EL PASO, Texas — For 40 years, the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy has been training the Army's top enlisted soldiers right here at Fort Bliss.
The academy is known for its signature 10-month-long resident sergeants major course, where student-soldiers study at Fort Bliss and live either on the installation or in the El Paso community.
"It's the capstone course that you must pass to be promoted to sergeant major or command sergeant major," said Command Sgt. Maj. Rory L. Malloy, commandant of the academy.
It also offers a nonresident sergeants major course that takes two years to complete and nine other courses — either resident or distance learning — that teach privates up to command sergeants major.
Malloy estimates that the academy reaches 190,000 soldiers each year through its combinations of resident and distance-learning courses.
"Our impact extends way beyond Fort Bliss. We're involved in every level of leadership," Malloy said. "We provide a huge asset to the United States Army for a very small price." The academy has an annual budget of about $15 million.
But it's the resident sergeants major course that most people think of when it comes to the academy.
This course is designed to be challenging and is modeled after what students would go through at a university, Malloy said. The course is divided into five semesters that are 6½ weeks long. Instruction is broken into five departments or areas of study. Students rotate and spend a semester in each department.
The disciplines are command leadership; logistical and resource management; military history; Army tactics; and a joint department that looks at all branches of the U.S. armed forces and the foreign armies that the United States partners with.
The current resident program has 658 students from all branches of the service except the Navy. The Navy usually participates but didn't send students this academic year.
It also has 41 international students from 38 countries.
Most of the work is classroom-based with seminars, lectures and small-group studies. Students also go on a field trip to Columbus, N.M., and study Pancho Villa's infamous raid into the United States.
To graduate, Malloy said, soldiers have to get at least an 80 percent in the leadership part of the course and 70 percent in the other four areas to graduate.
"We're recognized as the pinnacle of noncommissioned officer education throughout the world," Malloy said. "That's why we get a lot of international students."
Over the years, 35 international students have gone on to become the senior-most sergeant major in their service. That's the equivalent of the Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army, a post now held by former academy Commandant Raymond F. Chandler III.
Students are encouraged to work on their civilian education while at the academy, too, Malloy said.
The class that graduated in 2011 had four students who finished their master's degrees while at the academy and 68 who finished their bachelor's degrees. Those numbers went up for the class that graduated last June. This latest class had 54 students graduate with a master's degree and 98 with a bachelor's.
This year, the program has two students who are enrolled in doctoral programs, Malloy said.
The course serves as a "rite of passage and gate you have to go through" to become a sergeant major, Malloy said.
Student-soldiers make it through a "stringent" selection process to attend the course, Malloy said. This consists of a Department of the Army selection panel that reviews soldiers who are seeking promotions, Malloy said.
Sergeants major play an important role because they provide mentorship and leadership to the ranks below them and offer advice and a wide range of experience to soldiers who are ranked higher than them, including commanders, Malloy said.
"We are critical to the force," Malloy said. "You can't live without us."
Master Sgt. Phil Blaisdell, a native of Bedford, Mass., is a student in the academy's resident course.
"For me, it's the highest honor for an enlisted soldier to be recommended for the Sergeants Major Academy," he said. "It's a big honor to be here. I've learned more from my peers and their experience than anything else.
"I can't wait to be a sergeant major," Blaisdell said. "I want to go back to my soldiers and share with them everything I've learned."
Master Sgt. Angel Ortega, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, said the course is a great learning experience and a chance to make a difference in the Army.
"It's a great opportunity to serve the Army and help influence the Army of 2020," Ortega said. "The academy develops tomorrow's leaders."