Europe armies conference focuses on value of NCOs

By MARK ABRAMSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 19, 2009

U.S. Army Europe and Polish Land Forces noncommissioned officers teamed up to help eastern European countries and other nations build a stronger NCO corps.

USAREUR and the Poles co-hosted the third annual Conference of European Armies for Noncommissioned Officers in Lagow, Poland, last week. Participating NCOs included USAREUR’s senior NCO, Command Sgt. Maj. Ralph Beam, and Polish Sgt. Maj. of the Army Mariusz Piwonski.

The 38 participating countries also included the United Kingdom, Italy, Austria, Georgia, Serbia, Switzerland and other NATO and non-NATO countries.

One of the purposes of the conference was to help develop the NCO corps in former Eastern bloc countries. Those nations are moving away from a system where officers had the bulk of the responsibilities, including the day-to-day operations which are overseen by NCOs in the U.S. Army and other countries, said U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Mark Schindler.

Under the old Soviet system, officers did all the leading, and they even did some of the technical work, such as maintaining equipment, Schindler said.

"Many countries have seen how important the NCO corps is, especially given the global war on terrorism," Schindler said.

"They are beginning to see the value of [NCOs]," said U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Lisa Hunter. "There are many missions that NCOs can carry out that free up officers."

The conference sought not to get all of the countries to adopt one style of developing NCOs, but to let attendees share information to help bolster their NCO ranks, Schindler said.

It also included a Polish live-fire demonstration and a look at the Miedzyrzecz Reinforced Region, an 18-mile maze of bunkers and tunnels the Germans built during World War II.

Poland has played a part in the conference all three years as it seeks to transform its NCO ranks while the country moves away from conscripts, Piwonski said. Learning about how NCOs are used in the U.S., Germany, Spain and other Western countries was helpful, he added.

Moving away from conscripts — with soldiers who were in the army for only a year, which resulted in a high turnover of squad leaders and other personnel — should also help bolster the Polish army’s NCO ranks, Piwonski said. Poland’s last conscripts will leave the service next month, he said.

Moving to a Western-style NCO system will help Poland work better with its allies in missions to Iraq and Afghanistan, Piwonski said.

"Giving more authority to NCOs, especially the younger NCOs ... it helps us cooperate [with the Poles’ allies] in those missions."

Piwonski also said the conference will be helpful as he prepares a report for his commander and the chief of the Polish military’s general staff on NCO training.

U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bryan McGhee, left, and Luxembourg Army Command Sgt. Maj. Marc Streng climb atop a Polish army infantry fighting vehicle, similar to the U.S. Army’s Bradley fighting vehicle, during a Polish Army equipment static display at a Polish military base near Lagow, Poland. The two were participating in the third annual Noncommissioned Officer Conference of European Armies.

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