NCO Academy

By Circe Woessner

In 2004 the Noncommissioned Officer’s Academy on Kirtland Air Force Base decided to integrate civilians into their six-week enlisted professional development program. It was not a new concept: many military leadership development programs had civilians participate, but they were mostly higher-level programs for officers and high-ranking GS employees.  The NCO Academy was one of the first leadership courses that airmen (E-5) would attend.

Civilian Circe Woessner, "D Flight" in the Kirtland AFB must have been a sore trial to her table partner

The reasoning of opening the NCOA to civilians was that the in the Air Force’s climate of shared leadership, civilians often fill positions that have traditionally been held by military officers. Because the Air Force active duty and Department of Air Force civilians work so closely together, it would be a good idea for the airmen and civilians  (GS 6-GS-9) to gain perspectives through shared experiences.

When I read that the Kirtland AFB NCO Academy was selecting one civilian per class, I decided I wanted to apply.  I had no real idea what the NCO Academy was, but it sounded challenging and I was up for a challenge.

A typical day at the Kirtland NCOA

The application process required that my immediate supervisor, the Education Service Chief and the “my” Squadron Commander approve my going.  If selected, I would be obligated to remain in government service for an additional several months—or I’d have to pay back the cost of the course and my time that I was away from work.

To my surprise, I was selected, and within a couple of weeks, I literally found myself immersed in a totally foreign culture. I was one of the first five civilians selected to go.

D Flight at Hooters--Army Brat Iain Woessner joins the group for dinner.

I had several strikes against me: I was an Army Officer’s wife, I was somewhat of a hippy, I was a civilian instructor, and I was older than most of my classmates.

It was hard to blend in. My classmates wore uniforms; I wore my regular civilian clothes. I was the only civilian in a class of about 100 active duty. I had definite opinions and didn’t back down when challenged. I participated in whatever the rest of them did, be it drill and ceremony, public speaking or socializing at Hooters.

I was not in the greatest shape and I have a problem differentiating between left and right—which is not the best thing when marching in formation.  I had a huge learning curve.

My husband was no help. First of all, he informed me, the last time he had done drill and ceremony was in 1988 in Officer’s Candidate School (OCS), and second: the Army does things differently. I was on my own.

The NCOA consisted of three sections: Communication, Operational Airman/Unit Manager, and Military Professional Education.

Circe Woessner at the Kirtland Air Force Base NCOA graduation

Because I lived near Kirtland Air Force Base, I went home each night while my classmates stayed in the dorms.  Although I was based at home, I still had to attend the evening study sessions, social events and Physical Training and drill practice. It made for long days.

Our routine was this: Gather for morning formation, attend class, break for lunch, march in formation over to the track to do PT, March back to the NCOA for formation and then have drill and ceremony practice.

I learned quite a bit about myself.  I refused to be the old lady who couldn’t pass the PT test. I refused to be the civilian who “fell out” of formation, and I refused to fail any of the modules.  I was going to graduate in the top half of my group—or die trying.

I broke my little toe the first week of class. I taped my toes together and carried on.

I found out that standing in formation aggravates my claustrophobia, and that in July and August in New Mexico, the National Anthem and subsequent taking down of the flag is the longest ten minutes ever. I also learned that mis-stepping while marching in formation messes up everybody around you, and that the guy right behind you knows all sorts of clever tricks to make you trip while marching.

I also learned a lot about teamwork, esprit de corps, and how to march my flight around the parade ground.  After six weeks, I was in better shape, more aware of the military mindset, and was definitely better accepted by my fellow NCOA graduates.

I think the experience was good. I tested myself in ways I never would have. I was pushed out of my comfort zone and I definitely challenged some of my classmates’ assumptions about me, officer’s wives, and about civilians in general.

At graduation, I felt proud of myself. I had done it—I had survived the hardest six weeks of my life—and I did well.

When Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force Sam E. Parish and Paul W. Airey came up to thank me for being a pioneer, I felt so honored.

Although I don’t think all of the NCOA graduates appreciated my attending, I think many of them did.  I have mixed thoughts about it—part of me thinks that throwing a civilian into what is a rite of passage for NCOs dilutes the experience.  Part of me thinks that this is good—a civilian can offer very different perspectives, which military instructors can only allude to.

My experience at the Kirtland AFB NCO Academy made me really appreciate what enlisted men and women go through.

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