Guest Blogger; John McDonald- Life as a Drill Sergeant / Problems with the NCO Corps

So… I have been doing a lot of thinking.. and going back to days past. In alot of ways, on a professional level, my time as a Drill Sergeant was the apex of my career.

Everyone knows I hated dealing with the bureaucracy. Dealing with Officers and some Senior NCO’s that thought they knew how to train civilians and turn them into Soldiers. But this post is not about that. This is about the good things of being a Drill Sergeant.

During my entire time in the military, I have witnessed the slow erosion of the NCO corps into what it is today. Only the oldest of the NCO’s remember back when “The Backbone of the Army” still had backbone. Some of the finest NCO’s I ever worked with, was back when I was a Private. I remember watching the best CSM I have ever witnessed, let alone work for (CSM Sneed) lock up a Major who came into this office with the wrong attitude. I cant remember if it was SFC Hxxxx-Pxxx or SFC (Darth Vader) Rxxx who told one our Platoon Leaders “sir this is my platoon, you are here to learn what the capabilities are of this unit and sign paperwork. So.. there is your desk, go have a seat, watch, and learn. Let me deal with the training.” Now maybe my brain is getting fuddled in my old age but I also recall a young SSG Troy Sxxxxxx, during the endless weeks of JRTC of not doing much, but staring at the grass and getting no fire missions, taking the senior SPC’s into the Fire Direction Center (FDC) truck and giving them FDC classes, utilizing the Mortar Ballistic Computer (MBC), and the M16 plotting board.

Back when I first started, anything to do with the welfare and training of Soldiers was NCO business. Officers stayed out of it. “Beans and Bullets” (was what is was all about). Well, since that time NCO’s have become broken. A combination of major very publicized poor decision’s, complacency, and outright laziness have besieged my beloved corps. And the Officers either chose to start accomplishing the NCO tasks out of need or because the NCO was weak enough to allow it.

So it is my belief and many of my peer’s that the NCO corps is broken. But I also believe it is healable.

How do we heal it? Well lets look at what made the NCO corps great back in the day (if you had to boil it down to the core reason), I would say it was “technical expertise”. Without the technical expertise the NCO had nothing on the Officer. The technical expertise applied to a couple areas. How to relate to the junior enlisted and actually teach, not just read power point slides, It applied to knowledge of how the Army actually runs.. not necessarily how the books say it should run, and of course the Technical Expertise of your individual MOS.

In order to heal it we have to give the “Backbone” what it was lacking to begin with. This is Education, both Formal and Informal. It goes back to the Adage. “Knowledge is Power”. This all starts at the very beginning.

When I first went to the “United States Army Drill Sergeant School” I was overwhelmed. It seemed that you had to be perfect to be a good Drill Sergeant. I was going to be expected to stand in front of damned near 210 civilians to give classes and demonstrations. During my first time on the little stage at Echo 1-34 giving a class, yet another “Death by Power Point” presentation, I could see it in the eyes of those Soldiers still awake. They were receiving the information, but it was not being learned… and I snapped.

All of a sudden I became a different person. I was up on that stage pacing back and forth, changing the tone in my voice from loud, and harsh, to soft spoken. I was relating the information to either personal experiences, or movies, or video games, and all of a sudden the Soldiers were sitting up.. eyes wide open. Information was being processed. I would say outrageous, often times “illegal” things (things that some officer deemed as inappropriate) to keep the Privates involved in the lecture. I developed a case of tourette syndrome . Foaming at the mouth. The number of Soldiers unable to stay awake dropped off dramatically.

This is when it occurred to me. Only an NCO can break that PowerPoint slide down “Barney style” so that the Soldier actually digests what the information means. Then it also occurred to me the awesome amount of power a Drill Sergeant really has. And I was instantly addicted to this part of that job.

The REAL power a Drill Sergeant has (and really ANY NCO HAS) is not in the amount of pain, or smoke sessions they can give (although smoke sessions are great training aides). It is in their ability to teach, and in the legacy they can leave behind. As a Drill Sergeant, I had the best opportunity to date to actually do what I felt is important in fixing my beloved Corps. I could mass produce “Mini- Macs” and set them forth into the military. It is often said there are three names you will never forget in your life. Your Mom, your Dad, and your Drill Sergeant. I put everything I had into those classes. I provided the best training myself and my battle buddies could come up with. Sometimes, even on the edge of what some officer said was legal. A couple times I even went to the other side of what was “legal”. I did this because I decided that the amount of power that was entrusted into me by the mothers and fathers of the Soldiers I was training, far outweighed the amount of butt chewing I would get. These Soldiers deserved outstanding leadership, and the best training that I could give them.

I am Proud of what I have done as a Drill Sergeant. I am proud of what every one of my battle buddies has, (past and present) , or will do. And now all I have to do is pray to the big man upstairs, that I set forth enough motivated Soldiers that a few of them will attempt to become a better NCO than I, and therefore fix my beloved Corps. God Bless you guys!

6 thoughts on “Guest Blogger; John McDonald- Life as a Drill Sergeant / Problems with the NCO Corps”

  1. Amen, brother! I often tell people my time as a Drill Sergeant was the best time I ever had with my clothes on. As a Private in the 237th Eng Bn (1977), I looked up to the NCOs not only because they were all combat veterans, but because almost EVERY DAY they were giving us hands-on training and imparting knowledge. They weren’t reading it out of a book or showing slide shows, either. We were out in the LTA training. Often we had C-rats or mermite chow for lunch in order not to waste training time. Listening to those guys paid off. A little later later as a PFC I could put in a hasty protective minefield and fill out the form by myself – and teach Privates how to do it.

    Thanks for your post, it brought back good memories.


  2. You, Sir, are an idiot. Oops- I know, I shouldn’t say Sir, because you “worked” for a living. Two points: First, any CSM who would “lock up” a MAJ should be court-martialed. And any MAJ stupid/naive/weak enough allow himself to be dressed down by the CSM should submit his retirement papers. Second, any PSG who demands that his LT sit at a desk and do nothing but sign paperwork is shortsighted and is dooming his platoon to defeat, perhaps on the field of battle. As a PSG, I didn’t tell the PL that it was MY platoon. We had an understanding that it was OUR platoon. We used the metaphor of a boat: the PSG is the motor, the PL is the rudder. Without me as the motor, he can steer, but we won’t get anywhere. Without him as the rudder, I can get us somewhere, but it won’t necessarily be the desired direction. The PL / PSG are a leadership TEAM. If, after 22 years of service, you couldn’t understand that the Army lives and fights as a team, well, it’s a good thing you retired.

    Setting aside your misinformed (and all-too-typical) griping about officers and NCOs, I will grant you this: the NCO corps is broken. And the officer corps–especially at the company grade level–is close behind. The OPTEMPO of two simultaneous wars and lack of good, old-fashioned mentoring is rotting the Army from the inside.

    1. Top T,

      I will refrain from throwing out names as you have done and just point out that it was not me who wrote this, hence why it is titled “Guest Blogger”. John McDonald used to by one of my soldiers way back in the day and is now himself a sr. NCO. He wrote this piece, I just posted it on this blog with his permission.

      It is clear you had different experiences from John as he and you did from me, as I am sure just about every other senior NCO has out there.

      Next time why don’t you read the title, understand the author and consider your words before you start making statements like “good thing you retired”. You don’t know me, John, or anyone else’s situation. You know yours and only yours. Don’t ASSuME that everyone else has had the same experience as you.

  3. Ranger that–I missed the “Guest Blogger” headline. But the point is the same: show me the FM, AR, GTA, etc., etc. that lists “NCO business.” You won’t find it. Because there isn’t one. There is no such thing as NCO business or officer business. It is the command TEAM’s job to work together to get the job done. That’s the way it was when I was a PSG, that’s the way it is now as a 1SG. Best way I’ve found to keep “officers out of my business” is to be so competent at my job that they don’t need to reinvent the wheel. If the writer had problems with Os in his lane, well, that says a lot about the writer. My bible has always been FM 7-8: Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad (well, now it’s 3-21.8). Look up platoon organization. I don’t see “platoon paperpusher,” I see platoon LEADER. And that’s exactly what I expect. Our Soldiers deserve no less.

  4. Context really is everything, and it sounds as though it is doubly so for this particular article. What, precisely, does “lock up a Major” mean? Does it mean to have him escorted away by the MP’s? Military Police generally want, and get, a good reason to do that sort of thing. Does it mean to go over, close the door, and behind closed doors tell him what an idiot he’s being? If so, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time in the military, and I doubt it will be the last. When the SFC told a new Platoon Leader to go sit at a desk and learn, why exactly did he do it? Basically, what I’m trying to get across here is that we’re missing large chunks of information about the described situations. Obviously these situations didn’t result in the enlisted guy being court-martialed, so the enlisted men in question might have had a point. No point in judging without all the info.

    Donald from Pictures of Down Syndrome

  5. The NCO Corps is indeed broken. I have seen it change in the last 7 years. Promotions too fast to the next rank due to the time in service requirements only, forget about soldiers knowing their jobs. It is not longer the most qualified soldiers that get promoted but the ones that play politics. The end result is we get senior leaders that do not know their jobs. I could site many examples of what I have seen in my time in the service but the end result is we need the NCO Corps to band together and get rid of the bad leaders, in essence fire them. I try every day to live the NCO Creed and obey the rules and regulations to enforce the standard and will continue to do so until I ETS from the Army.

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