29 August 2000


I grew up in a very tough Army. My sergeants had slugged their way across Africa into Sicily and then up that bloody spine of Italy fighting a tenacious German defender on killer ground.

Those noncoms cut no slack with fresh cannon fodder. They'd seen too many rosy-cheeked recruits who were unprepared for battle turned into purple mush. They taught: Learn it the right way or die. These iron sergeants' tough training -- their exacting demand for unblinking discipline and perfection in all things big and small -- allowed me to avoid the widow-maker over a lot of years spent dodging lead.

Back in the mid-and-late 1940s, the noncoms ran the Army. There were officers, of course, but they were far from hands-on. The sergeants trained and disciplined and were in your face from reveille to taps. Officers were visible on payday, at court-martials and on major maneuvers, wearing pressed fatigues that showed little wear or tear.

Regardless of how demanding these raw and frequently not-school-smart sergeants were, they also made us understand that our most sacred duty was looking after our soldiers' welfare.

These were the warrior-leaders who were always first up, last in bed and last in the chow line. Men who lived by the simple rule: FOLLOW ME.

The good lessons I sucked up from my no-nonsense mentors were passed on by me with equal zeal to the thousands of young leaders I developed while skippering nine company-size units and three infantry battalions, as well as in my writings. And I'm sure the word and the standard were passed on yet again.

But today this standard seems to be disappearing -- which may well be why morale is at an all-time low and why so many good troops are beating feet in a hasty retreat from the Green Machine.

A fine sergeant whom I've known for more years than I want to count says he is authorized 18 soldiers but until recently had only eight. Two couldn't take it anymore, set themselves up to be caught smoking marijuana and were -- as they'd planned -- booted from the Army. Now he's down to six.

He says: "My soldiers spend only four to eight hours a week performing the job they trained for.

The rest of the time they're doing cleanup, lawn cutting, parades, honor guard, sweeping out the motor pool and attending lectures on Sensitivity Training."

His soldiers keep asking, "Will we ever get to do what we joined up for?"

The good sergeant passed this on to the command sergeant major, who's ROAD -- retired on active duty -- and doesn't want waves. After much ducking and weaving, he replied, "Ask the officers -- they run everything now."

None of his six soldiers doing the work of 18 "intend to re-enlist." They say, "We aren't soldiers, we're uniformed laborers."

These soldiers live in barracks in Germany with broken everything -- windows, stoves, TV. The command has no money to fix things, so it covers by submitting work orders and tagging broken windows. Since there's no mess hall, the soldiers are given extra money and told to fend for themselves. There's a Burger King 2 miles down the road, but none of the soldiers has a car.

Anthrax is a big scare, and all the soldiers have had their shots. But last month their protective suits and masks were found to be defective and removed. The unit has the new and costly Nuclear, Biological and Chemical detection and decontamination gear, but no money to send anyone to school to learn how it works. So if a cloud of bad stuff wafts their way, they'll be as broken as their barracks.

The officers spend their time micromanaging, "spying and sharpshooting the NCOs giving the training during 'sergeant's time'" -- time allocated exclusively for NCOs.

The higher the rank, the more the privileges. "Colonels and generals take Lear jets everywhere.They even fly when it's no more than an hour's drive away. When they do drive, it's in new BMWs. Yet there's no money for the soldiers."

The Soviet Union was an army without strong noncoms. Officers ran the show until the outfit bellied up. From what my old pal and scores of other noncoms say, our Army isn't far behind.