MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDELTON --
Every day, sergeants shoulder the responsibility of leading and improving their junior Marines. One way sergeants improve themselves as the backbone of the Corps is through Sergeants Course.
I graduated from Sergeants Course Class 4-12 at Staff Noncommissioned Officers Academy aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton June 12, 2012. After my time spent attending the course, I now believe it is crucial for all sergeants to attend and not just to be professional military education complete. It’s crucial for the simple fact that like a doctor or lawyer spends years perfecting their trade, sergeants must study in a structured environment to cultivate learning to benefit future leathernecks.
For roughly seven weeks, more than 100 sergeants and I studied and learned a range of subjects, including military history, counseling, administrative procedures and combat operations.
Joining me were sergeants who came from a wide variety of Military Occupational Specialties. Administrative specialists, mortarmen, crew chiefs and parachute riggers were among the sergeants seeking to advance their careers. Some Marines became sergeants less than a year ago, just starting their second enlistment. There were others who had left the Corps and returned with broken time, such as one sergeant whohad served during Operation Desert Storm. Each of their ribbon racks told a unique story.
The diverse groups of sergeants provided fresh perspectives and new ways to handle tasks and duties, whether it be conducting physical training or counseling Marines. Often during class, sergeants would voice their opinions and share their experiences.
The class was divided into six platoons, each led by a staff sergeant serving as a faculty advisor, or FA, the equivalent of a teacher or instructor. Their primary responsibilities primarily were teaching classes and guided discussions on issues all noncommissioned officers face.
Each day began with physical training led by the staff or the students. A majority of the PT sessions involved running, and strength training. Concluding PT, we received our lessons from FA’s inside an auditorium or as platoons in classrooms.
We often did homework, writing essays on the Corps valiant NCO’s, reading course books late into the night and answering scenario based questions. All these assignments covered combat leadership, integrity and mentoring subordinates. Infantry Marines who are used to making fire-plan sketches and creating patrol orders will be familiar with this curriculum to an extent. The essay writing I found straightforward, mainly due my background as a combat correspondent.
“A lot of Marines tend to forget basic knowledge,” said Staff Sgt. Luis Figueroa, faculty advisor of 2nd Platoon, Sergeants Course, SNCOA Camp Pendleton. “Even though you may be a combat engineer, you are ultimately still a Marine and that entails a lot of things: from the traditions that we have to the basic skills, from performing drill to knowing how to disassemble a M240B, land navigation to learning how to write up awards. Those are things that pertain to every occupation. Not just a specific one. Eventually you will have to touch an aspect of what we teach here.”
The course had to cover all the basics. Many of us needed to be educated on combat fundamentals regardless of our MOS. I, being a non-infantry Marine, really benefited from the infantry-based training. Creating patrol orders, learning how to call for fire and leading a patrol served as sobering reminders of the responsibilities sergeants face in war.
The education not only benefits us but also the academy, with many sergeants providing insight on their own experiences during class.
“Every cycle, it doesn’t matter what your rank is, knowledge knows no rank,” said Figueroa. “A [NCO] can teach a [SNCO] something new and vice versa. Every cycle I learn something new whether it is Military Occupational Specialty related or just Marine Corps knowledge in general. Just because you are a sergeant doesn’t mean you can’t teach me something new, just as sergeants learn from their peers.”
In addition to FA led classes, we also had visiting civilian professionals give us lessons on nutrition, Tricare, the base counseling center, and many others. The information presented to us came with a two-fold purpose. The information is for our benefit and for us to take the information and impart it onto our Marines. This will empower the junior Marines to get help where they need it.
We learned about time honored traditions such as Mess Night, an evening dinner with set customs and courtesies. There were some sergeants who had never been part of a formal Mess Night. We convened our own Mess Night, practicing how to toast, behave and follow more than 70 years of tradition. It was a fun time, something that reminded me of how we all have a big role in passing on those customs.
Near the end of the course, we were tested on our warfighting knowledge with a culminating event. One day of patrolling combined with battlefield scenarios tested platoons of 20 Marines individually and collectively.
“I whole heartedly believe our sergeants are among the best in the world,” said Sgt. Maj. Walter C. Baldwin, director of SNCOA Camp Pendleton and Marine of 29 years. “Marines hold themselves to a different standard. We offer the challenge, ‘Can you become one of us?’ We aggressively seek that person wanting a challenge. In general, Marines are coming in better educated than they used to. We are making a better educated force, mainly because we’ve increased our standards. This course creates a better rounded Marine returning to their unit.”
We attended Sergeants Course with our own reasons. Some came to fill a check in the box. Others came to seek information never before taught to them. One constant for all of us is that we return to our respective units armed with resources and a wealth of knowledge to utilize.
“It’s a relief to graduate,” said Sgt. Nick Reineke, a Sergeants Course student with 1st Platoon, Class 4-12. “I learned so much about the Performance Evaluation System, promotion and small details some leaders might forget to hit. It’s good for every sergeant, especially early in their grade. Basically because it gives you the tools to perform as a sergeant right away, instead of learning slowly as years go by.”
What will happen as the Marine Corps shifts their focus from fighting in Afghanistan to preparing for the next fight? Already Marine Corps Training and Education Command is adjusting its standards and requirements for the drawdown and times ahead.
“Sergeants Course will have more required reading, articles and peer discussion among themselves,” said Baldwin. “You will also see ethical decision making and leadership ethics woven into it too.”
We sergeants now serve in a climate not experienced since our brothers returned from Vietnam more than 40 years ago. Those of us who stay Marine need this Course to make us more eligible for promotion. It’s time for us to choose to either leave the Corps as it shrinks, or stay in and prepare ourselves for the next unknown threat. No matter how the Corps changes, sergeants will still shoulder the responsibility of training their junior Marines for the next fight. We will continue to pass on our skills gained from experience in a time of war.
I believe the role as backbone sums up the NCO and especially the sergeant. Like a spine, we must be flexible enough to stay mobile, rigid enough to remain unwavering, straight and upright to support the requirements of those above and never fail the needs of those below as sergeants of Marines.