JONT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. –
If you're looking for a challenge, Master Sgt. Steve Hart, 628th Security Forces first sergeant, can fill you in on a tough one: the U.S. Marine Corps Staff Noncommissioned Officer Academy Advanced Course held at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
While this is not the typical or most popular route for Air Force senior NCOs when it comes to professional military education, it is an option, and a demanding one at that.
"I was on the alternate list to our [Air Force] SNCO academy. Once you're on the list for the SNCO academy you can apply to any other service academy, and the one that intrigued me the most was the Marines," said Sergeant Hart. "The two reports I saw said 'physically demanding'."
Sure enough, once Sergeant Hart put in his application to the Air Force Personnel Center he received a phone call with one main question.
"They called me and said 'what is your PT score?' and I said 100, so they said okay, and they let me go," Sergeant Hart recalls.
Bright and early Monday morning on the first day of class Sergeant Hart along with more than 90 other Marine SNCOs took the Marine physical fitness test, which is based on a scale of 300 and consists of a three mile run, as many pull-ups you can do and two minutes of sit-ups.
Then the real work began; nearly nine weeks of constant academic, leadership and fitness evaluation with the ultimate goal of graduating individuals "with the knowledge and skills necessary to assume leadership roles of greater responsibility," according to the USMC Staff NCO Academy Advanced Course website.
"I thought it was definitely beneficial to see how another service conducts, not only their senior NCO academy, but themselves as well," Sergeant Hart said. "Of the 92 that started, I was the only sister service individual in attendance."
The academics of the school are completely Marine oriented, said Sergeant Hart. In order to grasp a basic understanding of what the instructors were referring to he had to do a lot of reading during his off time, as much of the tactics, terms and reports were Marine Corps based and completely foreign to him.
Thankfully, the instructors were more than willing to help without any hesitation, even after hours, Sergeant Hart added, as he had little background on Marine Corps administration. Unlike Air Force academics, students were constantly being evaluated on their leadership abilities and the personal skills each individual brought to the group.
However, despite the differences Sergeant Hart was able to gain great information from the Marine academy, both in the classroom and out, that he will use to better himself as an Airman and a leader.
The Advanced Course teaches graduates how to advise subordinates in stress management, the performance evaluation system, financial planning and more. In addition, the course instructs the graduates in warfighting skills, applying the fundamentals of offensive and defensive tactics. While this may not directly relate to Air Force capabilities, Sergeant Hart was still able to obtain valuable lessons.
The group conducted a field exercise where they spent a week writing the orders and planning an engagement and during the next week, simulated the scenario of attack.
"I gained a lot from that. I was able to observe my peers and how they acted and reacted - it was a great opportunity to see what the Marine infantry guys can do and actually understand what our sister services are capable of," Sergeant Hart said.
Another simple take away learned from the academy came from outside the classroom - having pride in the service you are in and what it stands for.
"I've never seen so many stickers on the back of cars," Sergeant Hart said. "I think it was at least a 50/50 split. They are proud to be Marines, period.
"The Marine mentality is definitely different, if anyone is looking to go from an Air Force school to a Marine school, you've got to have thick skin. They are very competitive and Marines are fanatical about being Marines. They are always testing and challenging each other."
But there is one important common denominator. Just like in the Air Force, people still care about people, Sergeant Hart said. "They will correct each other fast, but the attitude is such that only a Marine can pick on a Marine. Don't let anyone else pick on a Marine; their brotherhood is thick and they are definitely in sync with one another just by the fact they are Marines."
So the question stands then, how can an Air Force member fit into this mix? The answer: physical fitness.
"Marines are of the mindset that PT is the basis of everything they do; if you are not doing well at PT, they look at that as a microcosm of everything else," Sergeant Hart said.
With PT conducted three to four times a week, and in "boots and utes," or in Air Force terms, the Air Battle Uniform without the blouse, it was vital to be, and stay, in excellent shape.
"This is where I gained some credibility. Not only did I not quit when a lot of others were quitting, I was able to excel and even compete with them," he said.
And compete he did. Sergeant Hart scored '1st Class,' which equates to the Air Force's 'Excellent' on both the initial PFT as well as the combat fitness test, which is taken near the end of the course and entails a grueling list of events including low craw, high crawl, sprinting, buddy carry, push-ups, ammo can carrying and so much more that it's exhausting just to hear about.
Sergeant Hart attributes his success solely to CrossFit, the fitness craze that is sweeping the nation, and what it has done for his physical fitness.
"I know I'm a big proponent, but I can honestly say that's why I was successful," he said.
Through this challenge, both physically and academically, Sergeant Hart was able to bring back to his Air Force career one last and most important thing - leadership skills.
The Marine academy sharpens those skills in order to build consistent, quality leaders. Because of the nature of their business, this is absolutely vital - it's impossible to engage the enemy without that ultimate trust in their leaders.
"Rank does matter," Sergeant Hart said. "But what really matters to them is the brotherhood of Marines. Marines take care of Marines, it is evident in all they do, and that mentality should carry over into the Air Force as well."
When recommending this academy to other SNCOs looking to pursue different service academies for PME Sergeant Hart offered a few tips.
"Be physically fit, because it's a measuring stick for everything else. Be thick skinned because you'll take a lot of ribbing, and be willing to put in the time to learn - it's a completely foreign environment," Sergeant Hart said.
"I enjoyed it! I would definitely classify the Academy it as a good experience; it's just another opportunity the Air Force has given me. The right person can go there and excel without any doubt. You just have to put yourself in the right position," he said.
For more information on the Marine Staff NCO Academy or how to apply, contact Sergeant Hart at 963-3507.