Moving up to the position of Squad Leader and (almost always) the rank of Staff Sergeant is no small step. Sure, making Sergeant and first becoming an NCO is a significant event, and I still remember how I felt when I got my stripes. But as an enlisted Soldier, you tend to hold Staff Sergeants in a little bit of awe. That may stem above all from the fact that most of your Drill Sergeants held that rank. Experience lends perspective and the realization that no E-6 is God, of course, but joining that select group is still exciting and gratifying. It’s also different in many ways from what you’ve done thus far in your career. Personally, it was a learning experience for me in more than one way.
My career path was a little different from the norm. I was part of a mechanized infantry unit, so I spent my entire career as the Bradley Fighting Vehicle gunner for the Executive Officer. Instead of a three-man team, I supervised one guy (the driver) and the vehicle. In some ways, it was more responsibility than the average E-5 since I was expected to have the track ready to roll when he stepped on board, but I also had only one Soldier to worry about instead of three. So becoming an E-6 was a bit of an eye opener for me.
Rather than a dismounted Squad Leader with eight soldiers and two E-5 team leaders to supervise, I was a Bradley Commander and Section Leader. I was the Platoon Leader’s wing-man, meaning when he got on the ground with the dismounted infantry I was in charge of my Bradley and his.
In dealing with something as complex as a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, you need all the knowledge available. That led me to my first lesson: use your subject matter experts no matter what their rank. I had guys who had been drivers for years (I went straight to gunner, so I missed a lot of the maintenance experience) who were E-4s but knew how to maintain and fix our vehicles. Everyone has something to contribute; don’t disdain their expertise just because they carry less rank than you do.
I also learned the value of delegation, though in a slightly different manner from a dismount Squad Leader. I didn’t delegate to a pair of team leaders; instead, I had to oversee another E-6 Bradley Commander and ensure that he kept his vehicle properly maintained while monitoring my own driver and gunner who were responsible for the hull and turret maintenance respectively. For administrative purposes and information flow, my job was a little more complicated because I couldn’t just go to two Sergeants. Still, I would have gone crazy trying to directly manage it all myself.
I also started learning how to work with a Lieutenant who had less experience than me—good preparation for becoming a Platoon Sergeant. It was my responsibility to provide some guidance to him when necessary since we operated as two sections more than as a full platoon, so the Platoon Sergeant was rarely available to fulfill his traditional role. It was always something of a joke that Bradley crews told a new Lieutenant, “Sir when you get in the turret, don’t touch anything but the radio. We’ll handle the rest.” In reality, we did our best to teach those officers the basics of the Bradley’s weapon systems, something on which they received no training from the Army.
The role of the NCO evolves from rank to rank; it doesn’t radically change. That’s a reflection of the fact that the NCO is developed far more through experience than through formal education. Most NCOs also have the opportunity to experience the next rank on more than a few occasions—as an E-6, I was an acting Platoon Sergeant many times and as an E-7, I spent a few months as acting First Sergeant. Still, there’s something new to be learned with every rank and duty position. Make the most of it.
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Daniel Slone is a 16-year infantry veteran and currently the first sergeant of a light reconnaissance unit of the Louisiana Army National Guard. In civilian life he has earned a BA in political science and an MBA and is the controller for a holding company engaged in multiple lines of business.