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A year ago, at the urging of Gen. James L. Jones, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Marine Corps Sergeant Major Alford L. McMichael delayed his retirement to become the first senior noncommissioned officer in history to represent NATO's enlisted force. Through the years, McMichael has accumulated hundreds of commemorative coins from units and individuals.

A year ago, at the urging of Gen. James L. Jones, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Marine Corps Sergeant Major Alford L. McMichael delayed his retirement to become the first senior noncommissioned officer in history to represent NATO's enlisted force. Through the years, McMichael has accumulated hundreds of commemorative coins from units and individuals. (Kevin Dougherty / S&S)

CASTEAU, Belgium — On a recent tour of NATO installations, a Turkish soldier approached the top noncommissioned officer at NATO to commend him for trying to improve the alliance’s enlisted corps.

“You give us hope,” Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Alford L. McMichael said, repeating what the senior soldier had said. “You make us dream, again. We can be important to our country.”

The effort to elevate — through training and education — the posture and performance of the NATO enlisted corps is primarily aimed at NATO’s newer members, nations such as Estonia or Romania. But even old allies recognize the value of setting a uniform standard and sticking to it, McMichael said.

Achieving a level of standardization in areas such as job performance and personal conduct will take time to sink in, perhaps as long as a generation, said McMichael, the alliance’s first senior NCO. And yet that’s a main focus of his and Gen. James L. Jones, the supreme allied commander Europe.

“Some of these nations only think leadership starts at the top, so they become stagnant,” McMichael said during a recent interview in his office at SHAPE headquarters in Casteau.

“In our system,” he said, “we teach leadership from the lowest level.

“So, if something happens to [a unit’s officer], a platoon sergeant doesn’t wait until a new captain gets sent out to a fight. He steps up and leads the charge.”

A case in point is the NCO campaign itself.

McMichael was set to retire last year after a four-year hitch as the Marine Corps’ command sergeant major. Jones, who has known and worked with McMichael for years, asked him to consider postponing his retirement to help the alliance develop a more professional NCO corps.

The 52-year-old took Jones up on his offer, arriving at SHAPE a year ago.

“The biggest apprehension came from the established countries, because they thought their culture would have to change,” McMichael said. “We’re not asking [them] to change. We’re asking [them] to partner with us to help us bring the others up to that level.”

In September, McMichael and his staff plan to present Jones with a formal set of standards to guide the alliance’s NCO corps. The standards focus on such issues as good order and discipline, training and personal appearance. A formal definition of an NCO is still in the works, but a preliminary draft refers to noncommissioned officers as “the backbone” of the alliance.

“The NCOs are going to be key to this new NATO Response Force,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Mark P. Sullivan, commandant of the NATO School in Oberammergau, Germany.

At the 2002 summit in Prague, Czech Republic, NATO nations concluded that the alliance needed to transform itself to stay relevant in a changing world. Among other things, the allies decided to form a quick response force and to create a leaner and more flexible force structure, one that empowers NCOs and follows a common standard.

To address the last issue, the alliance has decided to create an academy for NCOs assigned to, or working with, the alliance. There’s no firm date, but it’s likely to happen sooner rather than later.

“This is overdue,” Sullivan said. “We’ve needed this for some time.”

Up until a couple of years ago, the NATO School in Oberammergau was open only to officers. However, expansion and the Partnership for Peace program for non-NATO nations led the school to open its doors on a limited basis to NCOs, though Sullivan noted there was some resistance at first.

Sullivan said instructors have “found an incredible discrepancy” in some classroom groups between students of various nations.

Catherine Combe is a senior noncommissioned officer in the French army. She also teaches at Oberammergau and finds many of the students eager to learn.

“They don’t even know what they are hungry for,” Combe said.

And yet, she adds, all of the time and money and effort go to waste if the sponsoring nation doesn’t display the same eagerness to improve.

McMichael says he can help on that front by putting a NATO, not an American, face on it, and by preaching the team concept.

“Our goal,” he said, “is the next generation.”


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