As you may have gleaned from my earlier articles I am a Sergeant in the U.S. Army. I have been on active duty for going on 13 years and have nearly a decade of that spent as a Non-Commisioned Officer (NCO).
When I joined the Army in 1992 the military was in a period of heavy transition from the Reagan/Bush years and the drawdown into the Clinton/Post Desert Storm years. During this timeframe the cultural changes in the Army were nothing less than astonishing. Women were being heavily integrated into more support roles and also into combat units who had never had a woman assigned at all even in those support roles. President Clinton (who I supported at the time) was heavily embroiled in a dispute with GEN Colin Powell over the role of gays in the military (which I still support). The Aberdeen Proving Grounds scandals had ripped the world of Basic Training wide open for intense scrutiny. While many of these things changed the modern military forever one thing remained constant : the paternal role of the NCO.
In a career field where most of your new "hires" are straight out of high school, away from home for the first time, and subjected to stress factors like carrying live weaponry; the need for emotional support is tremendous even if the Army won't put it in those terms (policy writers mainly being men after all, we have to protect our gruff image). The Army likes to refer to this under the general term "Leadership". The reality of it is that while any schmuck can wear the chevrons of a sergeant, a *good* NCO knows when they must also take on the roles of parent, sibling, coach, and somtimes even just "buddy". These skills are not really possible to teach or train, either you have them or you don't. Thankfully due to simple statistical distribution there are usually one or more of these type of folks in any given unit.
My first father figure after leaving home was SSG Stoneroad, a 35 year old man who had been an Signal Corps NCO first but had re-enlisted to become a Korean interrogator (MOS 97E for those who want to know). While Stoney may not have been a paragon of Judeo-christian morality at the time, (his first words to me were "See all these chicks in our class? Well by the end of the year I am gonna do them all.") he did serve a vital role in our class. Most of the enlisted men were 20 years old or less as the college degree push had only recently begun. For the most part we had never really been anywhere or done anything. I fit this description to a "T".
I was newly married, in the Army for all of 10 weeks, in a new state, in a foreign language class, and still trying to figure out what the fuck I had gotten myself into. Emotionally I could not have been more vulnerable. I think the same went for most of the group. Some of us had chronic woman problems, others financial difficulty, and still others (me) problems getting into the shape the Army wanted us in. SSG Stoneroad mentored us in all of these areas with careless ease. He knew just the right time to engage in witty, viscious, and usually homo-phobic locker room banter, when to sit and listen to your problems saying little, and when to just take you down to the beach, make you run like crazy until you were helpless, when to cuff you smartly on the head telling you to "Stop being a whiny bitch, suck it up and get your goat-smelling-ass back on track!". For the women reading this article you will simply have to take my word for it that this is *exactly* what young men need in their lives.
All of us basically worshipped the ground that he levitated over. He ensured that this hero-worship continued throughout the duration of our time at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) by always leading from the front in areas that he knew he could excel in and wisely deferring to others when it was something he could not. Without this crass, talented, and caring NCO fully 50% of our class would not have graduated and gone on to the regular Army. He was that important.
For the women in class he fulfilled a similar role but as the "older guy" that most girls feel the need to date at least once in their lives. He was a gentleman, always plugged into the local culture, treated them far better than any of the young bucks that were barking at their doors, and then left them just as gently with no trailing emotional baggage. They all learned something from him and the men all worshipped again at the altars of his obvious sexual prowess, suave demeanor, and superior relationship ability.
In the end he was not a perfect man or a perfect NCO but his qualities far outshined his failings. (Additionally, he kept his promise nailing all the girls during that year and that has to count for something right? )
I miss that guy.