WASHINGTON - National Guard senior officers and enlisted leaders gathered here Wednesday morning to listen to the National Guard's Outstanding Soldiers and Airmen of the Year discuss issues ranging from how to lead through a drawdown to tackling suicide.
Army Sgt. Anthony Calvi, the Army National Guard's Noncommissioned Officer of the Year, and Army Spc. Piero Lopez, its Soldier of the Year, joined Air Force Tech. Sgt. Melissa Knight, the Air National Guard's Noncommissioned Officer of the Year; Air Force Master Sgt. Andre Davis, Senior Noncommissioned Officer of the Year; Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Mike Schmaling, First Sergeant of the Year; and Air Force Master Sgt. Olympia Williamson, Air National Guard Honor Guard Member of the Year on stage before a four-star audience.
Senior leaders who included Army Gen. Frank Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, and Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Mitch Brush, his senior enlisted advisor, as well as the directors of both the Army and the Air National Guard, their senior enlisted leaders and state adjutants general and state enlisted leaders, listened intently as the outstanding Guard members discussed their concerns about the future of the force, leadership, sexual harassment and other issues.
Schmaling said that, with only about three in 10 high school students able to meet military recruiting standards, he is concerned about the quality of the recruiting pool – and about ongoing budget constraints.
"The strongest motivation is competition," Calvi said, explaining how he plans to keep his soldiers fully engaged in tight fiscal times. It is up to leaders at all levels to innovate and motivate, regardless of budget constraints, he said.
Davis said he keeps airmen motivated by finding out what personal reasons they had for enlisting and reminding them of the goals they have set for themselves. "When you find that motivator, it makes them strive for more," he said.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the vice chief of the National Guard Bureau, said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel asks senior leaders at weekly meetings to address the issue, "How can we eradicate sexual harassment and assault from our ranks?"
Lengyel asked the soldiers and airmen what he should tell the secretary.
"It's been refreshing to see the change in awareness," Williamson said, noting that she has seen a constant push to raise awareness at her Wing, from bathroom stall campaign posters to ongoing training.
Sexual assault and harassment is a societal problem not confined to the military, said Knight, who has served as a victim advocate in her civilian career. Addressing the challenge includes leadership setting an example to younger service members and decisive enforcement.
Calvi said it comes down to personal accountability, keeping peers in line and not being afraid to speak up.
Both Calvi and Lopez noted that they are infantry soldiers who have not faced significant harassment or assault issues but are actively preparing for the increased role of women in more military occupational specialties, including combat-related roles.
"Right now is the time" to educate the force, Calvi said.
"We are preparing," Lopez said. "What I do see is awareness."
The bottom line is soldiers taking care of soldiers, Lopez said: "They are our battle buddies."
Army Brig. Gen. Les Simpson asked the Guard members what more needs to be done to build ready and resilient units and stem suicides.
Continued education, using the wingman concept and a willingness to intervene are critical, Knight said. "It's really hard for individuals to reach out and say that they need help," she said. Instead, it's up to each service member to watch out for those around them.
Davis said it comes down to getting to know your troops, recalling an experience where a senior leader asked how well he knew his airmen, then proceeded to demonstrate through dialog that he could get to know them better in less than a minute of careful listening even though he had never met them before.
Williamson said she has made a point in a first sergeant role of setting aside two to three hours to talk with drilling Guard members – and that leaders can inspire subordinates to look out for those around them. "What I notice is that my [subordinates] now are doing what I'm doing."
"To notice a change in behavior," Calvi observed, "you have to know the soldiers more than just one weekend a month," he said.
When the soldiers and airmen were asked what sets them apart, Schmaling said he sought out opportunities: "I played the hand that I was dealt. There was a little bit of skill, little bit of luck, but I was able to respond to those opportunities."
Williamson said the mentoring, encouragement and recognition of supervisors helped her achieve.
For Calvi, it was dedication, hard work and the Warrior Ethos. When he was running second to last in state competitions, he refused to quit, inspired by a sponsor. "I will never quit," he said. "Now I'm sitting up here."
Lopez said he was inspired by highly competitive peers – and that attention to detail also helped. "My peer didn't shave that day," he said, explaining how he gained the edge at one level of competition.
"We're not special," Knight said. "I've met so many people from throughout the Guard, and I've been so impressed."
"These are representative of the soldiers and airmen throughout the National Guard," Lengyel said. "It's everywhere you go: Our National Guard is the best-trained, best-equipped, most professional force in its history and our Guard members are the reason why."
The Air National Guard's Airman of the Year, Air Force Staff Sgt. Chadwick Boles, and its Honor Guard Program Manager of the Year, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jaimie Jones were unable to attend Wednesday because of scheduling conflicts.