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Gomer's shadow

GOODFELLOW AFB, Texas -- I recently had the privilege of attending my first Army Ball. It was a class event all the way around with an inspirational presentation of Soldiers dressed in period uniforms from the major conflicts the Army has fought in since its formation in 1775. The highlight of the evening for me though was listening to the speaker, Command Sergeant Major Neil Ciotola. He was a powerful orator and his talk centered around the fact that, in the Army, this is the year of the Non-Commissioned Officer. He correctly pointed out that our military is the envy of all the world's military forces in great part because our NCO Corps is unrivaled in accomplishment. I'd like to relate to you the very first time I had an inkling of just how important an NCO is. It was in the latter half of the 1960s and I was seven years old. 

"Gomer Pyle, United States Marine Corps", was all the rage on TV. There was an episode I still recall very vividly in which Gomer was chosen to have his likeness put onto a USMC recruiting poster. Long story short, when the final portrait was unveiled, there was Gomer standing at attention, but behind him was a shadow; a very noticeable silhouette much larger than Gomer himself. When asked about the significance of the shadow, the artist explained that it was Gomer's NCO, Sgt Carter....that behind every junior enlisted member, there is that large shadow, a sentry that doesn't seek the spotlight or accolade for his own benefit, that keeps the force standing strong and unbending no matter what the adversity. The message was clear and powerful, even to a young boy. 

The same message came to me quite memorable once again about 10 years ago. I was just finishing an exam on a young patient who was also probably about 7 years old. He asked me what my rank was, as he'd not seen it before. I told him I was a major. He then proceeded to tell me how his father was a very important man and his rank was "more" than mine; he had many stripes that he wore on his sleeve, not a small flower on his collar. I looked in his medical record and saw that his father was an Air Force technical sergeant, an E-6. The boy told me that his father helped people, that he got "lots of phone calls," and that he was really good at what he did. This young man was very proud of his father. 

I told him that he was right; that his father was indeed a very important person and that I also admired and relied heavily on men and women just like him with lots of stripes on their sleeves. The boy left my office with a smile on his face. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he was now in the military and aspires to be an NCO; to be a shadow, just like his father.  So what's the take home message from a couple of 7 year-old kids? It's the same thing that the U.S. Army has known for the last 234 years and made a special point to illustrate magnificently to those of us present at the Army Ball; that the words and the deeds and the character of the men and women who wear NCO stripes are an inspiration to each of us. In the much shorter 24 years I've been in the Air Force, I've seen them perform unparalleled acts of selflessness, determination and dedication. Throughout my career, they have been trusted mentors and counselors and I suspect there's not one person reading this article that can't say the same thing.

 It is often stated that NCOs make up the backbone of the Army. I believe their role is even larger. The NCO corps is not just the backbone, it is the entire skeleton for each of the services. In the human body, muscle without bone is formless and is incapable of meaningful movement; it is incapable of action. The skeleton gives it structure and transforms the body into something recognizable and capable. It is quite literally the foundation and internal structure that allows us to stand tall and strong. So it is with our NCOs....without them, we would fall. Just as illustrated most memorably for me in that 40 year-old episode of Gomer Pyle, the NCO is the shadow behind both officer and enlisted alike; their loyalty runs equally up the chain as well as down. They stand tall and proud behind us and like Gomer's shadow to make us larger and more powerful than we could ever be alone. Across the services, the NCO is the fulcrum which transforms effort into accomplishment. 

This year, the U.S. Army is formally recognizing and honoring their NCOs and the Army Ball reminded me once again of just how important NCOs are to our services and how much I owe them personally. So to the Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force and Coast Guard NCOs that I've had the honor of working with across the globe these past many years, I give you my most humble and sincere thanks. Thanks for being my shadow. Thanks for being all of our shadows.