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Chapter II


The NCO as a Trainer

Stanley Goff was new to his unit in Vietnam. Not a volunteer or a member of any "elite" unit such as the Special Forces or the Airborne, he was just an ordinary soldier hoping to stay alive during his one-year tour. Right from the start, before going out on his first patrol at night, his squad leader, Sergeant Ellis, took him aside for some one - on - one "counseling".

Sergeant Ellis set the ground rules. "I'll tell you what you do, man", he said, "You make sure that you stay alert. Don't daydream ever, man. A lot of guys get out here and start thinking to themselves. We haven't got hit for a long time... and that's when Charlie hits you. Just watch me and stay low, and by all means stay alert. OK, I'm begging you to stay alert".

Goff assured him that he would. For the sake of the unit, of the mission, and for their survival, Sergeant Ellis tried his best to teach Goff some of the important points of combat before he learned pattern the hard way.

The NCO and the Welfare the Soldier

What is "the welfare of soldier"? It has always been considered one of the NCO's key jobs, but what is it? Is it taking it easy on them? Is it letting them take regular breaks? Is it allowing them to rest to 'regain their effectiveness" before digging in their positions after a long march? Or is it pushing hard on them to do unpleasant things if it will help improve the odds of their surviving longer on the intense battlefield of the future? The following example from Vietnam helps point out what happens when the NCO cares for his men the wrong way.

During the battle of Vinh Thanh Valley in May 1966, Charlie Company of 1-12 Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, established a small base for their mortars on LZ Hereford. The LZ was established on the slope of a hill which had been occupied recently by the VC. The main body of the company went off on a patrol downhill leaving their 81 mm mortar at the LZ to provide supporting fire if needed. The mortar platoon was only 22 men strong and they established a weak defensive perimeter around the "burned-off, trampled and rubble-strewn" LZ of 150 meters long and 30-40 meters wide which ran lengthwise downhill. With his limited number of men, the acting platoon leader, an SFC, spread his men out in a "U" shaped pattern with the open end of the "U" facing downhill. The upper part of the slope was of covered with 6 ft. high elephant grass. No local security patrols were used. The platoon set up the mortar and fired a few rounds. Instead of digging-in or clearing fields of fire, the men took it easy. Some wandered in the open while most of the others dosed or ate C-rations. The heat seemed to stupify them. Suddenly, at around 1330, a heavy machine gun opened- up on the mortar position from just 50 meters away. The withering fire was followed by small arms fire and grenades taking a heavy toll. Those few not killed outright were confused and scattered.

The company at the bottom of the steep hill hurried back and arrived within 35 minutes. They found only a few dazed, wounded survivors. Further investigation found that an enemy unit of almost 200 men had been hidden in the elephant grass during the initial occupation of the LZ and establishment of the incomplete perimeter. The enemy lay quietly in the positions, patiently biding their time, undiscovered by the security-lax mortar platoon.

(Taken from S. L. A. Marshall, Battles in the Monsoon, pp.114-136.)

The welfare of the soldier often means pushing him to do the unpleasant yet absolutely necessary chores right away before taking a break. On the battlefield, the welfare of the men means keeping them alive by establishing local security and digging in first, resting later.

The NCO Takes Charge

There must be a special trust between officers and NCOs whether in forward battle positions or in the trains to the rear. There are many times when the platoon leader must be absent from his soldiers, and it's imperative the NCOs take charge. They must ensure their soldiers are kept abreast of the situation in detail. NCOs can't wait to be told what to do in the officer's absence. They must be completely proficient in the employment, care, cleaning, and maintenance of vehicles, weapons, and equipment, as well as in tactics. NCOs must be better than their soldiers no matter what their job. They must lead by example and be the role model. Ho double standard for NCO and soldier.

During combat, entire chains of command have been lost in the first few minutes. All the NCOs, and even some of the more experienced soldiers of lower rank, must stay aware of the tactical situation and be prepared mentally to take charge. At the CTCs, 50% of the leaders usually die each mission. Another example from Vietnam might help clarify this lesson:

During Operation Crazy Horse in the Vinh Thanh Valley June 1966, a company of Montagnard troops with U.S. advisors landed at LZ Monkey to search for the enemy. SGT David C. Freeman, a medic was only fourth in the U.S. chain of command. He and the others moved quickly away from the rock-strewn LZ and by late morning had run into and taken a large bunker complex. They had taken a few casualties so they returned to LZ Monkey for ammunition and Medevac. There they were joined by another Special Forces sergeant and a lieutenant.

Soon after their return to the LZ, the unit was hit by an increasing amount of enemy small arms fire. The lieutenant was hit and some of the NCOs killed. At this point, even with two other lieutenants being present, SGT Freeman took charge. He called in air support, arranged for helicopter gunships, and reorganized the defenses. As one of the gunship pilots later stated, "He was acting as if he did the same thing every day of his life." Cool, calm and collected, SGT Freeman handled it all. The men, even the officers and the senior NCOs, responded to his cool self-confidence, and the perimeter stiffened. It held all night despite enemy sniper fire. The next morning the enemy had gone, leaving behind 37 dead bodies. LZ Monkey was quiet, as if to match the quiet professionalism of SGT Freeman.

(Taken from S. L. Marshall, Battles in the Monson, pp. 174-193)

Table of Contents
Chapter I: Introduction
Chapter III: The Role of the NCO

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias