“A person cannot act based on watching what someone else does. Instead, one must act based on an understanding of oneself. To think like an individual. I cannot follow the bad example of what my superior does; I have to act based on my moral commitment to my peers, my commitment to my country,” said Dominican Navy Sergeant Major Juan Alberto Mañón Hernández, to the thunderous sound of applause. This was his response to a question from U.S. Army Sergeant Major Karim Mella on what an officer should do to show his subordinates what being a good leader is, initiating a subject matter expert exchange (SMEE) between the non-commissioned officers (NCOs) of both countries during the second week of June at the Dominican Army’s Military Education and Training Academy. The SMEE was led by SGM Mella and U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Rulberto Ojendismiranda, both from U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).
The Dominican Republic, along with other regional partner nations, is participating in a program focused on further professionalizing the work of military NCOs. Sponsored by SOUTHCOM, this program was sought by the countries to develop their armed forces and to empower their NCO corps.
According to Dominican Army Brigadier General, Rubén Darío Contreras Polanco, director of the academy where the workshop took place, the goal of the seminar was to “add value to the military careers of our non-commissioned officers, so that when they return to their respective units, they can share the experiences and the knowledge they acquired during the two days of exchange with the sergeants and subordinates in their environment.” Brig. Gen. Contreras is clear that with this exchange, the participants will be able to make their senior leadership understand that an NCO career is a reality, and that it will be of vital importance for the Dominican Army to have a more professional corps of NCOs “that can respond to the needs of the institution in a not-too-distant future.”
Organic Law of 2013
The role of NCOs in the Dominican Armed Forces was attributed to the country’s recent Organic Law of 2013. Almost automatically, the Army was the first institution to comply with the order of creating a school that included non-commissioned officer categories 1, 2, and 3. “We are creating a school and starting to work on designing study plans for the courses,” explained Colonel Ambiorix Cepeda Hernández, current assistant director of theMilitary Education and Training Academy. “We are creating a program and seeking military consulting mainly from officers who have graduated from WHINSEC (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) and other important academic institutions in the United States.
According to Col. Cepeda, the process of going from sergeant to NCO is “a bit complicated,” mainly because of the mentality of sergeants with respect to being promoted to lieutenant in their military careers. “Sometimes we want to get to certain rank, but we end up leaving behind other, better opportunities that life gives us. As NCOs, these servicemen and women have a better quality of life, more authority, and respect from officers, but sometimes they don’t see that or they don’t understand that very well,” said Gen. Contreras.
Thus, the High Command of the Dominican Armed Forces recognizes the importance of these seminars. “Since the U.S. Armed Forces went through this transformation over 200 years ago, the experience brought to the table by the U.S. NCOs is essential for our officers to be able to better understand how this transition is carried out,” added Col. Cepeda. “I understand that this leadership course is very important for me because I will develop better, and I will perform better in my area since I will acquire knowledge that I didn’t have when I came here,” added Sgt. Maj. Mañón Hernández.
A Long and Gradual Process
Both the High Command of the Dominican Armed Forces and their U.S. counterparts understand that these are just the first steps in a long and gradual process, since the mentality has to change in addition to the academic structure for both, Dominican officers and subordinates who are used to years of clear separation from each other.
Army Section Chief Major Robert Hammock, of the Office of Security Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic, agrees. “It is an enormous challenge, but we are fortunate to have a military as well as a civil leadership that is very receptive to this type of change at this time in the country’s history.”
Maj. Hammock is referring to the aforementioned Organic Law, which establishes a NCO Corps in each component of the Dominican Armed Forces. “We are here, taking the first steps and working intensely. The senior Dominican leadership and other institutions in the country are quite receptive, so that’s why we are currently seeing very positive changes,” he said.
In addition to workshops such as these, the United States is prepared to help Dominican officers implement a cadre of more professional NCOs with continuous exchanges between key national leaders, such as unit commanders, the Minister of Defense, and the NCOs themselves. “The U.S. Military members that work here are really surprised by the professionalism of the Dominican Armed Forces. Thanks to the leadership of their NCOs and their subordinates’ training, they have everything they need to become a much stronger organization. All of the prerequisites are in place; they just need to begin this institutional reform. I believe that the foundation is in place to do that now,” affirmed Maj. Hammock.
“The goal of [NCOs] used to be to become commissioned. That was their great achievement. Not anymore; now with this way of looking at things that [the U.S. personnel] are giving them in these workshops, and the experience they are bringing us, it is changing the perspective of a sergeant about when they become Category 1, then Category 2, and depending on their development, they can get to a level where they feel that it is similar to a commissioned officer, and that we are giving them the same prerogatives as that officer,” explained Lieutenant Colonel Bienvenido Uñera Aquino, commander of the Dominican Army’s NCO School, who discussed the institution under his command during the workshop.
“The senior leadership here in the Dominican Republic is working on these issues, and we have advanced quite a bit. We are still advancing. The way I understand it, we’re not missing anything [in order to have an NCO Corps such as the United States]; what we need is to continue implementing or proceeding with what is already happening. Because here [in the Dominican Republic] the senior leadership has learned how to go ahead with these changes,” concluded Sgt. Maj. Mañón Hernández.