Opinion: A tribute to our military NCOs’ leadership, sacrifice

Photo credit: U.S. Army

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Photo credit: U.S. Army

Thoughts around Memorial Day and those it honors.

Like you, my thoughts this holiday weekend are on those who made the ultimate sacrifice defending our way of life and all we hold dear. To paraphrase President George W. Bush at the Sept. 11, 2021, Flight 93 memorial service, the Americans who lost their lives beginning in 2001 defended the beliefs of our country and advanced the rights of the oppressed.

Once again, the drums of war are beating. What we are witnessing in Ukraine has elicited a visceral response from peace-loving people everywhere. The fierce resistance Ukrainians are mounting has revealed the Russian army’s considerable flaws, the most obvious of which is the inability to sustain advancing formations. High-tech weapons systems will not overcome a lack of fuel, food, spare parts and other means of supporting operations.

Remarkably, the indomitable Ukrainians stalled the Russian assault on Kyiv through sheer determination. More significant, however, is the apparent dearth of leadership at the lower echelons of the Russian army, a reality that has manifested in the death of multiple Russian general officers.

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Col. Tom Weikert

Credit: contributed

Col. Tom Weikert

Credit: contributed

Combined ShapeCaption
Col. Tom Weikert

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

To be sure, many Russian soldiers are conscripts. They were drafted into military service and deployed to Ukraine. The U.S. Army has relied on the draft in previous wars, but now, of course, our organization is composed entirely of volunteers. In other words, the United States fields a professional Army, which makes an enormous difference. However, what makes all the difference, what sets the U.S. Army apart from most other armies, is the Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) Corps. NCOs make things happen. They are “the backbone of the Army.”

NCOs motivate soldiers into action, inspire them and drive them forward, usually by personal example. Whether in combat or training, their leadership is essential. They are the primary source of motivation and discipline in our Army. They keep the wheels of the American way of war turning.

One can point to famous names such as Alvin York (World War I), Audie Murphy (World War II), Basil Plumley (World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War; also played by Sam Elliott in the movie “We Were Soldiers”) as exemplars of outstanding NCO leadership. And there are perhaps lesser lights in the Army’s former NCO ranks, including a certain sergeant (E5) surnamed “Presley.”

Then there is Sgt. First Class (SFC) Alwyn Crendall Cashe, an NCO in a league all his own. I had the opportunity to attend his Medal of Honor Hall of Valor Induction Ceremony in April at Fort Benning’s National Infantry Museum. Unfortunately, SFC Cashe did not participate as he is no longer with us, having given his life in Iraq in 2005. But you better believe his surviving dependents – his wife and children – were there! The Army G-1 (think the head of HR) was also in attendance. He presided over the induction ceremony. When the Army sends the G-1, a three-star general, to an event such as this one, they are sending a message. Yes, this is a big deal. More on that later.

Again, Alwyn Cashe was no ordinary NCO driving soldiers forward and making things happen. His Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, or IFV, struck an IED near Samarra, Iraq, on October 17, 2005, and the vehicle was on fire. Flames were consuming his young soldiers. So, what did he do? He went in after them! With his uniform on fire and dodging enemy bullets, SFC Cashe returned again and again to the burning vehicle to pull his “guys” out. He repeatedly refused medical aid. He would not stop until every one of them was out of harm’s way. Ultimately, he retrieved all 6 soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter from the vehicle.

Suffering second and third-degree burns over nearly 72% of his body, SFC Cashe would not recover. Finally, on November 8, 2005, he succumbed to his wounds at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. The doctors could not save him despite Army trauma medicine’s best efforts and BAMC’s world-renowned burn clinic.

Who was the Army G-1 presiding over SFC Cashe’s induction into the National Infantry Museum’s Hall of Valor? Why it was none other than Lt. Gen. (LTG) Gary Brito. LTG Brito was SFC Cashe’s battalion commander during that fateful deployment to Iraq in 2005. Over many years, he relentlessly pursued the Medal of Honor for this uncommon NCO. Brito initially nominated Cashe for a lesser award, the Silver Star. However, once he learned more about this American’s extraordinary heroism and the severity of his injuries, Brito pushed for an upgrade to the Medal of Honor. As a result, SFC Cashe earned the award and memorialization at Fort Benning’s Hall of Valor for his bravery at significant risk to his own life.

In addition, he modeled the US Army NCO Creed as well as any NCO before him.

And so it is on Memorial Day 2022 that I tip my hat to the U.S. Army’s Noncommissioned Officers, especially those selfless Americans such as Alwyn Cashe. They devoted their professional lives to setting the proper example for their soldiers. They led from the front and saved their soldiers’ lives in some cases.

All gave some, and some, like SFC Alwyn Crendall Cashe, gave all.

While the U.S. Army is far from perfect as an organization, fine NCOs such as Alwyn Cashe continue to inspire young men and women while directing their efforts. They motivate them to be all they can be so that we remain the finest professional fighting force in the world.

We must never forget.

“All Soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership. I know my Soldiers, and I will always place their needs above my own.”

--From the U.S. Army NCO Creed.

U.S. Army Col. Tom Weikert is currently assigned to the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Ft. Benning. With more than 35 years in uniform, he has deployed four times in support of Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and Inherent Resolve.

The views expressed here are his own, and not those of the U.S. military.