By Elizabeth M. CollinsJune 23, 2010
They've stormed the beaches of Normandy, trekked through the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of Iraq, racked up countless awards and medals and trained even more Soldiers to form the strongest fighting force the world has ever seen.
And now the Army's senior noncommissioned officers have taken on a new mission: showing congressmen and women how professional, skilled and educated the Army's backbone is today.
"(NCOs give) different perspectives and I think it brings respect to the enlisted corps. I think it's important that Congress see us as intelligent leaders...that we can write and walk and speak and we articulate, and that most of us do have college educations. We chose to be enlisted with our college educations. I chose to be enlisted, and I enjoy being enlisted...training and mentoring and supervising Soldiers, and supporting the officers and the commander," said Master Sgt. Barbara Rubio.
She and Sgt. Maj. Scott Martin were the first NCOs in the Army Congressional Fellowship Program. They worked for Senators Mark Udall of Colorado and Mark Warner of Virginia, respectively, serving as full-time staffers for a year starting in spring 2009.
"The quality of our noncommissioned officer corps in the Army has never been better," Maj. Gen. James C. McConville, the chief of legislative liaison, said in a statement. "Our NCOs continue to remain on point and are the backbone of our Army. They are multifunctional warriors who lead from the front in missions that span from full-spectrum combat operations to recruiting, retaining and training our nation's most precious resource-our Soldiers-as recruiters, retention NCOs and drill sergeants. It is only fitting that our NCOs are now the 'face of our Army' on the Hill as legislative liaisons. They bring a unique skill and experience set that helps build trust and confidence in what we are doing and broadens understanding for our Army in Congress.
"Having seasoned senior noncommissioned officers able to articulate the commitment and sacrifices that our Soldiers and their Families are making every day is very helpful to members of Congress as they address the critical issues facing our country."
"Initially, there were some reservations with some of the offices on expanding the fellows to include noncommissioned officers," added Col. Martin Schweitzer, former chief of the Army's Senate Liaison Division on Capitol Hill. "But once they got Sgt. Maj. Martin and Master Sgt. Rubio, just like the rest of the Army, the Hill also has a great desire to gain these great-quality noncommissioned officers, who we've known forever have been phenomenal. Now the Hill's getting to find out how good the backbone of our Army is."
When Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston originally asked sergeants major to send him their best candidates for the two initial slots, Rubio's command sergeant major called her from their conference and asked her to apply then and there. A paralegal by trade, she had been planning to retire from her Hawaii duty station, but applied out of respect, and because she was honored and excited at the prospect of helping make NCO history.
"If you look at my career, it's always what's different, what's exciting. I believe that's what I love about the Army most-it's the opportunities that arise," she explained, adding that the assignment delayed her retirement date by three years.
Already stationed at the Pentagon as a promotion regulations writer in the Army's G-1 (Personnel) office, Martin also jumped at the chance. He said he always wanted to learn more about how the Army is funded and fits into the federal government as a whole. He also wanted lawmakers to understand and support Soldiers.
"To me, (it) was a pretty big deal," he said. "What I really want people to know is that the noncommissioned officer now has a place on Capitol Hill, which is something that they should have had many, many years ago...because the noncommissioned officers are the ones who execute the plans of the Army. So we kind of know what our Soldiers are going through better than the officers, because we actually are down there in the dirt, on the ground, with the Soldiers."
At press time, Martin and Rubio were the only NCOs to serve as Congressional fellows (out of 25 fellow positions in a class, mostly for officers and one civilian), although two more have been identified for 2011.
NCO fellows typically spend three months in training/orientation, August-December (although the training was compressed for Martin and Rubio), and nine months to a year with a member in Congress, beginning in January. They wear civilian clothes and may do anything from writing legislation to attending hearings to responding to constituents' concerns. They may even act as military experts, which both Martin and Rubio found themselves doing on occasion.
After the two NCOs completed the program, OCLL also added a fully funded master's degree in legislative affairs from George Washington University in Washington, which all fellows-NCO, officer and civilian-will complete while in training at the Pentagon and serving on the Hill.
The program carefully manages which members can have Army fellows (other services have similar programs) to maintain a balance between both Democrats and Republicans, and the House and the Senate. In addition, members must be on a defense-oversight committee, an intelligence committee, the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Committee on Homeland Security or the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
When Martin and Rubio reported for duty, they were given lists of eligible members and told to pick several to interview with. Both ended up going to only one interview, and were placed with their first choices. Neither NCO had a "typical" day, and each was assigned different duties.
Martin, for example, spent the months leading up to the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act in July 2009, researching and meeting with Virginia organizations requesting defense-appropriations funds, then reporting his findings so Warner and his staff could decide which requests to support. Martin also helped track the bill's amendments and maintained a portfolio of issues (defense, national security, foreign policy, energy and commerce) he had to keep on top of, respond to and brief to the senator and his staff.
Rubio, on the other hand, researched amendments, issues, questions and articles; attended briefings and meetings for other staffers, took notes and reported back to Udall's staff; and prepared background information on speakers and issues appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
She and Martin witnessed first-hand debates on national and international issues, like North Korea's satellite launches, travel visas for Cuba, missile defense and Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Martin even attended events at the White House. "When things come up like that, I like to attend, just because that's all part of the process."
The experience opened her eyes, Rubio said, to how the Army fits into the federal government and its oversight by Congress. She also has a whole new appreciation for joint operations, the National Guard and the different missions of each of the services.
Both Rubio and Martin have gone on to the two-year follow-on assignments required of fellows to apply their new skills: Martin at the OCLL programs division, and Rubio with OCLL as the legislative assistant to sergeant major of the Army.
Both she and Martin said the fellowship has influenced what they want to do after retiring from the Army. Neither had firm plans, but said they made great contacts on the Hill and at the Pentagon, and will probably end up going into a related field, perhaps a state office, Rubio said.
"This assignment could open some doors," Martin said. "There have been some people who have sought me out and asked if I wanted to come work for them, but I can't entertain anything like that right now." But they both know there are opportunities for them after the Army.
"They're so critically important, noncommissioned officers, and as conflict persists, their impact on the force is immeasurable," concluded Maj. Gen. Bernie Champoux, former OCLL chief, in an interview last year. "Part of what I hope members of Congress really appreciate is that they're in good hands. These noncommissioned officers are dedicated, are committed, are professional. They're bright. They're articulate. They're all the things you want as leaders of America's sons and daughters.
"It's going to allow (lawmakers) to better support the military," he added of the program. "I've seen it at hearings in the past: When a noncommissioned officer speaks, they just kind of lean into it a little bit because you're getting a Soldier's perspective. I think it's going to be pretty powerful, pretty successful."
Editor's note: Senior NCOs interested in future fellows' classes should contact their career and assignment NCOs at Human Resources Command.
Opportunities for NCOs on Capitol Hill
Noncommissioned officers who want to experience Congress, but not make a three-year commitment, can apply for the Army Congressional Orientation Program, which lasts only 89 days.
ACOP is primarily to familiarize Soldiers and civilians on the Army staff in the National Capital Region with how Congress works. Soldiers don't incur any additional requirements, and return to their regular duties after three months. Two senior NCOs can participate in this program each quarter.
Suzanne McCollum, manager of the ACOP program, said she sends announcements to the Army staff about every three months requesting nominations, so NCOs in the Washington area should let their supervisors know if they're interested. Candidates must interview for the program, and program officials take into account how many participants a particular division may have had in the past when determining assignments.
"The secretary of the Army felt that there weren't enough people on the Army staff who were familiar with how Congress operates and wanted more people to become familiar with it, and they thought of ways to get people over there on the Hill. One of the ways was to have people not assigned up there like in the formal fellowship program, but doing an internship or a fellowship or an orientation for a short period of time. So 89 days fits that model, because you don't have to reassign someone to the Hill. But you can put them in a member's office as (part of) a training program," she said.
In addition, senior NCOs have been assigned to the House and Senate Liaison Divisions, located on Capitol Hill, full time.
"Like the officers who participate in the programs, they have to have had a successful career, broad experiences, maturity, the ability to communicate-both orally and written-and they need to represent us, in terms of who we are and what we look like," Maj. Gen. Bernie Champoux, former chief of the Army's Legislative Liaison Office, said of his new NCOs last year.