By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 5, 2009 - Soon after donning his Air Force second lieutenant uniform in 1967, Robert M. Gates learned an important lesson about how the U.S. military functions. "It took me all of about a day and a half before I figured out who it was that really made the military run -- or at least, made we junior officers run: the noncommissioned officers," he told an audience at the annual Association of the U.S. Army conference here today.
"So I did what my sergeant suggested," he recalled. "And the two of us did my job pretty well."
Gates, now secretary of defense, reflected on how this early insight into the value of NCOs helped to shape his view of the military that he would lead as its civilian chief some 40 years later.
Often described as "the backbone of the military," a noncommissioned officer, or NCO, is an enlisted member of an armed force who has been given authority by a commissioned officer. The Army's NCO corps includes corporals and all grades of sergeant.
NCOs have been celebrated for decorated service in American military conflicts from Valley Forge to Gettysburg, to charges on Omaha Beach and battles along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In recognition of their contribution for more than two centuries, the Army has designated 2009 as the Year of the NCO, an initiative aimed at enhancing awareness and public understanding of the roles and responsibilities of today's NCOs, who Gates said form the Army's "steel spine."
"As secretary of defense, I pay every bit as much attention to what NCOs say now as I did when I was a very green second lieutenant," he said. "I always make it a point to meet with and listen to NCOs around the country and in the theater, where they're serving with such honor and distinction."
Highlighting an exceptional example of the kind of courage and leadership often associated with NCOs, Gates invoked the story of Army Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti, an NCO who posthumously received the military's highest decoration last month.
Monti, then a staff sergeant, was killed June 21, 2006, after braving enemy rifle and rocket fire three times in an attempt to rescue a fellow soldier wounded while battling Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. Last month, Monti joined an elite fraternity of servicemembers who have received the Medal of Honor.
"His is a story of true valor, and there are so many others," Gates said. "And in fact, it's hard to believe that only six Medals of Honor have been bestowed since 2001, all posthumously."
Gates also singled out Sgt. Jason Easom, an Army NCO with two tours in Iraq under his belt. Easom, an enlisted aide to the defense secretary, is one of the first people Gates sees when he enters his office in the morning, Gates noted.
"As you might expect, he's almost always there when I leave, as well," the secretary added, underscoring his personal knowledge of the daily contributions NCOs make