Issue Date: October 04, 2004
Estrada takes aim at gunner’s gripes
Claims diverse background is key for senior enlisted advisers
By Gordon Lubold
Times staff writer
When Marine gunners meeting for their annual symposium griped that some first sergeants and sergeants major assigned to combat units lacked the adequate experience to be effective advisers to their commanders, you’d think someone had suggested Chesty Puller was a wimp.
The infantry weapons officers say the Corps needs to change its personnel assignment policy to prevent senior enlisted advisers from being assigned to units for which they don’t have the requisite background.
Otherwise, in the words of one chief warrant officer, some senior enlisted advisers are simply “dead weight” within their units.
The gunners might consider taking cover. Word of their concerns has rocketed across the Marine Corps, and many senior enlisted Marines and officers are furious.
Gunners don’t get it, said Sgt. Maj. John Estrada, sergeant major of the Marine Corps.
“They have insulted all enlisted Marines,” Estrada said of the gunners, who serve as the technical infantry advisers to units at the battalion level and higher.
The gunners’ chief concern is that first sergeants and sergeants major are too often being assigned to units that are outside their military occupational specialty — a military police Marine assigned to an AV-8B Harrier jet squadron, for example, or a motor transport wrench-turner advising an infantry company commander. The gunners are concerned that senior enlisted advisers assigned to infantry units in Iraq just don’t have the background to be effective advisers.
“We can ill afford carrying dead weight by assigning someone that can’t understand the duties we are performing,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jeffery L. Eby, the senior gunner for Regimental Combat Team 7 in Iraq.
But Estrada — who came up through the ranks as a fixed-wing aircraft maintainer — said it is a diverse background that allows first sergeants and sergeants major to be effective advisers on issues ranging from troop welfare, morale and discipline to air, ground and support issues.
The first sergeant and sergeant major military occupational specialty was never intended to be a technical job, Estrada said. Besides, he said, commanders are already surrounded by experts.
“What you don’t need ... is another expert,” the sergeant major said. “He needs someone that can also help him take care of all those other things that make that unit in combat.”
But the infantry weapons officer occupational field manager, CWO5 Patrick Woellhof, questioned that notion.
“That’s weak,” he said. “What’s having a diversified background got a hill of beans to do with troop welfare? Troop welfare is bringing kids home. That’s what troop welfare is.”
It’s not that first sergeants and sergeants major now in combat are cowards, Woellhof said. Rather, he said, some don’t have any credibility with the Marines they lead.
Well-rounded or specific?
But when Woellhof and other gunners sounded off after their August symposium at Quantico, Va., they might as well have challenged the senior enlisted leadership to a duel.
“I am amazed how someone could sit in Quantico and discuss the performance of the first sergeants and sergeants major without being here in Iraq,” wrote Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, sergeant major of I Marine Expeditionary Force, in an e-mail to the gunners that he passed on to Estrada. “The sergeants major and first sergeants are on the forefront and are not afraid of combat.”
The Army assigns senior enlisted advisers differently; they stay within their career field and are only assigned to units for which they have experience.
But Kent and other critics of the gunners’ comments believe it is the well-rounded background that makes senior enlisted advisers in the Corps better leaders.
And Estrada notes that of the 52 gunners now serving, 49 of them had requested promotion to first sergeant before becoming warrant officers. That’s a statistic he believes is indicative of how much the rank is respected. Estrada also noted that the selection rate for first sergeants is a mere 17 percent.
Estrada accepts that some first sergeants and sergeants major could be better trained before they go to a unit, however.
“Should the first sergeant be someone familiar with what goes on in that unit? You’re damn right he should,” he said.
Had gunners simply recommended that senior enlisted advisers receive better training, Estrada said he would have embraced the idea.
Estrada has received dozens of e-mails and phone calls about the issue, not only from other sergeants major and first sergeants, but also from junior and senior officers.
“To have painted all senior enlisted with the same broad brush of incompetence is wrong and to do so in a public forum is unthinkable,” one first sergeant wrote to the gunners from Iraq. The e-mail was forwarded to Estrada.
“While I agree that the system we have in place is not perfect and I’m sure that associated problems exist, I also know that procedures are in place to remedy these problems when they do occur.”
Or this, from a colonel:
“I am personally offended that the CWOs would make such allegations,” he wrote. “I have had no trouble holding the gun to a [first sergeant or sergeant major] and allowing them to pull the trigger… 99 percent of the [senior staff noncommissioned officers] do a terrific job.”
But Woellhof has received his own share of e-mails and phone calls. They’re not all negative, he said. “I’ve got commanders and sergeants major saying you’re right on point.”