I was promoted to First Sergeant at the end of April 2011, but for a variety of reasons I did not drill with my new unit until June. I was moving from a line company in a light infantry battalion to a light reconnaissance troop in a cavalry squadron, and I happened to show up the month of the annual Cavalry Ball.
My Brigade Command Sergeant Major was a guest at the event, and since he came from my former battalion we knew each other. In the course of our conversation he told me that he prized his time as a First Sergeant more than anything else he had done in the Army. Being a Sergeant Major is cool and all, he said, but only as a First Sergeant do you have the opportunity to truly shape and influence your unit.
The road to get there is long—a minimum of 14 years’ time in service (TIS) to be eligible for promotion to E-8. Along the way you’ll accumulate the experience you’ll need as a First Sergeant, and that’s what we’re going to talk about: the four jobs you’ll need to have on the path to First Sergeant. Keep in mind that I came out of the infantry, and infantry units have a pretty straightforward organizational structure. Other types of units may not be as clear-cut, but you’ll get the idea.
The NCO journey starts at sergeant (E-5). In an infantry unit that makes you a Fire Team Leader. You’ll have three Soldiers in your charge, and this is where you start learning the tools of your trade. I’ve heard it said repeatedly that the E-5 is the hardest-working Soldier in the Army, and there’s a lot of truth to that.
As a Team Leader you’re responsible for the performance and welfare of your three Soldiers. In combat they shoot where you shoot and go where you say go, hot on your heels. The rest of the time you keep up with them and their sensitive items, make sure they and their equipment are ready for every mission, and counsel them on their performance. You have the first responsibility for training them when you’re not involved in higher-level (squad, platoon, company) collective training.
The next step on the ladder is Staff Sergeant (E-6). In the infantry you are a Squad Leader in charge of two fire teams. This is when you start learning delegation—for the most part you work through those two E-5s. Sure, there will be times that you get the whole squad together to brief something, but generally speaking information, orders, and reports flow back and forth between you and your Team Leaders.
You can manage two people much more effectively than eight, after all. You still have responsibility for your people, and now you’ve got the additional responsibility of developing your two sergeants. You’ll counsel them and write their NCO Evaluation Reports (NCOERs).
Often a senior Squad Leader in a light infantry company may be in charge of the weapons squad. A line platoon has three squads plus one weapons squad, which includes two three-man M240B medium machine gun teams and the anti-armor team made up of the Javelin gunner and his assistant. Usually you’ll be the only NCO in this squad, which is why it’s normally reserved for more experienced squad leaders. You may work through your two 240 gunners and your Javelin gunner, but most of the burden falls directly on your shoulders.
You’ll next move up the chain to Sergeant First Class (E-7) and become a Platoon Sergeant. Now you work through your four Squad Leaders, but at this point you’ve got two layers of “management” under you. At this point you have to back off a little from the hands-on approach of the Squad Leader. Your main responsibilities are “beans and bullets,” meaning you coordinate logistics for your platoon, dealing directly with the Company Supply Sergeant. You provide oversight and guidance, but for the most part you let your team and squad leaders do their jobs.
As a Platoon Sergeant I always told my NCOs that if it became necessary for me to directly discipline a Soldier, both the Team and Squad Leaders had failed in their responsibilities. The Platoon Sergeant also has the task of developing his Platoon Leader, a second (or sometimes first) lieutenant who is often new to the Army, in addition to his subordinate NCOs. The Platoon Leader is an officer and in command of the platoon, but he or she has a lot to learn, and the Platoon Sergeant does much of the teaching. It’s a somewhat unusual situation, but professional Soldiers have been making it work for decades.
Those are the three mandatory steps, other than what you do as an enlisted Soldier. But along the way you need to get as much additional experience as possible. There are additional duty appointments, such as unit Retention NCO, Equal Opportunity Advocate, and now Sexual Assault Advocate.
In the National Guard the dual mission creates other opportunities. We annually train POD (point of distribution) managers, who oversee the distribution of emergency supplies during natural disasters, and Liaison Officers (LNOs) who work with the county or parish emergency operations center and coordinate assistance during such events. The more experience you can get in as many areas as possible, the better. Learn all you can about maintenance while you’re at it, because you’ll work hand in hand with the unit executive officer to oversee the readiness of all assigned equipment.
The Army once taught a First Sergeant Course, but it’s gone now, so we’re stuck with OJT. Of course, your Command Sergeant Major will be there to offer advice and guidance. He or she is a valuable resource and should be utilized to the fullest. But the deeper your bag of tricks, the more answers you will have to the myriad issues you may be called on to deal with as a First Sergeant.