The Noncommissioned Officer Academy at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation helps professionalize the armed forces of the Americas.
On May 2, 1968, in a dense jungle area west of Loc Ninh, Vietnam, a large-scale North Vietnam Army infantry battalion surrounded a 12-man U.S. Army Special Forces patrol. Upon hearing the patrol’s radio call for help, U.S. Army Master Sergeant Raul Perez “Roy” Benavidez boarded a helicopter to assist with the emergency extraction.
Armed only with a knife, he ran with a medical bag to help the troops. The six hours Master Sgt. Benavidez spent on the battlefield left him with seven major gunshot wounds, 28 shrapnel wounds to the head, scalp, shoulder, buttocks, feet, and legs. Enemy combatants slashed both his arms with bayonets and clubbed him to the mouth and head with a rifle butt. A bullet from an AK-47 entered his back and exited just beneath his heart.
Despite his injuries, Master Sgt. Benavidez made it out of the battlefield alive and was eventually evacuated to Fort Sam Houston’s Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. He spent nearly a year recovering. On February 24, 1981, U.S. President Ronald Reagan presented Master Sgt. Benavidez with the Medal of Honor.
Twenty years later, the soldier was honored again. His name graced the MSG Roy P. Benavidez Noncommissioned Officer Academy (NCOA) located at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in Fort Benning, Columbus, Georgia.
“Our NCO [noncommissioned officer] Academy has the distinction of being the only institution of its kind in the U.S. Army, because it is a multinational interagency environment that brings a level of knowledge and experience to share with all the NCOs across the Americas, and we do it in Spanish,” U.S. Army Colonel Robert F. Alvaro, commandant of WHINSEC, told Diálogo. “But it’s the same course we give our own soldiers.”
International students and instructors
While most classes are taught in Spanish, NCOA welcomes students from Brazil and the Caribbean as well. Portuguese and English speaking students are often placed with a Spanish-speaking counterpart, forming an almost instant, and very necessary, bond.
“My colleagues who speak English always try to help me out,” said Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force (Regiment) Corporal Shevanand Samooj. “When you are participating in a virtual reality training, it’s easier because people are accustomed to using English terms. I am also learning Spanish. In the end, we all understand each other and that’s what’s important.”
Instructors at NCOA embody the school’s diversity. According to U.S. Army Sergeant Major Karim Mella, commandant of NCOA, the current roster includes instructors from Belize, Brazil, and Paraguay.
Catering to U.S. partner nations
U.S. partner nations in the Americas select courses according to their needs. “Their requests normally come after they observe our NCO training, or they notice how our NCOs are developed. They point out what they need and we analyze what kind of training we can offer,” Sgt. Maj. Mella said. “The main focus of the school is on leader development.”
WHINSEC’s NCOA offers three courses. The Basic Enlisted Leadership Professional Development, a five-week course, teaches leadership skills for junior NCOs at the team and squad leader level. The Advanced Enlisted Leadership Professional Development, a seven-week course, focuses on developing leadership skills at the sergeant first class/platoon sergeant level. As for the Master Enlisted Leadership Professional Development track, the 10-week course serves as a forum for master sergeants and sergeant majors—and their equivalents in all services—of the Americas to strengthen their skills and knowledge in areas of training, leadership, national studies, and operations.
“All subjects taught in the Benavidez NCOA are in accordance with United States Army doctrine and certified by our higher headquarters, the Combined Arms Center, and by the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command,” Sgt. Maj. Mella said. “In addition to the regular leadership subjects taught at the academy, students receive a minimum of 16 hours of democracy, ethics and human rights training, and participate in the Field Studies Program.”
The professional development course concentrates on leadership, operations, and war fighting functions. The last week of training consists of using a simulator to allow students to put into practice what was learned.
“The computers simulate soldiers in a battlefield, like a video game,” said U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Mario Garcia, course director who is originally from Ecuador. “The students conduct missions, using everything they learned in class for six weeks, like procedures, formation, platoon movements, platoon defense, and observation posts. It’s like a field training exercise, but with computers.”
A two-way road
Foreign students learn a lot from their U.S. counterparts, and bring much to the table as well. “Countries like Colombia, who have been dealing with a civil war for the last 50 years; countries like Uruguay or Paraguay that have very detailed and successful ongoing peacekeeping operations; all these countries bring concrete experience to the classroom,” said U.S. Army First Sergeant Luis Perez, deputy master sergeant at WHINSEC’s NCOA. “That’s the most important thing—that they bring that experience, that know-how, and we can take a little bit from each country. In essence, being a good leader is also being a good listener. We take our students’ input, and thus, become better instructors.”
According to 1st Sgt. Perez, NCOA’s leadership promotes gender integration, a difficult task considering the small, at times non-existent, number of female NCOs in the region. “We’re working with the country teams to open that up, and I know it’s a theme that the commandant [Col. Alvaro] really pushes. We preach how important it is to have females in this role [NCO], and the importance of gender integration. We’re working on it, and we will improve.”
Chilean Army Staff Sergeant Lorena Gomez Lara, the only female NCO attending classes at the school during Diálogo’s visit in June, said that doctrine similarities between both armies made it easy to adapt. “The most interesting part for me is to learn from soldiers who were in an actual war zone, something that does not happen in Chile, since we have not had a conflict in several years. To be able to share experiences with instructors and even students, who have had the opportunity to apply in real life what they have learned in training, is fascinating.”
Perhaps, Brazilian Army Staff Sergeant Breno Lucas Ribeiro best summed up what it means to be an international student at WHINSEC’s NCOA. “Sharing strategies and knowledge is the strongest point of this mission,” he concluded. “Coming here gave me the opportunity to understand and assimilate the school’s motto: Freedom, Peace, and Fraternity. And that is the sentiment I will bring back home to share with my brothers in arms.”