FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md.-- "A great leader is clear. They are obedient. They are humble. They are loyal," said 1st Sgt. Joseph Smith, first sergeant of the Headquarters, Headquarters Detachment at First Army Division East. "They -- great leaders -- are the noncommissioned officers, which serve among our armed forces, in every branch of service not only throughout the United States, but throughout the rest of the world. If you want to become a great leader, you must first become a great follower."

The history of the noncommissioned officer began in 1775 with the birth of the Continental Army. The Army began to explicitly define NCO duties during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When becoming an NCO, an individual must display their expertise in their military occupational specialty and ability to lead troops.

First Army Division East promoted two of Smith's Soldiers during a recent ceremony. Smith, a Rapid River, Mich., native, added although rarely talked about, this beginning step, learning to follow, is where the greatest leaders first get their start.

"These noncommissioned officers have proven that they are experts with the ability to lead diligently," said Smith.

The noncommissioned officer corps, often referred to as 'the backbone' of the Army, exemplifies the commitment necessary to become a great leader.

"In my personal opinion becoming a sergeant in the NCO corps is a very significant moment in a Soldier's career," said newly-promoted Sgt. Alfredo Mercado, a staff general secretary noncommissioned officer at First Army Division East. "It is almost like a right of passage, which shows that those in your chain of command have seen potential in you and your ability to lead and support your superior officers."

Mercado, native to Atlantic City, N.J., added although attaining the rank of corporal was a big deal to him, pinning on the rank of sergeant, and the additional stripe, was in no way comparable.

"It was great being recognized by my former command. They've seen the potential in me to lead. Pushing myself to the level in which was recognized by the Army and finally reaching the necessary points for promotion was a great accomplishment," added Mercado.

Understanding promotions don't just affect the Soldier; families usually participate in the promotion ceremonies. During the recent Division East ceremony, Mercado's mother and daughter pinned him with his new rank. Also during the ceremony, Sgt. David Silbaugh was pinned with his new rank of staff sergeant, by his wife Lindsey and Smith.

The job of the noncommissioned officer is to maintain standards set forth by Army regulations.
"As a senior noncommissioned officer, I tell all NCOs to be fair but stern," said Smith. "If you -- as the noncommissioned officer -- are wrong, inevitably, your Soldiers will be wrong."

He added there is no grey area when leading Soldiers.

"As NCOs, we look for leaders, not followers," said Sgt. 1st Class Gary Bridges, executive administrative assistant to the division command sergeant major. "We look for those Soldiers who are not willing to accept mediocrity as the standard."

Bridges, a Santa Rosa, Calif., native, added when a Soldier becomes an NCO they must leave the irresponsible antics of the lower ranks behind.

"When you put on the stripes, you are a leader and must act like one," said Bridges. "Take charge as a member of the time honored corps."

Each noncommissioned officer has a key role in Army transformation. The NCO, as the leader most responsible for individual and small unit training, will build the foundation for the Army's objective force.

"It is the job of the NCO to train, mentor and look out for the well-being of Soldiers, which is the exact mission of First Army Division East," said Smith.

First Army ensures mobilization training is relevant, realistic and reflects the most current conditions Soldiers will face in theater. First Army Division East directly supports the Chief of Staff of the Army's priority of providing trained, equipped and ready forces to win the current fight, while maintaining responsiveness for unforeseen contingencies.

"As an NCO you must continue to strive to be the best at everything you do, every day," said Mercado. "NCOs are expected to be, know, do -- we are expected to be the subject matter experts in whatever task is put in front of us. If you don't know the answer, you need to know how to find the answer."