International Senior NCOs Wrap Up South Africa Conference
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa, Feb. 10, 2006 Senior noncommissioned officers from around the world came together here this week to exchange ideas and learned they have more similarities than differences.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey (left), senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks to Lt. Gen. Jarinus L. Jansen van Rensberg, chief of corporate services for the South African National Defense Force, during a formal dinner Feb. 9 at the International Warrant Officers Conference at Tempe Military Base, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. South Africa and many other countries use the term "warrant officer" to describe senior noncommissioned officers, roughly equivalent to pay grades E-7 to E-9 in the U.S. military services. Photo by South African Air Force Flight Sgt. David Nomtshongwana
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
About 50 senior NCOs from roughly 20 countries attended the International Warrant Officers Conference Feb. 6 through today at the South African School of Armor, here at Tempe Military Base. South Africa and many other countries use the term "warrant officer" to describe senior noncommissioned officers, generally equivalent to pay grades E-7 to E-9 in the U.S. military services.
Many types of diversity -- beyond race -- were apparent in representatives of counties present. Some countries here, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, have a long history of successful standing militaries with strong NCO corps.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are countries such as Botswana and Namibia, which achieved independence in recent decades and are still working to cement defense structures. NCOs are "unempowered and untrained" in some countries, Warrant Officer 1 Jakes Jacobs of the South African National Defense Force said yesterday.
Other countries represented here find themselves somewhere in the middle. The Netherlands, for example, has a long, proud military tradition, but began working to more effectively empower senior NCOs in the 1990s. India also has a relatively established military force, but no NCOs. Junior commissioned officers perform missions normally carried out by NCOs in other militaries.
South Africa became a democracy in 1994. At that time, the country successfully -- and without violence -- integrated seven separate militaries that had fought among themselves under the previous government's apartheid policy of forced racial segregation. Today, the South African National Defense Force has a strong and established NCO corps, but individuals have widely varied backgrounds.
"Structural differences in countries' defense posture dictate how they utilize and empower senior NCOs," Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael W. Bartelle, senior enlisted leader to U.S. European Command, said. Bartelle and Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, represented the U. S. at the conference.
Regardless of how they employ them, countries the world over recognize senior NCOs' value in training young troops and in enforcing discipline, the NCOs noted.
"We can have disciplinary codes as long as our arms," Maj. Gen. Ashwin C. Hurribunce, chief of communications and information services for the South African National Defense Force, said in a Feb. 7 speech to the conference. "But they go nowhere if they reside in manuals."
Hurribunce said warrant officers, meaning senior NCOs, can make or break a force. "Take the officers away and I don't think you'll have a problem," he said. "Take the warrant officers away and you've got a big problem.
"The officers can't do it by themselves," he added.
In describing the value of senior NCOs on a modern battlefield, the general quoted a Chinese proverb: If one piece is moved wrongly, the whole game is lost. "It is the warrant officers who move the pieces," he said.
Another central conference theme was NCOs' role in caring for troops. The most important job of NCOs is to look out for the welfare of junior servicemembers, many representatives noted.
"The most important person in our army is the private in the infantry," British Warrant Officer Class 1 S.M. Nichols, sergeant major of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, said. "Because he's the one who sticks a bayonet between the ribs of the enemy of her majesty and our country."
South African Brig. Gen. Leslie Rudman, chief of military strategy for the country's defense force, urged conferees to use what they've learned here to educate officers in their militaries about the value and role of senior NCOs. "Insist on being heard," he said yesterday, emphasizing that it will benefit their countries
The sergeant major of the Netherlands armed forces, Dutch army Sgt. Maj. Willem M. Tanis, said senior NCOs need to prove their value to their home militaries. "Changes in a defense organization take time," Tanis said yesterday. "But that doesn't mean sit down and wait for it. No, fight for it."
Jacobs urged countries with established senior NCO training programs to invite representatives of less-experienced countries to attend such programs. Likewise, he encouraged senior NCOs in younger NCO corps to seek out training wherever they can.
One senior South African sergeant major described the ideas exchanged and contacts made here as throwing a couple of pebbles into a pond to create a couple of ripples.
Warrant Officer Eric Nieuwenhuis, command warrant officer of the Royal Netherlands Navy, called this conference a valuable way to make contacts with colleagues from the opposite side of the equator and to offer encouragement to representatives of less-established militaries.
"This continent could be our next operating area," said Nieuwenhuis, who is set in May to replace Tanis as the top enlisted man in the Netherlands defense force. "In a changing defense force, building a good NCO corps is a high job.
"And you're doing a good job," he added.
Gainey, the top U.S. NCO, agreed. "I really feel that we have bonded and we have formed a friendship," he said today during the conference's wrap-up session.
He urged attendees to look at the flags draping the walls of the conference halls. "I hope we understand as a collective group what we have done here," he said. "We have made history here together."