Monday, October 17, 2005


Profile: The First Sergeant

“Easy does it, slow down now. Take it easy.” Rosie used to say that a lot, usually as a way to break up tension or get his soldiers to laugh. I think it had to do with the saying, “We start slow, and then taper off.”

He always had a joke, or something funny to share, a story or some thing he’s seen that somehow caught everybody off guard, funny, even if we’d heard it before.

I first met Rosie when my Mobile Training Team was teaching an Intelligence Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) course to some National Guard soldiers, whose Military Police (MP) unit had just been converted to a Military Intelligence (MI) unit. (We always joked that someone at State HQ must have thought they were half way there already, it’d be easy to teach them the “Intel” part.

The MPs in the class were all characters, but Rosie was the King of Clowns in this bunch. He used to pull all kinds of gags on his soldiers, and always had some trick to pull on someone taking themselves too seriously. One of our Classified training sites had a PA system, and he had us in stitches when he would make announcements, directing the unsuspecting to a room number that turned out to be a latrine.

When I met Rosie, I was pretty gullible – heck, ask the LT, I’m still pretty gullible – and every other month Rosie would get me all fired up over something that wasn’t true. He’d tell me some story about some crazy thing the unit or the officers were planning, then watch me get all lit up and chase down some rabbit hole, only to find it was another of Rosie’s stunts. I took myself too seriously then, maybe I still can, but Rosie helped me shave about 50% of that away for good.

Rosie always took care of his soldiers, every one. He may have covered for them a few too many times, he may have given some too many breaks when they needed to get straightened out, but he always tried to do his best for his guys. “Youse guys,” he would say. He was old school, but he had the biggest heart in the unit.

He had the biggest footlocker, too. Every time we went anywhere, even the first times we went away for two weeks Intel training, with billeting being a Hilton Hotel, Rosie would bring his box. Peanut Butter in great big Cafeteria size canisters. Toilet paper, crackers, coffee, sugar, toiletries.

I was new to the unit then, newly transferred to the Guard from the Reserves, and new to this strange new creature, the First Sergeant. I don’t even remember any previous First Sergeants, in Active Duty or the Reserves, except the Samoan First Sergeant at the Language School in Monterey. I remember him because we once had to go home on Emergency Leave when my brother-in-law passed away tragically at the age of 16. And all I remember of that 1SG, is that he was incredibly helpful in getting us out of town.

Rosie ran everything, but he did it with an easy manner, a twinkle in his eye, he charmed far more often than he bludgeoned, and he knew everybody and everybody knew him. He was like everybody’s Dad, watching out for and over them, making sure they didn’t drive if they drank too much, that we steered them clear of trouble before it happened, and we helped them however we could if they stumbled or needed some help. He set up and ran a little coffee and roll operation, making use of fresh baked hard rolls, gobs of butter and peanut butter of course. Those rolls and coffee were there every day of every drill as long as he was there.

Rosie kept the officers off our backs, what few of them there were who really wanted to climb up on top of them. He made sure we did what we needed to, met requirements, got the job done before thinking about having a good time.

Rosie always had some funny expression he would inject for certain events, like when something went all FUBAR, “Work with me, people, work with me.”

It must have been hard for him, dealing with me. He and Harry, the other MP turned Intel Analyst, both of them got their E8, Rosie as 1SG, Harry as Master Sergeant in the Analysis & Control Element (ACE) shortly after I transferred in. They had convinced me to join the unit, and sold me on the much shorter commute (30 minutes versus 3 hours each way), as well as dangling a promotion to E8 as an enticement. I hadn’t realized that the two slots they were luring me with were already (for all intents and purposes) theirs. (Yet another thing I was kind of gullible about, but that’s another story.)

Here I was, the Active Duty Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Guy, who spent the previous ten years teaching at the Reserve School, with a short stint with one of the last of the Combat Electronic Warfare Intelligence (CEWI) Battalions. A little while after switching over to the Guard, I ended up organizing and managing mobile Intel missions, where my team and I would disappear for several monthly drills in a row. We’d do the mandatory events, ranges, Annual Physical Fitness Test (APFT), Holiday Party, but for many months we’d be away.

When Rosie knew he needed to retire to take care of pressing family matters, he turned to me at first. Tough act to follow, but more than that, my personal and professional lives were not in a very good place to give the job the kind of time it needs. After about 4 months “in training” with Rosie, I asked to be replaced. It was tough, but I felt our unit deserved somebody who could give the extra time, evenings, whatever it took, and another of our NCOs took it on. Then that soldier did his 2 years and returned to his home in Rochester, and it fell to me again. This time I knew I had to take it, and shortly thereafter, we were mobilized.

You don’t get much time to think about how prepared you are for these kinds of responsibilities when you get these kinds of responsibilities. You just need to execute. One of the best Project Managers I ever worked with (and learned from), used to describe the critical skill thus: “Don’t think about how much you have to do, or how big the problems are. Just tee each one up one at a time, then knock them down. Pretty soon you’ll have it all under control – or you’ll be done.”

Still. Nothing quite prepares you for this, not well enough, and I’ve had time to dwell on what I think are shortcomings, on my part. Things I would do differently if I got the chance, and maybe some things I would have tried to learn ahead of time, instead of on the job.

I want to describe it in this way.

Like some Senior NCOs I know, I wish I had the ability to be absolutely sure I was dead right despite all evidence to the contrary. That comes in handy.

Like Harry, I wish I could look some superior right in the eye and say, “What are they gonna do, send me to Iraq?”

Like my Mess NCOIC (and acting 1SG), I wish I had instant deception radar detection. That man can see through BS more clearly than anyone I’ve ever met, outside Mrs. Dadmanly.

Like my CO, I wish I had that almost psychic ability to know who’s up to no good, and exactly when and where they’re up to it. Not that I want to be a Cop, but “law” enforcement is a pretty essential mission of the 1SG.

Like my favorite GSR “Romeo” Specialist, with whom I shared the ordeal of Leave, I wish I had an ability to find humor in absolutely any situation, and infect everyone around me with it as well.

Like my favorite S1 clerk, I wish I had her skill with composition and her ready ease with connecting to people and making friends. She charmed my entire motor section, the hard nosed ones, who now treat her like a kid sister, and would put a serious hurt on anyone who messed with her.

Like my company clerk, I wish I could bounce back from adversity with that much grace and dedication. He’s been quite the example in humility and loyalty.

Like my favorite LT, I wish I could keep a sense of total irreverence, when everybody else goes off the deep end of rigidly “towing the company line.”

Like my favorite NCOIC, I wish I had his courage, his instant judgment that holds up upon further reflection, his commitment to his soldiers, and his easy going manner when off mission.

Like my maintenance guys, I wish I knew half of what any of them know about vehicles. Like my cooks, I wish I could serve my soldiers as well as they do. Like my Analysts, I wish I could pursue the enemy with their relentless drive and dedication. Like our Staff soldiers, I wish I could have a fraction of the patience and perseverance as they’ve demonstrated under difficult conditions. Like my supply guys, I wish it was always the 4th best day of my life.

I stand at the end of this day, literally and figuratively. Sure, each day brings new surprises, but I lose my patience. I need to keep all of our heads in the game, but I weary of hard lessons and tough love and goodbyes that will only increase from here forward.

Rosie did something neat when he retired. As he stood out in front of the formation for the last time, he thanked “All youse guys,” and took off both his boots, left them standing where he had, and walked away. He had warned me what he would be doing, and I took control of the formation.

(He later asked me to get his boots, or he’d be going home in socks.)

But it is what I remember last, and most. I’ve never completely filled those boots, not in a lot of ways that I think he would think are important, and in many ways I know are important.

I have always tried to do the right thing, and by the Grace of God, perhaps that’s been for the good, enough.
“Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it.” Whenever you turn to the right hand, or whenever you turn to the left. (Isaiah 30:21)
Other Profiles in the Series:
The Chaplain’s Assistant
The Analysts
Supply Sergeants
Cooks & Contractors
The LT
The Motor Sergeant
The CO

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