KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. — More than 750 NCOs walk through the double doors of the Mathies NCO Academy on Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, every year. After six weeks, they walk out ready to make their Air Force a better, more capable organization.
The mission of the MNCOA is to educate NCOs to manage and lead innovative Airmen.
This is a charge that Chief Master Sgt. Rodney Deese, MNCOA commandant, takes to heart.
“The NCOA really is meant to augment what the Airmen are already getting in the Air Force,” Deese said. “The fundamental piece of what we do here is to develop enlisted airpower leaders for America. We can often times get caught in the mindset that we are just coming in here to check a block, but for me and my instructors, it is anything but just checking a block. It’s about making self-aware leaders to ensure these NCOs know how their leadership impacts their people and how their leadership impacts the mission.”
Deese was quick to explain the key to the NCOA’s success.
“The instructors are the mission,” Deese said. “They are the front line. This academy will go on without me, without the director of education and without the superintendent. My point is, the instructors are the most important people at this NCO academy.”
One of those instructors is Tech. Sgt. Scott Grittner.
The 15-year veteran came to the world of professional military education in 2015 through the developmental special duty program. The DSD program identifies high performing Airmen and offers them an opportunity to excel in a critical position.
He quickly saw the value of NCOA when he attended the legacy course after sewing on technical sergeant.
“You’re with people from the flightline, maintenance, security forces, special forces operators and embassy attaches,” Grittner explained. “I had no idea attaches even existed. And we’re all shoved together in these rooms and talk about how we deal with various issues. Having that experience makes us all better.”
After coming back as an instructor, he is proud to help facilitate those same experiences that helped him become a better NCO.
“The biggest thing a student can do for me,” Grittner said, “is when they come back to me and say, ‘you know that thing we talked about in the classroom? I totally did that!’ and you get that little warm fuzzy and you think, ‘aww you were paying attention!’”
The curriculum the Air Force has been teaching at the NCOA since 2015 is called the Intermediate Leadership Experience. The main focus of this new method of teaching is to focus less on objective tests and more on combining intensive feedback with practical application of leadership techniques.
“The Air Force wanted to make sure NCOs can do more than just answer a question on a test,” Deese said. “We want them to be self-aware. We not only want them to understand the culture of dignity and respect, but we are also going to evaluate them on their ability to engender the value of dignity and respect. I don’t like talking about tools for a toolbox. You can go to any bookstore and get tools for your toolbox. At NCOA we want to focus on the experience piece of it.”
Despite the focus on education and forging more effective NCOs, the academy recognizes that they are also responsible for the care and well being of more than 100 students per class, who are, often times, thousands of miles away from their families and support networks.
“Life doesn’t end when you get here,” Grittner said. “I encourage my students to not hide things from me. I want to help you. We had a student who had a child who was going through a major surgery. He let me know and asked if he could keep his phone out to get updates. I encouraged it. I told the student leadership to watch out for him during that tough time. We always have to try and provide that support.”
The curriculum is dictated from the Barnes Center at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, but the local NCOAs have the freedom to personalize the students’ experience.
“We had someone two classes ago who knew one of the green berets killed in Africa,” Grittner said. “We asked him if he needed anything and he said he wanted to do something to honor his friend.”
Grittner jumped at the opportunity to help him memorialize his friend.
“We got him a script for the tribute pushups and we had him out front leading the formation as we sounded off,” Grittner said. “Afterward, he shook my hand and said he was thankful we could help him with that.”
Its experiences like this that help put the world in perspective for the NCOs attending this academy.
“Regardless of the job they are in, we can all lose sight of the larger Air Force picture,” Deese said. “The Air Force is much bigger than your career field, or you base or your shop. We are all working together to deliver capabilities to the combatant commanders and our sister service members. When they really begin to understand that, that’s when we can really take our Air Force to another level.”
The MNCOA staff humbly acknowledges their impact on the mission may not be as tangible as other career fields, but their work permeates all levels of the Air Force.
“Sure, we’re not working 16 hour days, we’re not toting tool boxes on the flightline, we’re not defending the perimeter, but really, if you think about it, the mind is a weapon system,” Deese said. “And that is what we hone here.”