MONS, Belgium - "This is a very important day for all of us in this family that is Allied Command Operations," Adm. James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, told an international crowd during the Relief and Assumption of Responsibility Ceremony of the Senior Noncommissioned Officer for ACO.

Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Bartelle, who has served as the SNCO for three years, handed over his duties to Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Balch on Aug. 27 at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium.

Balch is only the third NCO to hold this role. The first was U.S. Marine Sgt. Maj. Alford McMichael, who assumed the duties Sept. 24, 2003.

Although the assignment of a SNCO for ACO started just six years ago, the admiral reflected back to whom he said were probably the first noncommissioned officer advisors to pass through this land: Roman Legionnaires.

"I think that role has continued for 2,000 years, and it culminates today in the work of these two professionals ... it culminates today in the work of every one of our senior enlisted who stand at the side of the commander."

Since day one, Bartelle has made it his mission to enhance the NCO Corps. When he took the reigns as NATO's top enlisted Soldier on July 17, 2006, he said, "Some countries are reinforcing enlistment. I hope to promote more NCO empowerment amongst the enlisted forces with the support through their commanders, giving them the leadership opportunities they need."

He did just that through the establishment of the Year of the NCO in NATO in 2008.

"The idea of the Year of the NCO, which has translated into superb progress across all of our NATO member countries, has really created a sense of connectiveness, of community between our senior enlisted, our commanders, and therefore, between all of our nations," said Stavridis. "So I think this Year of the NCO, Mike, that you have spearheaded, and that I know you'll hand off to Mike Balch, is something very, very important. I commend you for that."

Before passing over that new mission of enlisted development to Balch, Bartelle touched on the importance of NCO leadership.

"Emerging global trends lead us in a direction where we must be creative and innovative to our approach to operations, and, for our part, enlisted force development is one of the keys to our future success," he said. "Inoperability can be achieved through the sequential and progressive development of skills, knowledge and attitude in order to sustain a corps of dedicated, professional and committed enlisted leaders."

Stavridis said, including Bartelle's hard work with the Year of the NCO, the SNCO has had a "trifecta" of accomplishments. Stavridis also recognized Bartelle's tactical focus and bedrock mission of taking care of families.

"Mike Bartelle has been instrumental in the work in Afghanistan on the training side, helping us stand up the Afghan Security Forces and helping from the very beginning to inculcate the qualities of senior enlisted from all of the NATO nations that are involved in the ISAF mission," said the admiral.

"I believe that at the end of the day in Afghanistan, we will be able to depart successfully. We will win because of our ability to train the Afghan Security Forces. I think Mike's work in Afghanistan has been really of note in that regard," he continued.

Bartelle thanked the admiral for his "kind words," "encouraging remarks" and leadership during what he called "this critical time in the Alliance's history."

"Pam and I," he said referring to his wife, "greatly appreciate the service that we were able to provide to the SHAPE community and to have worked with all of you here in the community, within the Benelux and of course Europe in many capacities."

Bartelle, a native of Bronx, NY, is retiring after three decades of service to the Army. After his remarks, he passed the traditional sword that represents the cutting edge of professionalism, to the admiral who then passed it to Balch, signifying the change of leadership.

Balch, who is also from New York, joined the Army in 1975 as a combat engineer. His latest assignment was as the Command Sergeant Major of the United States Southern Command under the leadership of Stavridis.

"Mike [Balch] has been a terrific advisor; at times a critic, which we all need; a complimenter, which we all need at times; and above all, someone who has reached out to take care of the people in the command, which I served for three years," said the admiral.

Balch said he is grateful for the opportunity to be the admiral's "battle buddy" again. "This is a critically-important era," he said.

"I pledge all of my energy and efforts to work closely with the joint forces commands and member nations of NATO to realize the full potential of the NCO Corps within the Alliance and other partners," he added.

Balch said he's looking forward to working with the senior NCOs of the NATO Alliance and partner nations. "I also look forward to the opportunity to serve our people as a set of eyes and ears for the SACEUR, looking out for their well-being and their quality of life in everything that they do every day."

Along with numerous assignments across the U.S., Europe and Korea, Balch was the first Command Sergeant Major Gulf Region Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Multinational Force-Iraq in Baghdad.

His awards and decorations include the Legion of Merit (second award), Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal (fifth award), Army Commendation Medal (fourth award), Army Achievement Medal (second award), Good Conduct Medal (ninth award), National Defense Service Medal with Bronze star device, Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Korean Defense Service Medal, NATO Medal, Drill Sergeant Identification Badge, Parachutist Badge, Air Assault Badge and the German Army Gold Schutzenschnur Badge. He also received the Army Engineer Association's Silver de Fleury Medal.