Services' Senior Enlisted Present United Voice
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 16, 2001 When the nation's 21st defense secretary meets the services' top five enlisted members, without a doubt, they'll "tell it like it is."
They'll talk about some of the more significant issues that are on their peoples' minds, according to Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Frederick "Jim" Finch. Although there have been some successes in the last couple of years, he said, pay and housing are still big issues.
Shortly after taking office, the new secretary will meet Finch along with Sgt. Maj. of the Army Jack L. Tilley, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James L. Herdt, Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Alford L. McMichael and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Vincent Patton III.
Last, but far from least, the secretary will meet Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Vincent Patton III. In all likelihood, the upbeat self-proclaimed "Coastie" will introduce the new secretary to the Coast Guard version of the Army's emphatic expression "hooah!"
Feeling surrounded by Army green landlubbers a few years ago while attending the Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, Patton jokingly appropriated "Bay Watch!" as his Coast Guard battle cry.
Working with these seasoned enlisted men will undoubtedly be a memorable experience, even for a man who's previously served at the Pentagon's helm. Bush administration nominee Donald Rumsfeld was defense secretary from 1975 to 1977. Since 1977, however, the military has changed considerably, and the five men now representing the enlisted force reflect that change.
To put it in troop lingo, these guys are "purple." They're a cohesive team, comrades in arms who look beyond branch. They're "tight." They've cast aside service biases and interservice rivalry. Like the military itself, the five treat each other as a "total force."
Air Force Gen. Gregory S. "Speedy" Martin, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, recently introduced the services' senior enlisted members as "one of the most credible groups of leaders" in the military. He said the senior enlisted members' credibility is based on their cumulative personal experience.
In other words, the five have long walked the walk. They talk the talk and people listen.
Collectively, they represent the service men and women, active duty and reserve, who stand watch at the Korean DMZ, keep peace in the Balkans, patrol the volatile Persian Gulf and fly the hostile skies of Iraq. It's their job to keep the military's top leaders in touch with what's really happening in the field.
They spend most of their time visiting soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen around the globe. They hear people's concerns firsthand and relay them back to the policy makers in Washington. Traditionally, candor and honesty are a senior adviser's stock in trade. True to their predecessors, the five shoulder the burden of telling it like it is rather than the way people might wish things to be.
These top sergeants and chiefs bring more than 100 years of service to the upper echelons of the Pentagon. Training, personnel, readiness, contingency operations, combat -- they've been there, done that. The multiple stripes on their sleeves bear witness to that experience.
During visits with troops worldwide, it is evident the senior enlisted command respect and fit right in. Herdt, for example, recently sparked some laughs among sailors aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman, on station in the Mediterranean.
During a holiday visit, the Navy's master chief took a highly dramatic, drill sergeant stance almost nose-to-nose with a young sailor. "What do you mean, you don't know who I am?" Herdt yelled, to the audience's delight.
Groundpounders and aviators may at first be a bit quizzical when they see the Coast Guard NCO in their midst, but Patton's resounding cries of "Bay Watch!" charms them all. In fact, the Coastie's infectious humor and gleaming, ear-to-ear smile seem to be the hallmark of the military's top enlisted musketeers. They all exude wholehearted support for the "all-for-one and one-for-all" credo.
"We have far more things in common than we have differences," Finch told the American Forces Press Service during a December troop visit in Germany and the Balkans. "The more we come together, the more we see that.
"It really doesn't make any difference what kind of uniform you wear, or what the patch is on your BDUs," Finch said. "We all have the same basic issues, and everybody's pushing for the same end.
"Whether you go to an Army camp in Tuzla (Bosnia), an aircraft carrier or an Air Force base, the issues generally are about the same," he added. "It's good to be able to have all of us grouped together to work them collectively.
"We don't get to spend as much time together as we would like. But when we have come together, I think we have locked arms on a number of issues and that's a good thing for all the military men and women in DoD."
Finch said the working relationship among the senior enlisted couldn't be better. His Coast Guard counterpart heartily agreed.
"I think we're more like brothers," Patton said. "We are constantly in contact through e-mail and phone calls." Except for Finch, who lives at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., the senior enlisted even live near each other at Fort Myer, Va. Patton said their families get together off-duty often.
On duty, the senior enlisted meet quarterly with either the defense secretary or chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. They also periodically are called upon to testify before congressional committees that deal with defense appropriations and other matters.
In talking with senior defense officials and appearing before Congress, Patton said the senior enlisteds' solidarity comes to the fore. "We all talk to one another beforehand to ensure that we all capture what our issues are and what the other services issues are," he said.
The Coast Guard is part of the Transportation Department, Patton noted. When briefing officials there, he said he lets them know how Coast Guard issues impact the military as a whole. His counterparts, he said, do the same.
"They'll talk about things going on in the Army and the Air Force and then they'll bring up issues that affect the Coast Guard as well." Often, Patton remarked, it blows people's minds that a Coastie can talk about Army or Air Force issues and vice versa.
Tilley, the Army's top sergeant, agreed that their cohesive relationship benefits the military. "If one service has a problem and we understand it's a problem in all the services, then we can help each other try to solve that problem collectively."
"We're the eyes and ears of the commander," Tilley said. The five report to their respective service secretaries and chiefs. "We go out and bring soldiers' concerns back to them to tell them what they are and try to work out those issues."
McMichael, the Marines' top sergeant, said he and his counterparts just "might be the best united force we have in the entire armed services." As such, they serve as an example for the rest of the military: "The enemy doesn't think of us as Navy or Marines or Army or Coast Guard, they think of us as Americans," he stressed.
Working out common issues ahead of time, then presenting a united front to military leaders packs a bigger punch, McMichael said. "Things move faster when they know we're all in accord.
"We're more about the military than we are about our individual services. To be divided or individualistic does nothing for the military. United, we are able to get to the issues that we think are important to the junior enlisted."
Herdt, the Navy's top enlisted member, echoed his peers' views. "In addition to being professional comrades in arms, we are truly best friends," he said. "I think it helps the military by setting the example for everyone else to follow. We're never going to fight alone again. In any conflict that our country engages in, we're going to do this in a joint way."