By NATHAN DEENApril 11, 2012
FORT BENNING, Ga. (April 11, 2012) -- Fort Benning Sports, Fitness and Aquatics intramural coordinator Spencer Folds said hardly a game goes by where he doesn't see John Etter in the stands.
And Etter, the 11th Engineer Battalion's command sergeant major, does more than just cheer for his Soldiers.
If an Engineer coach isn't taking his duties seriously, Etter lets him know about it. If a referee makes a bad call in a crucial situation, Etter is in his face.
Folds said he saw that firsthand this basketball season. In one of the regular season's last games, the Engineers were fighting to secure a No. 1 overall seed in the postseason tournament. After a questionable call against the Engineers, Etter came down from the stands to argue with the official during a timeout.
"I thought it was kind of funny," Folds said. "That's how seriously he takes it."
After three years of reviving a focus on sports, not only within the 11th Engineer Battalion, but also within Fort Benning intramurals, Etter will PCS to Hawaii May 28 to become command sergeant major of the 130th Engineer Brigade.
"He's definitely raised the bar for sergeants major across the board," Folds said. "He's probably the best supporter of our program at Fort Benning."
No room for second
After arriving on Fort Benning in the summer of 2009, Etter helped the Engineers win Commander's Cup titles in 2010 and 2011. They finished just 11 points out of winning the Cup in 2009.
Etter said he has been to over a dozen stations throughout his 24-year career in the Army, and only once before did he get to participate in sports -- and that was as a private.
Before joining the Army, he spent a season as a walk-on for the Arkansas football team and played three years on the school's rugby club.
"I love competitive sports," he said. "I think they teach teamwork and promote morale. Throughout my years in the Army, I always told myself if I ever get into position in my career to where I can control things and help shape things, I would … that's what I was able to do as sergeant major of this battalion."
When he took over as command sergeant major of the 11th Engineer Battalion, he immediately sought to find out if Fort Benning had a sports program. His Soldiers told him it was softball season. When Etter heard about the Commander's Cup, he asked where the Engineers were in the point standings.
From there, he emphasized that the battalion would have a team for every sport.
"Some commanders tend to only push the sports that they're interested in," Folds said. "He has everybody participate in every sport. Participation points are huge."
The Engineers proceeded to finish second in the Cup standings with 775 points, 11 behind the Conus Replacement Center.
"After that season … I brought all my first sergeants into my office and let them look at that second-place trophy and said, 'That's not good enough,'" Etter said. "We all made a pact that we would … pull together as a battalion and win the Cup."
Building a program
Now the Engineers are in the hunt for a third straight Cup, and their passion for intramurals has carried over and challenged other units to step up their game.
"Fort Benning has the strongest MWR (sports) program I've seen over my 24 years in the Army," Etter said.
Out of the 800 Soldiers within the battalion, Etter said about 125, or 16 percent, play at least one sport.
According to Sports, Fitness and Aquatics records, in the past two years, the Engineers are one of only two teams that have played in every intramural sport, the other being 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment.
One could compare Etter's role as a sergeant major to an athletic director at a university. He appoints the coaches and lets them do their jobs -- but he won't hesitate to get onto them about any slacking.
In choosing a coach, Etter said he sends an email throughout the battalion, listing qualifications, which include previous playing or coaching experience.
"I have two guys who played collegiate baseball, and they're going to be our softball coaches this year," he said.
A few months after Etter arrived at Fort Benning, he found his football and basketball coach -- one of his first sergeants, Bernard Jones. Jones guided the Engineers to a first-place regular season finish in League A of intramural basketball this season, and came within a point of winning the postseason tournament. The Engineers lost to MEDDAC 45-44 in the final.
"He hopped onto our bus about sports," Etter said. "It was a win-win. I told him my leadership philosophy and what was important to me, and those same things were important to him."
As far as recruiting talent, Jones said it can be as easy as making Soldiers aware of the opportunities on Fort Benning.
"A lot of them coming out of high school … aren't aware that the Army even has sports," Jones said. "They love it."
The 'trickle-down effect'
Etter said building a successful sports program has been a key to getting the highest performance out of his Soldiers during duty hours.
"If the top cares, it's a trickle-down effect," he said. "That's a big deal because it shows Soldiers you care about them."
Etter said he rewards Soldiers for their commitment to playing intramurals. Last year, Etter implemented a policy that allowed Soldier-athletes to take off duty an hour early so teams could practice. At the end of the season, if the team did well, Etter gave them an extra four-day pass.
"We gave them time off for the extra time they put in after duty hours competing," he said. "The seasons are long, and it takes time to practice and it takes time away from Family."
Even if Soldiers want to play a sport, the success of any team depends on the support they get from their commanders, Folds said.
"If a Soldier doesn't feel like he has support from his chain of command, he won't participate in sports," he said. "It becomes too much of a hassle for him to have to keep going to his platoon leader or commander (for permission)."
If the Engineers are to three-peat in the Commander's Cup this year, they will have to overcome some major obstacles.
Not only is Etter leaving, but the 63rd Engineer Company deploys to Afghanistan this summer, which will result in the loss of about 25 athletes.
Jones is expected to fill Etter's shoes until a new sergeant major is assigned to the battalion. Jones will also leave Fort Benning this summer and head to Fort Bliss, Texas, for the Army's Sergeant Major Academy course. But Etter said battalion commander Christopher Hussin is equally passionate about sports.
"I think as long as he's here, it will remain the same," Etter said. "But if another sergeant major comes in and he doesn't care, and if there's a new colonel and that's not his focus, then you might see MEDDAC and the Rangers take over. But I expect this battalion to win a third Commander's Cup trophy."
When he arrives in Hawaii, Etter said he would look to build a new program from scratch.
"I told Maj. Gen. Brown that when I go to Hawaii, I'm going to check out the sports program," he said. "If it's not like what Fort Benning has … I'm going to do what I can to make it stronger."