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Two hundred newly promoted or selected-to-be Marine staff sergeants participate in an open discussion with (from left to right) Sergeants Maj. Vincent Santiago, Mario Marquez, Michael Hendges and Robert Williamson at the end of III Marine Expeditionary Force's Staff Sergeant Indoctrination Course at Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Oct. 28, 2015. The course provided the attendees a place to learn from centuries of cumulative experience of the senior enlisted leaders within III MEF. Santiago is the sergeant major for 3rd Marine Division. Marquez is the sergeant major for 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. Hendges is the sergeant major for 3rd Marine Logistics Group. Williamson is the sergeant major for Marine Corps Installations Pacific.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Warren Peace

Can You Back Up that Rocker?

28 Oct 2015 | Staff Sgt. Warren Peace 3rd Marine Division

A Marine’s life drastically changes when one becomes a staff noncommissioned officer. It is more than adding a rocker to your rank or a fatter wallet on payday.

 There are unwritten rules, responsibilities and lessons only learned from those who have already traveled the path to senior enlisted ranks. To give new staff sergeants a head start, senior enlisted leaders from III Marine Expeditionary Force gathered 200 of their soon-to-be and newly promoted staff sergeants for a mentoring session.

 The III MEF Staff Sergeant Indoctrination Course held on Camp Schwab, Okinawa, on Oct. 26-28, 2015 passed on valuable lessons learned from the mentors' vast experience and from learning some lessons the hard way.

“We, the guys with multiple rockers, owe it to the institution to ensure that the guys behind us follow our path,” said Sgt. Maj. Vincent C. Santiago, 3rd Marine Division sergeant major. “If we are on a patrol, and we’re walking through a heavy minefield, and you’re in my squad, I’ll tell you to step where I step. I’ve already walked that path. I’ve made some mistakes and received some good mentorship to put me where I am today. Now it’s my time to pay it forward.”

The Marine Corps selected more than 4,000 sergeants to become staff sergeants this year, the largest number in recent history. This is a direct response to previous Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford’s Planning Guidance 2015. The document pointed out a shortfall in the Corps’ staff noncommissioned officer inventory and the importance of preparing staff noncommissioned officers to be leaders.

“The end state is to provide continuity and quality of leadership and the appropriate leader-to-led ratio to sustain the transformation and enhance our combat effectiveness through personnel stability,” Dunford said in his guidance to the force.

 Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller echoed his predecessor’s guidance in his letter to Marines released shortly after assuming command this year.

“The senior is obligated to provide the guidance and the example that allows subordinates to exercise proper judgment and initiative,” Neller said in his letter.

 With such a large influx of new staff sergeants this year, designing the course to be the best venue to share knowledge was a priority, according to officials.

 This year’s course was based on a Socratic method of learning, said Santiago who mentored the same course last year at his previous command in Hawaii. The Socratic method is a way of teaching through guided discussions to inspire critical thinking.

Feedback from past courses swayed Santiago to move this one away from what some may think was a Marine Corps staple, presentations without much interaction. A more candid atmosphere was the goal, he said.

“The biggest feedback we received was more time discussing topics and hearing experiences from the senior leaders,” Santiago said. “Open discussions are the best way to learn. In this course, they are involved 90 percent of the time.”

They discussed such topics as ethics, administration, sexual assault and suicide prevention, and mentoring. The class separated into groups for discussion, then gathered together to discuss their ideas and findings as a whole. The senior mentors put an emphasis on ethics throughout the course.

“We need to police our own,” Santiago said. “Like the commandant says, ‘the strength of the pack is the wolf.’ You are responsible for someone’s loved one. Their parents should be sleeping easy at night knowing they are under your care.”

The students left the class with a certificate and insight from senior enlisted mentors who have centuries of experience cumulatively.

“It was not your usual, everyday class,” said Sgt. Gonzalo Sanz, a geospatial analyst with 3rd Intelligence Battalion, III MEF Headquarters Group. “We learned more about the big picture instead of your standard classes you take as a corporal or sergeant, and the mentors brought incredible motivation to the table.”

The staff made it clear the course is not a replacement or preparation for other courses. They said indoctrination courses and other leadership courses should be working in parallel to meet the same goal, well-informed leaders.

“This course was not designed to replace the Career Course or circumvent the individual Marines command,” said Sgt. Maj. Stennett W. Rey II, the 5th Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company sergeant major. “By bringing these Marines together in this forum, we have impressed upon them the importance of their new rank and responsibility.”

 “We have to pass off everything we have learned to the next generation,” Santiago said. “They are the ones who are going to take the Corps to the next level.”