NCO conference builds relationships, trust between European partners, allies

By Sgt. Daniel J. Nichols, U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs
May 14, 2010

GARDEREN, the Netherlands -- A great opportunity that promotes change for the better.

That seemed to be the common assessment among the 35 senior enlisted leaders who participated in the Conference of European Armies for Noncommissioned Officers here May 9-12. This year’s conference, sponsored by U.S. Army Europe and hosted by the Dutch armed forces, is the fourth such annual gathering of top NCOs from across Europe and North America.

Most of the CEANCO participants are the highest-ranking enlisted leaders in their nations’ forces, equivalent in rank to the U.S. Sergeant Major of the Army. The conference is designed to bring those senior enlisted leaders together in one place at one time, as NCOs, to help strengthen partnerships and facilitate security cooperation, said interim USAREUR Command Sgt. Maj. Roger Blackwood.

“It’s where we can share ideas, thoughts, the way of doing things … (CEANCO) gives us that great opportunity to come together in one room and specifically focus on the betterment of our noncommissioned officer corps within our armies,” Blackwood said.

This year’s conference focused on the theme “Train the Trainer,” and on ways of improving trainers and training methods. But while making training better and more collaborative was at the heart of the conference agenda, it was not the only benefit of the event.

Most nations represented at the conference are coalition partners in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.  Many of the senior leaders who attended said they feel CEANCO has a positive impact on operations in those and other battlefields.

“It helps initially to get everyone together, to get everyone talking … communication is the best part and the essential part of coalition forces,” said Warrant Officer Class 2 Tony Gordon, the British Armed Forces’ deputy liaison to USAREUR. “If we’re going to work together we need to talk to each other, and this is a perfect platform to communicate and talk to each other.”

“This is a good occasion to know each other better,” said Command Sgt. Maj. János Zsótér, senior enlisted leader of the Hungarian Land Forces and its 25th Infantry Brigade. “If I send [a team] to Afghanistan or another part of the world, I can call [Command] Sergeant Major Blackwood and get information from him.”

In fact, European nations comprise the majority of the 46 nations listed on NATO’s ISAF Web site as current members of the multinational force fighting in that country. U.S. Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston said he believes joint operations that bring two or more services together, and combined operations that bring forces from two or more nations together, are now a fixture of modern warfare.

“Joint and combined forces are really the way ahead for the future,” said Preston. “If you look at joint [operations] and interoperability among our services, we are more joint today with all of our services within the United States, but we’re also more combined with forces from other countries.”

“This world is small, and we’re all together now,” said Blackwood. “Nobody is standing alone. And as you can see, throughout our world and in Afghanistan, in Iraq, it takes the coalition that has formed and that continues to build, because in the future this is the way it’s going to be done -- together.”

In addition to the “normal advantages” CEANCO provides in bringing senior enlisted leaders together, this year’s conference had an added benefit for countries whose forces are serving in Afghanistan.

“The most interesting thing to me is that this year (Sgt. Maj. of the Afghan National Army Safi Roshan) is here,” said U.S. Navy Fleet Master Chief Petty Officer Roy M. Maddocks, the U.S. European Command’s senior enlisted advisor. “So for the countries who are here that are training teams to go down the pipe to Afghanistan, talking with the Afghan sergeant major helps them understand what the fight is like now.”

Discussions during the conference centered on improving training and combined operations, as well as looking at ways to develop the participating countries’ NCO Corps.

“I think that not only in the Dutch army, but in most armies, NCOs are the guys that make things work,” said Royal Netherlands Army Command Sgt. Maj. T.J.A. Witlox. “The comparison is there’s a big body: there’s a brain, there’s a backbone, and the legs. The legs being the Soldiers, we have to prepare them; we have to train them we have to equip them; we have to take care of them; and it’s the NCOs’ role to do that. The brain will think of plans, and the NCOs will make things happen. They are definitely the backbone, and I think it’s the same in all armies.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Janez Šmid of the Slovenian Armed Forces’ Forces Command said the collaboration and tools provided by the CEANCO events of the past four years have helped to build his nation’s NCO Corps. Šmid said the Slovenian forces will be able to claim success in noncommissioned officer development when its Soldiers routinely progress through their NCO system from junior to senior enlisted leader ranks.

“We expect it to be fully developed when the platoon leader and platoon sergeant which are now in the platoons, will be in the position where I am now,” said Šmid. “So FORSCOM CSM and force commander -- this would be the end state. To get to that end state there is a lot of work to do, but I don’t think we are walking to that end state -- I think we are running there,” he said.

The three-day conference included multiple training presentations, group discussions, training demonstrations, and a visit to the area where Operation Market Garden – the largest airborne attack of World War II – took place. The days were long, but the participants’ spirits and seemed to stay high.

“I wish that we could do it more frequently,” said Preston. “I think the more frequently you bring people together, the more you establish relationships -- the more people get to know each other.”

“We’re building trust. Among Soldiers, trust is probably the most important thing we have with each other,” said Blackwood. “(When) you achieve that trust, that’s when you can really go forward and do some of the missions that we do together.”

While the interaction at CEANCO occurs among NCOs and is designed to develop the capabilities of NCOs, the conference has another not-so-thinly disguised aim -- to improve the proficiency and quality of life of junior soldiers and mentor them to be the next generation of NCO leaders.

“Events like this are a perfect opportunity for exchanging experiences,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Armed Forces of the Slovak Republic Richard Fabricius. “It’s our [duty] to soldiers to get as much as possible of the knowledge and expertise of other servicemembers of other countries serving in different positions. And that’s our contribution to the soldiers. We’re trying to get as much knowledge as possible so we can transfer it, take it and use it in our military to make them better soldiers.”

Visit the USAREUR Flickr Set for photos from this event.