Fix the fitness test. Improve education and training opportunities for enlisted soldiers. Enforce standards. Come up with an "Army brand" that the service can stand behind.

The proposals aren't new. In the wrong hands, they can become grist for a gripe session — a list of problems without thought-out approaches to solutions.

But at the end of April, 79 noncommissioned officers — sergeants first class, master sergeants and first sergeants — gathered at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for the three-day NCO Solarium, where they worked with expert facilitators to develop proposals to address such hot-button topics, then presented them to leadership, including Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey.

"I learned a lot," Dailey told Army Times in a Thursday interview. "What are their issues, their concerns with what is going on with the Army? ... It's invaluable to understand their perspective."

Army Times interviewed a half-dozen of the participants, and while they all took their own lessons away from the conference, they agreed on a few points: Leadership was listening, many of the ideas already were in the Army's pipeline ... and the session was anything but a gripe-fest.

"I'm pretty sure everybody walked out of there with a sense of empowerment," 1st Sgt. Jonathan Quinones, assigned to a military police battalion at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. "The sense we mean something to the U.S. Army — a lot of us had forgotten that."

NCOs at the event — hosted by the Center for Army Leadership, part of Leavenworth's Combined Arms Center — were broken into seven presentation groups that spent a combined 4.5 hours in front of Dailey.

They were supposed to spend about three.

"I think he could've talked to these individuals the whole day," Sgt. Maj. Prescotte Hawkins, the center's lead NCO on the event. "Maybe for a couple of days. ... We had to cut him off sometimes."

A bit more about the seven presentations, and how they were received by the first enlisted Solarium:

1. Fixing fitness failures

Some NCOs expressed frustration with the Army's inability to hold soldiers to the existing fitness standards, as well as the standards themselves. While the conference didn't produce an exercise-by-exercise rundown of a new fitness test, it did stress several common critiques.

First, the group said the Army Physical Fitness Test should better match the requirements of combat. Possible changes could include adding a ruck march, swapping out pushups and/or situps for exercises that better measure functional strength, or dropping the two-mile run down to a mile.

"We're not going to run that far in combat," 1st Sgt. Robert Kraft Jr., with 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, out of Fort Riley, Kansas. "One of the other NCOs [at the Solarium] said, 'If I have to run two miles, we're probably losing the war.'"

Whatever the test looks like, unit fitness training needs to line up with the standards, the NCOs stressed. And whatever the standards are, commanders shouldn't be allowed to decline a separation packet for soldiers who fail the test. Doing so "undermines subordinate leaders' ability to create soldier-athletes," according to one of the presentation slides provided to Army Times.

"We get a lot of those comments, and we have for some time," Dailey said. "[Army Training and Doctrine Command] is doing a wonderful job, and they're not done yet. We're working that with our Soldier 2020 initiative, making sure that the initiatives we have for physical fitness also meet the demand of the Army."

2. Big-picture professionals

The experience and knowledge held by senior NCOs could add vital context to mission planning, but enlisted training doesn't provide enough opportunities to learn mission command concepts, the NCOs said — and officers know it.

"It's not that our opinion isn't valued everywhere, but I can honestly say our opinion isn't as valued in the planning room, because we're more of an execution element," said Master Sgt. Aaron Carter, with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, at Fort Drum, New York.

Proposed solutions included phasing mission command training into NCO education, and allowing select enlisted personnel to take the same planning courses as officers, allowing a "common level of competence," according to a presentation slide.

Some of the education could go even further down the chain, Carter said: "You walk up to a private on the street right now and you ask him what are 'unified land operations'? He's going to look at you like you're crazy ... but he may be participating in them."

3. Real standards, real evaluation

Much like the fitness presentation, one group of NCOs tackled the issue of standards on an Army-wide scale: The failure of some leaders to uphold them and, in some cases, even to know what they are.

In addition to proposing a "standardized reference guide" to cover topics such as Army traditions, training requirements, uniform rules and the like, the group suggested clearer, enforceable standards for initial entry training as well as "a standardized MOS-specific proficiency test to ensure that only fully qualified soldiers are selected for promotion," according to a presentation slide.

These proposals also would assist the evaluation process, serving as a check on often-inflated ratings that can lead to the wrong soldier advancing.

"We can't all be 'Among the Best,' " Quinones said, referencing the NCO evaluation report.

4. Training the trainers

Soldiers and units facing unwieldy training burdens isn't a new problem, nor is it unique to the NCO corps. But better education when it comes to managing these tasks, one NCO group said, not only would improve the training itself, but could lead to better discussions about managing the workload.

"Instead of saying, 'Hey, we can't do this, there's too many training requirements,' you have to say why — say what you're missing out on," said Master Sgt. Keith Marceau, operations NCO-in-charge with U.S. Army Pacific out of Fort Shafter, Hawaii.

Other fixes discussed by the group, Marceau said, included a back-to-basics approach that emphasized more individual training and less collective work, and a push to get NCOs involved in the training structure instead of relying on top-down organization. It is an issue with widespread effects.

"All of the groups but branding, they all keyed in on training being a key issue in the Army," Marceau said. "A lot of the stuff we would've covered ended up being covered by all the other groups."

5. 'This we'll defend'

Multiple NCOs from other groups lauded the work of presenters tasked with, as one member put it, "Coming up with a brand that's going to stick forever."

Their choice centered around "This We'll Defend" — the Army motto that's found on one of the first iconic images seen by incoming soldiers: The drill sergeant identification badge.

Proposed variants included "Honor, Family and Country — THIS We'll Defend!" according to a presentation slide. The group's aim was to figure out "How do we get this [Army message] to the masses?" said Master Sgt. Cynthia Hodge, with 426th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. "Let's go back to history. Let's go back to where it all began."

Marceau applauded the group's approach: "That's stood the test of time," he said. "That really hit home with me. Instead of just bouncing around, generation to generation, just get to the point of it."

The concept that the Army needed to move away from taglines and toward more permanent, iconic concepts was refreshing for Dailey, who'd just heard a very similar message from the Army's marketing team related to the launch of a new, no-tagline commercial.

"They came out with the exact same analysis," Dailey said, adding that "our marketing campaign is critical. ... We have to get our message out there."

6. Improved talent management

The service needs to do a better job of using the tools at its disposal to put the right soldier in the right job, one NCO group proposed, including the expansion of standardized mental evaluations and the 360 Multi-Source Assessment and Feedback system. The group suggested making that review mandatory for all sergeants first class and above.

Another area of concern: Better use of so-called "broadening assignments" — nontraditional tasks such as fellowships or legislative-assistant duties that may improve an NCO's knowledge base, but aren't always advertised.

"We're not officers, but there's still opportunities for us to seek that would broaden our skills and bring some necessary skills back to the Army," said 1st Sgt. Jeffrey Grothause, with 3rd Battalion, 81st Armored Regiment, out of Fort Benning, Georgia. "Things I don't think a lot of the NCOs in the Army know exist."

7. Tackling core concepts

"The current [self-structured development] system does not meet the needs of the Army," one group's presentation slide stated bluntly, adding that military occupational specialties "are not retaining the pertinent information that provide us with our core foundations."

A proposed fix: Combine the third phase of SSD with the first phase of the Advanced Leadership Course, and put the material under the ALC banner.

The group also recommended greater effort to identify training needed by soldiers before they accepted new assignments, helping speed up the education process and get them up to par in their new billet faster.

The talk found a receptive audience. Dailey "was impressed that we identified the exact same complex education issues and stated that our recommendations were spot on," said Master Sgt. Sylvorne Walters, with 501st Sustainment Brigade at Camp Carroll, South Korea, in an email. "He also stated that he was really impressed with the NCO Solarium because the groups identified in three days issues that the Army was working on identifying for much longer periods of time."

Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.

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