NCOs tackle new responsibility, forever lead the way

24 Aug 2009 | Cpl. Scott Schmidt

Historically, Marine Corps noncommissioned officers are the go-to decision makers on the battlefield, taking on tremendous authority and responsibility as small unit leaders.

In a move to advance stronger leadership at the small unit level, the Marine Corps is now taking advantage of their NCOs and allowing corporals and sergeants to exercise the same authority and accountability in garrison as they have in combat.

Last year, NCOs were given an initial five-month trial period in which they assumed full charge of the Corps’ vehicle safety program May through October 2008. According to the Marine Corps’ safety Division, the period proved so promising it was extended through January 2009.

Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, expressed his concerns for the 177 Marine fatalities from fiscal year 2005 and 2008 due to off-duty motor vehicle accidents – the equivalent strength of a reinforced rifle company. He said the majority of these accidents could be prevented and enforced awareness starts with NCOs.

“As a Corps,” he explained in a statement to the Corps’ commanding generals issued last year. “We have to gain control of the problem. I am concerned some of these losses may have been prevented through stronger leadership at the small unit level.”

Under the new program, NCOs are responsible for conducting risk assessments as part of the leave and liberty process and are empowered to make recommendations to approve or disapprove liberty based on their assessments.

The NCO corps has embraced their new authority.

“The program increased my effectiveness as an NCO because it facilitated the corporals and sergeants in the liberty and safety process,” explained Cpl. Desmond Richard, a clerk with the distribution management office at Marine Corps Support Facility Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va. “There are so many Marines below a staff NCO when it comes to safety and leave. [Having an NCO in the mix] elevates stress on both the junior and senior Marines."

Col. James D. Grace, director, Marine Corps Safety Division, said the implementation of an NCO-lead safety program has had a direct result on the stark reduction in vehicle fatalities during the past year.

Fiscal year 2008 was at an all time low with only 23 fatalities from privately owned vehicles and the greatest decrease, 42 percent, was among 17 to 25-year-olds.

Grace said, compare that with a 60 percent overall reduction so far this year, and one can see the NCOs have lead the way.

“The experiment reinforced the chain of command,” Grace said, “and provided NCOs increased responsibility and afforded the small unit leader’s greater authority within daily operations.”

Not only has the program been a success, but Marines are using the proper tools to complete safety checks. The use of Traffic Risk Planning System (TRiPS) showed a 172 percent increase through critical days of the summer and an additional 144 percent increase since October 2008.

Although currently not mandated by the Corps, TRiPS provides supervisors with an effective mechanism for monitoring and assessing risks associated with leave or by placing the responsibility for assessment on the Marines direct supervisor – the NCO.

Though the program increases a corporal or sergeant’s authority, it does not override or cancel out the authority for a Staff NCO or officer to make decisions about a Marines leave or liberty based on their own concerns.

“Make no mistake,” the commandant said. “Our safety programs are still the responsibility of our commanders, but our NCOs need to be given authority and held to a higher accountability in program implementation.”

Grace said the last year’s report during the trial period showed one notable development; the NCOs greater responsibility and authority began to manifest into their own personal development as a leader.

“Simply put, I want to be in the mix,” Richard said. “I have to lead by example and [the program] has made me be more aware of my habits because if I’m going to be approving or disapproving my Marines leave based on something like his vehicle, then I have to ensure mine is up to speed too.”

Headquarters Marine Corps