between both countries to ensure readiness, sustainment and morale for all Soldiers in his unit. Throughout every stage of the operation, his Soldiers remained disciplined and postured as they defended NATO Allies and Partners
“The word sergeant is derived from the Latin root word, servientium, meaning ‘servant,’” said O’Connor. “As the First Sergeant, you are the lead servant, serving all those senior or subordinate to you.”
Professional development books are important to O’Connor, and he recommends books to his troops. He emphasizes a quote from ‘Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead’ by James N. Mattis, the former United States Secretary of Defense.
“I am passionate about this quote, ‘if you haven't read hundreds of books, learning from others who went before you, you are functionally illiterate – you can’t coach and you can’t lead,’” said O’Connor. “If people would take the time to read and learn from those who came before us, we could easily overcome many hurdles and obstacles.”
O’Connor joined the United States Army as an Air and Missile Defense Crewmember shortly after the Sept. 11 attack. As his career progressed, he discovered that being an air defender ran through his family roots.
“My paternal and maternal grandfathers joined the army as coastal air artillery during World War 2,” said O’Connor. “Fast forward to Vietnam, my uncle Pat served as an air defense officer. To earn the Shipton Award and to be recognized as the best air missile defender from the air defense artillery branch is something I hold in high esteem, because of the air defense lineage in my family.”
Recently O'Connor was selected to attend the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy. After serving as first sergeant for 5 years, he will pass along his diamond to the next first sergeant in April and focus on being a student and learning what it means to be a sergeant major.