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An Interview With the Army’s Senior Enlisted Logistician

Command Sergeant Major Daniel K. Elder is the 12th command sergeant major of the Army Materiel Command (AMC) at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Considered the top enlisted logistics Soldier in the Army, Command Sergeant Major Elder travels throughout the command, visiting commanders and troops and gaining feedback on equipment, Soldier development, and the way ahead for AMC. In this interview, he shares his views on three topics: the multifunctional logistics Soldier, the pentathlete, and transformation.

What do you see as the changing nature of the duties of the logistics Soldier?

One of the things that has been apparent to me since the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism—particularly as we have had high deployments—is the changing nature in warfare and how noncommissioned officer [NCO] logisticians participate.

It has been obvious over the last 10 to 15 years that, in the changing nature of the modern battlefield, there are no front lines or rear areas. In past Army doctrine, logisticians operated behind enemy lines. Because of that [change in the battlefield], the way that we trained, the way that we equipped, and the way that we funded logistics units have had to change. Warfare has changed so there are no front lines. Our logistics Soldiers—in general, I’m talking about those in maintenance (whether it’s mechanical, automotive, aircraft, or electronic maintenance), supply, quartermaster, or transportation support—that support the combat services and the way that we operated have changed and continue to have a need to evolve over time.

What are multifunctional logistics Soldiers?

There has been a lot of discussion about multifunctional logisticians. I’ve been a part of this discussion as the senior enlisted logistician of the Army—it is important we have the dialogue. It is not a foregone conclusion that there will be multifunctional logistics NCOs, but let me tell you that Dan Elder’s personal opinion is we really have to look favorably at this. We really have to consider it.

It is obvious in the 90A career field in the officer corps that the Army has long been on a path to develop a multifunctional logistician. But [the need for multifunctional logistics NCOs] depends on which camp you talk with. Some will tell you NCOs should never be multifunctional; we need specialists. I think that is “old think,” especially if you look at how Army logistics has transformed. When we had purely maintenance, quartermaster, and transportation battalions, there was a lot of sense behind that. In recent times, we have had support battalions—the forward support battalions and main support battalions—and they were multifunctional.

Now we’ve changed the way we are operating at the centerpiece of our formations —the brigade combat team—where we have replaced forward support battalions [FSBs] and division support commands (and also corps support groups and area support groups), and we reorganized and gave more capability to brigade support battalions [BSBs]. A BSB is not just a renamed FSB; it has a lot of capability resident in that outfit. If you look at it, it is multifunctional.

So, where do you get the enlisted leaders to manage a BSB? Where we are getting them today is from the pure career fields, the pure branches. In the [logistics] NCO corps, the first sergeant is from one of the three branches: Quartermaster, Transportation, or Ordnance. That’s probably okay for the company leadership. Now, let’s look at the battalion staff. Where are we getting the folks that run the battalion staff? I’m focusing on the enlisted side.

I think in the officer corps they’re figuring that out, and the [Army] Combined Arms Support Command [CASCOM] has taken the lead on that. But who is the support operations sergeant for the enlisted side? Support operations is not one particular career field; it is not particularly quartermaster or ordnance. The support operations sergeant needs to be multifunctional.

What about the battalion sergeant major, the senior enlisted advisor to the commander? Right now, we are taking them from the pure branches, but that sergeant major needs to be skilled a little bit in ordnance, transportation, quartermaster, and all the other things that go along with that. What I submit is that we need to have some cadre of senior NCOs who are skilled beyond our branch schools.

The good news is that, through the Base Realignment and Closure decision, the Army is forming the Logistics University and supercenter at Fort Lee, Virginia. What a great idea. We’re bringing in the Ordnance Center and Schools out of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. Those two schools have always been separate but together, but now we’re going to collocate them. We did not go far enough, though; the decision did not bring in all the rest, and it’s probably because of time, space, and money. But we didn’t finish the job, as far as I’m concerned. We did not bring in the wheeled vehicle guys out of Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

The centerpiece of our formation is the brigade combat team, but we left the armor (now at Fort Knox, Kentucky, but going to Fort Benning, Georgia) and the infantry guys out, and the engineers, and the explosive ordnance disposal Soldiers. We still got a lot of pieces lying out there, including the human resources component, which remains at Fort Jackson, so we aren’t there yet. I think that the Army is going to have to take a long-term look and decide if we need to bring them in at another time.

By bringing these Soldiers together, we are going to have some synergy that is going to allow us to develop our NCO corps, warrant officer corps, and officer corps. We are going to develop them more jointly and across the branches to be more cohesive. That is an important step, but I’m not sure that we’ve gone as far as we need to in a cadre of multifunctional enlisted Soldiers.

There was an NCO leadership course called the NCO Logistics Program, but it was rolled into the operations/intelligence course and became the Battle Staff NCO Course. NCOs should go to the battle staff course, but that teaches them to serve on a staff. Although the course includes some discussion about logistics reports and how to run a tactical operations center, it does not specialize in logistics.

A good example is learning the technology systems out there: how to run Standard Army Maintenance System-Enhanced and how to run Standard Army Retail Supply System. What are the reports that come out of those; what do they mean to me; and how can I use them? What are the systems like very small aperture terminal or wireless CAISI [Combat Service Support Automated Information Systems Interface]? What is a CULT [common-user land transportation] report in the transportation arena? That is not a part of the Battle Staff NCO course. Should or could it be added? Well, when you add to a plan of instruction, it is always up for debate. We need a multifunctional enlisted force to perform those functions.

What is your opinion of battle-focused Soldiers who are skilled in logistics specialties?

I suggest that we need a corps of folks who are proficient in using the logistics tools that are out there and know how to employ them on a logistics staff.

I visited the 299th Brigade Support Battalion, one of the brigade combat team’s logistics units in the 1st Infantry Division. The 299th served alongside my corps support command in 2004. Then, they were an air/land/battle support battalion that deployed with the 1st Infantry Division, who had recent service in the Balkans. They were operating under the previous doctrine when they deployed—kind of what they knew. This unit, a number of years later, had gone through its own transformation, and you could see where it was doing things differently. One of the things they took me to see that somewhat surprised me was the detention center run by the brigade support battalion.

As I grew as an enlisted Soldier in the logistics field as a mechanic, I trained my units for war during all the years leading up to making first sergeant. I never once expected or planned on being involved in detaining operations. Yet, here was this brigade support battalion running a detention center in Baghdad, Iraq, at Camp Victory, where they were processing, safeguarding, and securing detainees.

The brigade would go out on a raid and pick up persons of interest, and they would process through the brigade’s battlespace. And, if they were held for a period of time, they were held at a detention center. This detention center was operated by a logistics unit, and it was operated quite well.

They took me through the facility. I had an opportunity to meet the Soldiers and the leaders who were running it and the staff that was provided to assist, and it was a well-done operation. It was something I would not have thought of in preparing my unit to go to battle if I had been that unit’s first sergeant or sergeant major without understanding the battlefield is changing and how we need to prepare our Soldiers is changing. I think the key to come out of that is that, in the limited amount of time we have available in the Army Force Generation cycle, when we reset our units, we should train for every possibility.

Another example that I saw within AMC is of a very specific unit in the Army—an AVCRAD [aviation classification repair activity depot]. There are four in the Army National Guard. They have a very unique aviation repair capability. They are basically mobile depots, like Corpus Christi, that go into a theater of operations and do depot-like repairs. They bring depot capabilities to support a forward commander. They have elements deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and they had a surge mission to help outfit Stryker vehicles with slat-bar armor.

It is an aviation maintenance unit with the primary mission of avionics, structures, sheet metal, engines, and many of the depot-like capabilities. But these aviation repair personnel were surged to fulfill a typically ground maintenance role, and they used all different capabilities and were doing something that you would assume would be done by a wheeled vehicle mechanic: putting this bar armor on the Stryker vehicles. The surge was there, they were needed, and they did a great job. Their ability to go out and assist allowed the commander of the Stryker brigade to meet his deployment timelines. That is an example of a true pentathlete organization that can adjust and be as successful as they can be.

The 299th showed me how their service and recovery section within the BSB was serving in a firefighting role. It wasn’t apparent to me at first, but because of the nature of recovery on the battlefield, one of the things happening is when vehicles are struck with incendiary explosive devices, there is a secondary fire that goes along with it. In the secondary fire, the vehicle is oftentimes engulfed in flames or parts of the vehicles are engulfed in flames, which causes secondary fires because of fuel, ammunition, or the secondary load.

Because of those situations, many of the recovery teams become first responders. If the local population of Iraqis does not have an operating first response capability, many times our recovery crews, who are embedded in the area of operations, are the first to show up on the scene; but, they cannot recover the vehicle until the fire is taken care of. In some cases, they have to assist in putting the fire out so they can carry on with their mission.

So, our recovery crews are now operating, and in some cases designing and building, firefighting equipment that allows them to suppress the fire since they have to go in and basically clear the vehicle. Sometimes they are involved in processing remains of casualties. Sometimes there are cases of MEDEVAC [medical evacuation] and removing those who are injured. In some cases, the recovery crews are involved in processing remains and sanitizing the site and the equipment. There are procedures that have to be followed.

Even the nature of recovery, which has been a mainstay of maintenance NCOs on the battlefield, has changed. We must instill in our leaders and NCOs the abilities to adjust and transform along with how the battlefield transforms. We also have to change and continue to drive the change toward the technical aspects of what we expect our Soldiers to do. They must be warriors first, Soldiers first, but they must be skilled in the techniques of their specialties so that they can do those tasks that are expected of them on the battlefield. The challenge is finding out what those tasks are because they continue to change. I mentioned detainee operations, for example. Soldiers should not expect to do just a career field job like recovery because, while they are still doing recovery, the recovery mission has changed.

Each of those examples is primed to get after the fact that we need pentathletes —those who are flexible enough to change and not be tied to the old way of doing business. Two buzzwords that kind of sum it up are pentathlete and multifunctional. The challenge is defining what they mean. How do we define them? Whose definition do we use? We could study the death out of it, and sometimes we suffer from that in the Army. We put together studies and progress reports, and they are important. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not downplaying them because they have a role and purpose.

However, I spoke a moment ago of those prewar processes that we use; they were there for our protection. They were safety nets. They were there to make sure all the steps were taken. But the nature of changing warfare of insurgency operations and the structure of the battlefield—what I saw of the modern battlefield from 2003 to 2007 up close and personal on the ground—have changed each time. We have to have systems that support battlefield changes, and I believe our leaders recognize that. So, the challenge of the NCO corps is how do we define it and how do we validate it? There has to be some validation.

In my opinion, or my narrow view, individuals can’t set the tone for the future. We have to have a cross-section of the senior enlisted corps in the logistics arena come together. In some cases, we will disagree, but we have to get after it. We have to provide feedback. That is what is so important in this. I talk it up as I visit our NCOs, and I visit them across the Army, in the posts, camps, and stations where they work. I visit them on the battlefield; I visit them in reset, in preparation at a combat training center or at a mission rehearsal exercise, and this is what they tell me.

As a senior enlisted logistics Soldier in the Army looking ahead, how best can our noncommissioned officers prepare for the future?

The three pillars of leader development are still important today; they have not changed. The operational assignments (the units our Soldiers belong to) pillar is strong. The majority of the development that is happening in our NCO corps remains in the units that are serving in assignments or deployments today—that is strong. We will sustain that.

The second of the leader development pillars is self-development. Soldiers need to be predictive enough to determine what their needs are in order to be proficient. They need to ask themselves how to do it and what the next greatest thing is. That’s a challenge to our Army. We have tried in the past to define what self-development is. My suggestions to Soldiers are that you have to read, you have to study, and you’ve got to look at current events—the periodicals and the publications that are out there, whether they are from service organizations or they are things like Soldiers’ magazines or logistician magazines.

Logistician NCOs should read the Army Logistician magazine and the PS magazine; they should also read the Army magazine, Parameters, and Army Review. Those are the types of things Soldiers need to do to prepare themselves to understand what changes are on the horizon. Understanding the changing nature of our business—how we predict we are going to change—helps a Soldier tailor his self-development.

The third pillar of our development is the institutional Army—a challenge that those like CASCOM and the branch schools continue to work at. The good news is they get better at all of the time. I have had great exposure to our Army over the last 30 months. I’ve had great exposure to the enlisted logistics Soldiers of the Army, and, through that exposure, I have learned that they have a great story to tell. Our challenge is to cultivate that story. We have to draw that story out of them. Somebody has to pull their info. We’re doing a decent job of getting a part of that story from commanders and staff. We have to equally go after the senior enlisted story from the sergeants major, the first sergeants, the operations sergeants, and the support operations sergeants; we’ve got to pull in their feedback. We have to do this so that their perspectives can go into making these changes.

How do we become more multifunctional? How do we become the pentathletes we need to be? In addition, how do we obtain the right skill set—the skills, knowledge, and attitude that logistics Soldiers need to possess to be successful? When the Army asks the questions, they need to ask the enlisted Soldiers at the same time.

I think Army Logistician magazine does a great job of allowing units, leaders, and organizations to tell their story. However, that is a “push” and not a “pull” process. If I am interested in presenting my story, it is put out there and it is a great forum, but we need a mechanism to pull that data. Collectively, the Army and the Logistics Corps need to pull that data. I think we’re doing it, and in some agencies and arenas we are doing well.

But I challenge everybody to go back and ask, to look, get your hands on data from NCOs—those who are doing multifunctional logistics or those who are doing stovepipe functional logistics. Go back and find that material and data. I suggest enlisted leader input is not as strong as it could be. And I challenge the Army and the logistics forces to seek out and encourage those who have a story to present it, document it, and share it so we can get after some of these changes.

What do you consider are the effects of transformation?

Transformation is happening now. In the logistics career fields, it’s happening in so many aspects and at lightning speed. It’s in every facet of the Logistics Corps; whether it’s how we manage or assign our logisticians or how they operate the equipment that they use. The transformation is happening in so many different avenues that it is sometimes dizzying.

The challenge for the leaders is to stay aware of those changes, learn, and be a change agent. They have to voice their thoughts and experiences. The ground war in 2003, when we went into Iraq, was much different from Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, which was much different from subsequent rotations in either theater. So, the experiences our Logistics Corps Soldiers have are tempered by time, location, and the changing nature of the battlefield. Different people have similar views, but they are based on different periods of time. It is important that those who are bringing about change (leaders) have input from the different views.

One thing that is apparent to those within the logistics arena, but may not be apparent to others, is the makeup of the Logistics Corps. Within the corps of logisticians—ordnance, quartermaster, and transportation—over half reside in the Reserve components. In the past, the Army Reserve and National Guard have been a strategic reserve so that, if the need arose, there would be a presidential call up and they would backfill the Active Army or serve as the sustaining base for personnel and units. Well, the Reserve component is transforming to an operational reserve rather than a strategic reserve, and that changes how we must use those forces over time. What does that mean to the other half of the Logistics Corps? One meaning is that they are going through transformation, too.

You can look at the Army Reserve component and you can see today that they are transforming how they train for the future and how they sustain themselves while they are in the rest or ready pool. That is happening. Another thing that hopefully will become apparent is that, because of the rotation schedules we’ve had in the past, the experience level of our Reserve component is growing.

The experiences—whether from Kosovo, the Sinai, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or Operation Enduring Freedom—those Reserve forces are gaining by deploying are increasing at a level that’s probably been unparalleled since World War II.

And you say, what about those other conflicts? It’s obvious we didn’t use our Reserve component in many conflicts, particularly during Vietnam. But, we have used them in other conflicts in the past, but just not at the level we are using them now. It’s public knowledge that we’ve used many of our major formations at least once during this time of Global War on Terrorism. So, all of those units, through their various deployments, are gaining their experiences, and those logistics units are gaining experiences in how to do theater-level logistics or strategic-level logistics.

One of the things our current Army Chief of Staff, General George W. Casey, Jr., said when he came on board was that the number one change he wants to focus on is changing Army policies and procedures to support an expeditionary Army. That is the most important effort that he has laid out.

We have to continue to transform the institutional Army to support an expeditionary Army. We have great leaders—the Army G–4, CASCOM, AMC—and they are assisting in putting their feedback into those changes. For the NCO corps, those leaders are CASCOM’s command sergeant major, the Army G–4 command sergeant major, and service school sergeants major. We have to ensure that we continue to drive the changes to the enlisted training programs that develop Soldiers in the institutional Army. They have changed and will continue to change. They have gained a battle focus and a warrior focus that was absent before. They need to continue those gains made to date.

Somebody told me, “This is not your father’s Training and Doctrine Command,” and I believe that. TRADOC is changing the way we do business. The leadership has reconsidered our systems that we have spent many years cultivating since the development of TRADOC—the systems that were put in place to ensure the appropriate steps were taken to implement change. As important as they were and are, they are also time-consuming. And the changing battlefields of wars today won’t support it. There is a purpose for having those steps and procedures, but we have to change.

What is important as we talk transformation in the Logistics Corps, NCO corps, and among all the logistics NCOs—and I emphasize those different categories—is the intent or the goal to develop pentathletes. It is imperative that our NCO corps is flexible enough and that our logistics NCOs have the ability to flex and adjust to the changes that are expected on the battlefield. The pentathlete leader is that. We must have pentathlete logistician NCOs who can adjust.

Command Sergeant Major Daniel K. Elder is the Command Sergeant Major of the Army Materiel Command. He has an associate’s degree from Central Texas College, and he is a graduate of the Sergeants Major Course, the Command Sergeants Major Course, the Command Sergeants Major Force Management Course, and the Command Senior Enlisted Leader-Keystone Course.

Diana Dawa is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Public and Congressional Affairs at the Army Materiel Command. She served in the Army as an audiovisual television documentation specialist and as an Army broadcaster. She is a graduate of the Defense Information School’s Public Affairs Officer Qualification Course.