The Sergeant Major

I’ve mentioned the role Sergeants Major have played in a few of my escapades. It is an old job, but the way it is currently constituted is rather new.

Almost as long as there have been armies, there have been Non Commissioned Officers, and the senior NCO in a battalion or regiment has long been the Sergeant Major. NCOs lead, both by tradition and by the authority granted to them by law. They are responsible to their commanders for training their soldiers in their duties, setting the standards of acceptable conduct, and inspecting their soldiers to see that they are ready for battle. For centuries, the commander chose the best soldier in his unit and made him the Sergeant Major. In effect, he was appointed to the office and served at his commander’s pleasure. If a new commander came in, it was not unknown for a Sergeant Major to find himself a private the next day.

Over time, the organization and personnel policies of the Army changed. Eventually, the Army found itself with 7 paygrades, E-1 to E-7. But the E-7 position was interesting. There were three ranks available at that paygrade- Master Sergeant, First Sergeant, and Sergeant Major. A soldier might check into a unit and  find himself appointed the Sergeant Major. At least he wouldn’t find himself busted back to Private unless he had committed some gross breach of discipline.

But the having the three senior NCO job titles all filled by soldiers at the same paygrade wasn’t satisfactory either. In 1957, Congress authorized the “supergrades” of E-8 and E-9. In the Army, E-8s would serve as either Master Sergeants or as First Sergeants (the senior NCO of a company). E-9s would be Sergeants Major.

A couple of years later, the program was modified to show the difference between those Sergeants Major that were serving on a staff and those serving as the senior enlisted advisor to a unit Commander. Staff Sergeants Major would see no change in their insignia, but those serving as the Sergeant Major of a battalion or higher echelon unit would now be known as Command Sergeant Major. Their insignia would consist of three chevrons, three “rockers”, and a star encircled by a wreath.  To serve as the CSM of a battalion (or higher) would be the capstone of a very successful career. Indeed, no longer were Sergeants Major selected by a unit commander, but rather by a centralized system at an Army-wide level. A great deal of effort was expended to ensure that commanders at all levels had the finest available senior enlisted leaders.

Now, mind you, I was never very comfortable around Sergeants Major. Oddly enough, I was very comfortable around senior officers. I grew up around them. But not senior NCOs. My rule of thumb was to not bring the Sergeant Major’s attention to myself. If he really needed me, he knew where to find me. Let’s just say that some CSMs can be imposing figures.

Now, I never worked for CSM Farley (pictured above) but he’s a fairly representative looking CSM. Not the kind of guy you want to have focused on you for your shortcomings.

So far removed from my days of service, I am no in contact with any Sergeant Majors. But one of my internet contacts is a retired U.S. Navy Master Chief, and I hope to have some of his thoughts about the challenges and rewards of serving at that level. Stay tuned.

Dragon Guided Missile

Test firing a Dragon

[vodpod id=Groupvideo.1572793&w=425&h=350&fv=]

more about “ – Firing A Dragon“, posted with vodpod
The dragon has been removed from service and replaced by the Javelin, but I have fond memories of being a Dragon gunner. Mostly I wanted to test my vodpod skills at posting a liveleak video.

Hi Tech vs. Low Tech

I came across this article today. It is an industry article about the next generation GPS receiver for the military. I’ll be honest here. I only used GPS a handful of times in the service and it wasn’t really much help to me. Like the article states, one of the critical things to know in a battle is “where am I?” I’m old school. I learned land navigation back in the days when land nav consisted of a map and a compass. I also had a solid grounding in the principals of navigation from my days in Sea Scouts, where I learned to use nautical charts, compasses and dead reckoning to determine my position.

During my time in basic training, I had classes in land navigation. I had to show I was able to identify on a map the five basic terrain features (hill, valley, ridge, saddle, deppression) and my understanding of  contour lines and the marginal information on a map. I had to show my understanding of the military grid reference system (instead of using latitude and longitude, the Army overlays a grid over each map, much like the lines of city blocks). I had to show my mastery of such things as orienting the map and how to use a compass to determine an azimuth (that is, use the compass to determine the direction to or from a distant point). But the fact of the matter is, I rarely did any land navigation at all in my first assignment. I didn’t have to. I just had to maintain my position in my fire team. Even when I was the RTO for the platoon leader, he was the one with the map. I had my hands full just running the radio and maintaining the net. I’d be hard pressed  to tell you where I was at any time during my first enlistment.

But when I became the track commander for an M-113 in Germany, I had to learn fast to keep track of where I was. My first couple of trips to the woods were somewhat frustrating. I never got lost, really, since the other vehicles of the platoon were usually nearby, but I just couldn’t break the code. I didn’t know where I was.

But my platoon sergeant hadn’t given up hope on me. He normally rode in my track. He gently coached me. One day, during an excercise, he reached forward to deliver a little more coaching. I said, “I got it” and I really did. The topographical map came alive in my hands. I could suddenly see how the lines that showed hills and ridges and valleys depicted the scene before me. I knew exactly where I was. And now I could not only see the terrain before my eyes, I could see the terrain beyond the next hill.

Once you can use a map to tell where you are, you can answer other questions as well, such as “they told me to go to point ‘X’, where the heck is that?” and “I just spotted some bad guys, how do I tell everyone else where they are?” Well, once you know where you are, you can use simple methods like terrain association to answer the questions: “I know the bad guys I spotted are on a hill to my west, and the map only shows one hill to my west” or “I know my destination is 5000 meters north of here and the map shows a saddle between two hills there. I’ll walk for about two hours until I reach a saddle between two hills.”

I reached a point where I was not only good at land navigation, I was VERY good. I served on the land navigation committee for the Expert Infantryman Badge Committee for two years at Ft. Carson. That wasn’t because I was good, it was because I was available. But we did have to lay out the waypoints for the land nav course. My boss, SSG James and I took the CO’s Humvee and some fence stakes and laid out the course. We had already plotted the points on the map. The issue was getting the stakes within 10 meters of where we had said they would be. I did it by eyeball. Just me and a map. I didn’t even take a compass. But we didn’t just trust my eyeballs. Once we had laid out the course, we went back and surveyed all the points with a GPS receiver. They were all in place. But that wasn’t good enough. We asked the kind folks in our supporting Field Artillery unit to survey the points with their high tech precision survey equipment. I had to move one point. I ended up moving it about 5 feet. Not bad for eyeballs and a map for 75 survey points. But time marches on. The GPS system was already in use and it would be a game changer. No longer would being good with a map be enough.

The GPS system is actually very simple. There are about 24 satellites in orbit around the earth. All they do is broadcast the time. But they  broadcast the time very, very precisely. The GPS reciever carried by a soldier recieves these time hacks from several different satellites and compares them. Since it takes a finite amount of time for the radio signal to travel form the satellite to the reciever, the GPS will compare the difference between the time hacks of several satellites and determine how far away it is from them. A little trigonometry and geometery and poof, the reciever knows where it is. The cool thing is, the reciever doesn’t even need to know what time it is. Just the difference in time stamps from the satellites will tell it where it is. It is a totally passive system that can’t be detected. It is also very difficult to jam. And it is very accurate. It can tell you within 3 meters where you are just about any place on earth. Three meters may not seem pinpoint, but given that a Bradley is about 8 meters long, it’s close enough.

This instant ability to determine ones own location has thinned a fair amount of the fog of war. The Army’s current high tech battle management system is based on GPS technology. It is a simple matter for Bradley or Abrams to send a radio message telling headquarters where it is. And since it is tied into a computer, the graphics will show where all friendly vehicles are. A laser rangefinder now not only tells us how far away a target is, it tells us exactly where that target is. And transmits that message directly to the artillery or close air support that will attack it, often with GPS guided munitions.

GPS doesn’t solve all of a commander’s problems. But it does make much of the map reading tasks easier and less time consuming. That frees him up to concentrate on important things, like how to lead his team to victory.

My time as a logistician

Late in 1991, after my triumphant return from Operation Desert Storm I was transferred from the 1st Armored Division in Germany with orders to Ft. Carson, Colorado, home of the 4th Infantry Division. After 44 days of leave spent lounging around my parents and getting underfoot, I hopped a flight to the beautiful city of Colorado Springs, nestled at the foot of the towering Front Range of the Rockies.  A quick shuttle bus ride and I was deposited into the care of the 4th IDs Adjudant General’s 4th Replacement Company. As a junior enlisted soldier, my orders only specified the 4th ID. The division itself would subsequently make my assignment to one of its subordinate battalions.

I spent a week with the replacement company, mostly listening to briefings about the division and its policies and doing make-work details. Quite a bit of time was spent sitting around just waiting. Finally, my name was called to recieve my assignment. The clerk handed my orders to the 104th Main Support Battalion, part of the Division Support Command. The MSB is the logistical backbone of the division, providing maintenance, supply and medical care to the division. I promptly protested to the clerk that the orders were in error. I was an 11B. I should have been sent to one of the divisions infantry battalions. He responded that right or wrong, I was going to the MSB, and better hurry down the street to check in.

Off I went, slightly bemused with the idiocy sometimes displayed by the Army. I checked in with the S-1(Personnel) office and dropped off a copy  of my orders. The clerk there showed me to the Battalion Command Sergeant Major (the senior NCO in the battalion). The CSM quickly read my orders, and ushered me in to his office. He was far more accomodating to me than any other CSM I’d ever met. The trouble, he explained, was that the battalion had a severe shortage of supply personnel. His boss wanted to shift some other support soldiers into the slots. The CSM had a better idea. As an old infantryman, he was convinced that soldiers from the combat arms were adaptable enough to come in and learn the job quickly, helping the battalion achieve its mission and just maybe setting a good example for the junior soldiers from other MOS’s. I was one of three soldiers he’d snagged from the replacement company. All three of us would go to Bravo Company, where we would work in the parts warehouse.

I explained to the CSM that I didn’t want to be in the battalion (“no offense, Sergeant Major, but if I’d wanted to be a REMF, I would have enlisted as one!”) and could he just send me down the line to one of the infantry battalions. He made is counteroffer (“You’ll do it and like it!”) but he did sweeten the pot just a bit. He said that if I did a good job, he’d let me go in six months, and that if I did a really good job, he’d let me choose which of the three battalions I went to. I bowed to inevitability and grabbed my bags, walked across the street, and checked into Company B, 104th Main Support Battalion.

The first day at work was a little odd. When you report to  an infantry unit, just about the first thing battalion does is assign you to a company, and the company assigns you to a platoon, who puts you in a squad. Usually, that happens even before you get down to the battalion. A good unit knows you are coming and is ready for you, with the supply sergeant ready to get you set up in the barracks. When I showed up at B Co., they weren’t entirely sure what to do with me. I had to track down the First Sergeant to get a room assigned and track down the supply sergeant to get some sheets and blankets. Then, when I went to the warehouse, instead of having a clue, they told me to “follow that guy over there.”  “That guy” turned out to be a Sergeant who was also reporting for his first day of work, but at least he was working in his specialty. They hadn’t really given him a job either, but he grabbed some paperwork and got to work, utilizing me as his gopher and to lift heavy stuff (grunts are always good for that).

Soon, I found myself working with  a small team of supply types working in the outdoor parts yard for repair parts too large to store convienently in the warehouse. Here’s the basic workflow- as mentioned below, when  a vehicle down in one of the battalions needed a repair part, they’d draw one from their stocks and submit an order to us to replace it.  Each day, each battalion would place all their parts orders on a floppy disk and drive it down to our warehouse. Once all the disks were uploaded to our computer, list would be generated. Each part would be released by an MRO, or Material Release Order. Basically, this was an invoice. Each MRO would list the part by name, national stock number, serial number if neccessarry, and by its location in the warehouse. We would print out the days list of MROs. Since we knew which MROs were for parts located outside, my team would segregate these orders. Our mission each day was to find the parts, stage them to each battalions pick up area (the line battalions were responsible for picking the parts up from us, we just didn’t have the transport to push the parts to them), mark the orders complete and recieve any parts that came in and place them in their proper storage area. We would also recieve the broken parts to be replaced and stage them for turn in for either recycling or repair by a higher echelon than us.

When I started working there, the yards (there were two of them because of space limitations) were a complete mess. Typical parts stored outside were tires, roadwheels for tracked vehicles, track shoes and sections of track, engines, transmissions, FUPPS (the “full up power pack” for the M-1 tank, with engine, transmission and accessories, in a container, weighing in at 14,000 pounds), truck body parts like doors, windshields, shock absorbers and springs and stuff like that. There were some minor issues with parts not being in the right place. That was pretty easy to fix. The real problem was that over time, the previous workers had gotten sloppy about making sure equipment returned to them had been turned in for repair or recycling. And over time, the tags and orders had fallen off or been misplaced. There was no way to tell what piece was what. And without that information, we couldn’t figure out which open orders went with which piece of surplus.

I pretty soon got into the swing of working the yard. Normally, the Army is very fastidious about the procedures for licensing someone to drive or operate any equipment. The only licensces I’d ever held had been for the Humvee and for what the Army called CUCVs, basically Chevy pickups and Blazers with a camo paintjob. I checked in to the battalion motor pool and found that with no training or test drives, I’d been licensed for those vehicles, the duece and a half, the 5-ton truck, 5-ton tractor trailer, and a variety of forklifts, from 1000lb capacity electrics used in the warehouse to 10k forklifts built on the chasis of a front end loader. Indeed, I was not only licensed to drive them, I was the assigned driver on four different vehicles. If we ever had to move into the field, I wasn’t quite clear how I was going to drive four vehicles simultaneously. Still, I quickly earned a reputation as the go-to guy for operating the 10k forklift. Each day, I’d pick up all the orders for the big stuff. I even managed to load the 14,000lb FUPPs with a 10,000lb capacity forklift. It wasn’t easy, and you had to show a gentle touch. But it was very popular with the armor battalions because previously they’d had to order the parts separately, then assemble them in the field, installing them with a tank recovery vehicle. I’d saved them hundreds of man-hours of work. The downside was that any time a tank went down on the weekend, I’d get the call to go pull the parts for them and load them. More than once I came back to the barracks at 2am after a hard night partying in Colorado Springs, only to find an MRO and a couple of irritated tankers waiting on me. Trust me, loading really heavy tank engines while drunk as a skunk is a challenge. The worst part though, was having to go inside and fire up the terminal and generate and print the MRO. What should have been a 20 minute job would take an hour.

Since I could get through the larger parts pretty quickly, and since the boss was on my tail about it, I started looking into what could be done to clean up the yards. There had to be some way of getting rid of all the roadwheels and other junk sitting around taking up space and generally looking bad. There was an additional problem. A lot of the parts were turned in for scrap. But we couldn’t get rid of them since we couldn’t tell what was scrap and what wasn’t. If we turned in a piece of equipment as scrap that shouldn’t have been, there was no way we could ever close the open work order on that piece. The longer the orders stayed open, the worse we looked. The key would be identifiying what was what, right down to the national stock number. I’ll give you an idea of what a typical problem was. There were two types of roadwheels made for the M-113, steel and aluminum. One was discarded for scrap and one was turned in for refurbishment. Seems simple. But the instructions listed which to turn in by stock number, without mentioning what it was made of. No one knew which was which.

One thing I had learned by this time was that there was always a regulation, manual or person that covered a situation. The trick was finding that repository of information. Inspiration came in a flash. I was visiting the on-post office of the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office (DRMO), the agency that handles all the suprlus sales for the DoD. I was looking for to see what interesting stuff they might have for the next auction, such as furniture or office equipment. Then I noticed they had a large section of scrap metal. I struck up a conversation with the civilian who worked there and explained my problem. I hit paydirt. The guy knew just about everything there was to know about what could be scrapped and what couldn’t. He also had the manuals to back his judgment up. Over the course of a couple of weeks, he came down to the yard and helped me sort through tons of scrap and even better, helped identify all sorts of arcane parts that none of us recognized. He even helped us find a streamlined way to generate the missing orders for scrap turn in. Once all the scrap was properly (and legally) disposed of, it was a fairly simple task to match work orders with the remaining surplus parts in the yard and clear all the overdue orders. Some of the orders had been open for years. By the time he and I finished, there wasn’t an order over 48 hours old.

It was an interesting and challenging job. But it wasn’t the infantry. And while I liked the work, I was deeply unhappy with the company itself. The commander was detached and she didn’t impress me in the least as a leader. The First Sergeant substituted bombast and abuse for standards and leadership. I wasn’t entirely clear on what it was they did all day, because we never saw them doing anything for the soldiers. As my six-month mark approached, I asked the CSM if he would let me go, and if possible, send me to the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry. I didn’t know much about the infantry battalions on post, but the 1-12IN had a decent reputation, far better than the other two. The First Sergeant was being difficult. He couldn’t stand me, but didn’t want to let me go. Still, the CSM was a man of his word. He told me he would make it happen. I called down to the battalion and they told me I would be further assigned to Alpha Company. I stopped by and introduced myself to the 1SG at Alpha company. What a great first impression he gave. No nonsense, spelled out what he expected, introduced me to my platoon sergeant and told me he looked forward to me “joining the real Army again” just as soon as the orders had been cut. The orders were cut on a Thursday afternoon. My 1SG at B/104, always looking for a way to be a pain, insisted that I be completely vacated out of the barracks that day. If some friends with a pickup truck hadn’t been handy to help me move, my stuff would have been out on the street.

I’m glad that I had a chance to see how the rest of the Army works. It ain’t all guns and ammo. Some of the folks I worked with were as dedicated as any I’ve ever met. And karma is a bitch. The First Sergeant who failed on so many levels? A few months later he was courtmartialed for sexual harrasment and drummed out of the Army in disgrace. Safely tucked away in my new home with my fellow infantrymen, I laughed my ass off.

The Infantry/Artillery Team

We discussed earlier the genesis of the infantry-artillery combined arms team. The fruit of this marriage in WWII was the Infantry Division.

When the US was gearing up for WWII, it made a very careful analysis of the manpower likely to be available in the country. For a nation of 150 million people, it was a surprisingly small pool. In addition to manning the Army, the country had to provide for the Navy, Marines and the Army Air Forces. Less visible but just as critical were the war industries. Rosie the Riveter made a huge contribution to the war effort, but the fact of the matter is they were still outnumbered by men in industries. Some jobs such as shipfitting had almost exclusively male workforces. Farms still had to be tended. Don’t forget, at that time, almost half of America lived on a farm. The rule of thumb was that only about 10 percent of the population could be pressed into service. The Army’s share worked out to roughly 8 million men.

Given that the Army was going to have to fight outnumbered and on two fronts, it was important that the divisions it fielded be superior to the Germans they would face. One trick was standardization. The Germans had something like nineteen different organizations for just an infantry division. That doesn’t count the Panzer divisions and Panzer-Grenadier divisions (mechanized infantry). Then there was the duplicative effort of the Waffen SS divisions, which had their own organization. Instead, the Army made virtually all US infantry divisions identical in organization.

Another choice the Army made was to deliberately limit the number of divisions it created. In the Axis armies (and the British) when a division was worn down in combat, a new division was raised. But the old division still existed. Most of the casualties in a division take place in its infantry units. Instead of creating new divisions, the Army would work to keep its divisions at full strength by means of individual replacements. Since all divisions were pretty much alike, a replacement could be sent to virtually any unit.

The key emphasis was designing a division that could reasonably be expected to fight an Axis division one on one and win. Instead of the traditional rule of thumb that you should have a three to one advantage when attacking, US divisions would be expected to routinely attack with a parity in strength. The key to making this work would be a balance of size and firepower. The three infantry regiments of the division had adequate firepower thanks to the semiautomatic Garand rifle, the Browning Automatic Rifle and the machine guns and mortars organic to each infantry company and battalion. But the divisions real firepower would come from its artillery.

Each infantry division, in addition to its three infantry regiments, had a Division Artillery (DivArty) consisting of three battalions of 105mm tubes and one battalion of 155mm guns. Normally, each regiment would have a battalion of 105mm artillery firing in direct support of its objectives, controlled via Forward Observers attached to each of the regiment’s battalions. The regimental commander had a Fire Support Officer from the artillery battalion to advise him on the employment of the artillery.

The battalion of 155mm artillery was used a little differently. Its primary mission was counterbattery fire. When enemy artillery was striking infantry troops or the 105mm battalions, the 155s would locate and fire upon the enemy artillery. The division commander could also use the 155s to reinforce the fires of any of the 105mm battalions to support one of his regiments. Finally, the division commander could use the 155s (or, indeed, any or all of the 105mm battalions) to attack targets of his own.

Because of the extensive communications between the artillery and the supported infantry units, the artillery could react very quickly to calls for fire. This same tight integration with the infantry units allowed the artillery to fire on targets much closer to friendly units with less chance of fratricide.
No longer was the artillery merely acting in support of the infantry, or vice versa. For the first time in warfare, they acted in concert, combining their effects and efforts. The result was greater than the sum of their parts. An infantry division with the combined infantry/artillery team could punch far above its weight.