MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- Corporals and sergeants are known as the "backbone of the Marine Corps," as stated in the NCO Creed. From the Battle of Chapultepec to current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, non-commissioned officers have led the charge on and off the battlefield since the birth of the Corps.
The Marine Corps' top brass has been pushing NCOs to tackle even more responsibilities in garrison. In 2008, the Corps gave NCOs full responsibility of the Corps' vehicle safety program for a five-month trial period, in an effort to reduce off-duty motor vehicle accidents. The results were so overwhelmingly positive that the trial period was extended until January 2009. Today, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Conway, is calling on NCOs to be the "first line of defense" in the revamped suicide prevention training program aimed at getting NCOs to engage with their junior enlisted Marines and be able to notice warning signs of someone contemplating suicide.
With all the added responsibility NCOs have been given, however, some NCOs feel that their authority is slowly being stripped away.
"I think [NCOs] should be given more responsibilities," said Sgt. Jessica Mayers, Electronic Key Management System clerk with G-6, Headquarters Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 17, 1st Marine Logistics Group. "I think we should be given what we were made to handle instead of it slowly being sucked away from us."
Mayers believes leaders should support their NCOs when decisions are made without "second-guessing."
"If we make a decision, stand behind us on it," said Mayers. "Let us do what we're meant to do in the Marine Corps, not pick and choose when you want us to be an NCO."
In an article written by former Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Charles C. Krulak, entitled, "The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War," which ran in a January 1999 issue of Marines Magazine, Krulak wrote that leaders should give more responsibility to NCOs, allowing them to grow as leaders.
"...A perception has grown that the authority of our NCO's has been eroded," wrote Krulak. "Some believe that we have slowly stripped from them the latitude, the discretion, and the authority necessary to do their job. That perception must be stamped out. The remaining vestiges of the 'zero defects mentality' must be exchanged for an environment in which all Marines are afforded the 'freedom to fail' and with it, the opportunity to succeed. Micro-management must become a thing of the past and supervision -- that double-edged sword -- must be complemented by proactive mentoring."
With each promotion comes added responsibilities, and NCOs are looked at as the go-to Marines for accomplishing the mission, said Mayers.
"We do everything. We get everything done," said Mayers, 30, from Newark, Calif. "We take care of our junior Marines, we take care of our staff NCOs. They come to us, we go to them."
Mayers became a non-commissioned officer in September 2004 with her promotion to corporal, and a lot changed with that step from a junior enlisted Marine to NCO.
"Responsibilities ... my willingness to take charge," explained Mayers of her step up as a leader. "I wanted to be someone the other Marines looked up to, who [they] were willing to work for not because they had to, but because they wanted to. [I wanted to] lead by example, be someone they knew they could go to no matter what it was ... but knowing I'm going to be brutally honest with them, and I have a lot of high standards for them."
The Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, said being promoted into the NCO ranks is nothing to be taken "lightly."
"I can remember the day I got promoted to NCO like it was yesterday. Pinning on that extra stripe didn't just mean extra pay or privileges, it meant I'd achieved a rank that is not taken lightly and is highly respected by all throughout the Marine Corps," wrote Kent in a January 2008 letter to Marine Corps Times. "That promotion will always be one of the proudest moments in my career."
Not only are NCOs looked upon to accomplish the mission, they are expected to act as mentors to their junior Marines, something Mayers enjoys about leading Marines.
"I enjoy it a lot because you get to help them grow as a Marine and as a person," she said. "You're able to hopefully help them out in situations where they might not be as strong or as comfortable or as confident, because you've been through it before."
As stated in the NCO Creed, it's the NCOs responsibility to not only lead by example and uphold high standards for their junior Marines, but "influencing the old" as well. So by allowing NCOs to flex their leadership muscles, a stronger, more confident NCO Corps may emerge.
"I trust that when promoted," Kent wrote, "each new NCO will take the NCO Creed to heart and will never let the Corps down."
[Editor's note: This is Part 4 of a 9-part series detailing the issues Brig. Gen. Charles Hudson wants to address to the Marines and sailors of 1st MLG, including preparation for deployment, motorcycle safety, NCO leadership, suicide prevention, equipment accountability, family readiness, equal opportunity, and peer-to-peer review boards.]