Always ask an NCO

  • Published
  • By Col. Chris Crawford
  • 21st Space Wing commander
I once heard a story that took place a few years after the end of the Cold War. A Russian general was given a tour of a U.S. Air Force installation. He was shown the flight line, the base exchange, the gym and even the Airmen's dorms. In the parking lot behind the dorms, he was amazed to see a variety of (very nice) new cars - so amazed, in fact, that he insisted his tour organizers had "staged" the vehicles there for his benefit. He could not believe that our enlisted Airmen each had their own vehicle. He was further amazed when the tour guide explained that they were allowed to drive their cars on and off base. "You let them leave?" he exclaimed, then added "and they actually come back?"

That story stuck with me through the years because it drives home the enormous difference in the role NCOs play in the U.S. military and some of the militaries of other countries. In Russia, their enlisted personnel are poorly paid and poorly trained conscripts. They handle only menial tasks, and anything even remotely important is executed by an officer. If you were to visit the Kremlin, for example, the guards out front would all be officers. The insight of an enlisted troop is seldom sought nor valued. Contrast this with the United States, where our NCOs are an all-volunteer professional force. They are truly officers sans a commission, charged with leading their Airmen, training their juniors, mentoring young officers, and advising senior leaders.

The success of the U.S. military is owed to the NCOs who form its backbone. Not only do NCOs form a bridge between the officers and the Airmen, they are also the storehouse of knowledge and technical ability that keeps the Air Force working. They are charged to be experts and expected to act on initiative. If I want to know how to fix a counterspace antenna, I ask for a technical sergeant; if I want to know how to process evaluations, I find a staff sergeant, and if I'm building a deployment team one of the first things I ask is "Where's the chief?"

The Russian general had no such corps of dedicated professionals. He had to rely solely on his officers to conduct training and maintain all expertise - a challenge that must have made it extremely difficult to field robust and well-trained forces. The wide social gap between enlisted trainees and officer trainers would have made training overly formalized and impaired the learning process. The lack of trust and communication between officers and enlisted also, no doubt, caused them to miss out on hard-earned wisdom and creative ideas.

Within the wing, some of our best and most innovative changes come from our NCOs. Our NCOs don't hesitate to put ideas forward and they expect that we will listen. For anyone who hasn't already come to this conclusion, listening to your NCOs is a good idea. I can't tell you how many times in my early career a sentence starting with "Ummm, LT, that's a good idea, but..." has saved my bacon. In writing this article, I poked my head out of my office to ask the front office CGOs about their experience with NCOs. I immediately found the CAG discussing congressional visits with the chief and the exec and a master sergeant deeply engrossed in correcting a performance report - that answered my question before I could ask it.

At the recent master sergeant release party, I challenged our new master sergeants to uphold a proud senior NCO heritage in providing mentorship to both junior Airmen and young officers. One of the key duties of senior NCOs is to pass on their wisdom and expertise to future generations. This ensures we remain a robust force and maintains our status as the world's finest air and space force.

The primary difference between conscripted troops and our NCO corps boils down to one word: professional. Our NCOs approach their duties with unmatched dedication and passion. They pride themselves on their personal expertise. At the release party, I also challenged our new master sergeants to continue to uphold this proud tradition. In this same vein, I challenge the wing's officers to make the best use possible of their NCOs.

Good officers will seek NCO input throughout their career. NCOs are a crucial component of the U.S. military and their input is invaluable - so much so that when I get a chance to mentor new CGOs, I make it a point to pass on a keen observation that was once passed to me: "No group of officers should ever make a big decision without consulting an NCO first."