FORT BLISS – A part of the mission at the NCO Leadership Center of Excellence is to provide the force with fit, disciplined, and well educated senior enlisted leaders.
Within the institution, two NCOs epitomize this very idea, Sgt. Maj. Billy Atkinson, a student with the Sergeants Major Academy Fellowship Program and Master Sgt. David Zeek, a Sergeants Major Course student of Class 70.
Atkinson won the El Paso Marathon, held in February with a run time of 3:01:51. While Zeek is the first senior enlisted leader at the NCOLCoE to achieve an Army Combat Fitness Test score of over 590.
Both SELs created small goals to attain these achievements, and continue to do so today.
Zeek creates several goals every day, and it all starts with getting out of bed early.
“Fundamentally, if a person completes several tasks early in the morning, whether physical or mental, your productivity level throughout the day will be higher,” he said.
While Atkinson, who won the third marathon he participated in, created short-term goals to break the three-hour mark.
“I specifically trained and set my pace for this time,” he said. “I was on target to achieve my goal [during the race] but slowed down the last three miles even more.
Atkinson added, “It was a difficult race, and even though I did not achieve my goal this year, I am still proud of my time.”
Atkinson may not have wholly reached his goal, but he attained a new title as the winner of the El Paso 2020 Marathon and is preparing for the 2021 race next year.
“I have already registered, and my goal for that race is not only to break the 3-hour mark but improve my time to 2 hours and 45 minutes.
Though their processes are different, they each have one sizeable trait in common; Discipline.
Zeek served the last ten years in the 75th Ranger Regiment, he trains cardio in the morning, runs 3-5 miles per day, and lift weights or conducts bodyweight exercises in the evening relating to the ACFT events.
“I would not say I prepared for the ACFT. Rather, I built a mindset and a discipline over the years that helped me achieve and overcome physical obstacles,” he said.
Atkinson, who started running for sport over five years ago, considers his experience life changing.
“My first marathon was the El Paso 2019 Marathon, where I placed 15th and finished with a time of 3:34:40,” he said. “My second was the 2019 Bataan Death March.”
Atkinson added, it takes “commitment, dedication, and the desire to excel. By never giving up, goals are achieved, and obstacles overcome.”
Even during quarantine due to the COVID-19, they both continue to train.
“The quarantine has not changed my training,” Atkinson said. “I still run early in the mornings [six days a week] and conduct my strength and flexibility training here in my home gym.
Zeek adds, “you do not need a gym membership to run, do pushups, sit-ups, and throw on a ruck to go for a long walk.”
Zeek further explains, “during this unprecedented time, eating well-balanced meals will make you feel good, will help prevent sickness, and will enable performance, whether in a physical or mental form.”
Being fit and disciplined is only a part of the NCOLCoE mission. They must also be well-educated professionals capable of meeting challenges.
“Continue to train smart, and never give up on your goals and desires,” Atkinson said.
“Being disciplined is a part of wearing stripes,” Zeeks explains. “If senior leaders start to relax, then the force will start to relax, and then our national security is at risk.”
For Soldiers, failure can be severe at times, but it is also a part of the learning experience.
“Of course, failure will happen,” Zeek said. “Learning from failure will produce a more agile, lethal, and resilient force, which is what we need to suppress our enemies in future wars.”
The NCO Leadership Center of Excellence is the premier institution driving innovative development for enlisted leaders, constantly focused on readiness.
FORT BLISS, Texas – Tucked away in a nondescript brown building on Chaffee Road is a little gem of a gift shop bursting with color and charm.
Cleverly named A Little Bit of Bliss, the Fort Bliss Spouses’ Association (FBSA)-operated store is a brick-and-mortar solution to something that 1st Armored Division and U.S. Army leaders care about very much- spouse employment and quality of life. Since reopening in October 2019 with a new look, the gift shop has become a haven for military spouses looking for a creative outlet, hobby, comradery or to promote a side business and make some extra cash.
“It’s our service that we want to give to our spouses,” said Angelina Edwards, manager of the gift shop and a military spouse herself. “We want to give them that platform to be able to not only make a little extra money but to keep them busy and have something for them to do.”
While employment challenges are not unique to military spouses, they face additional obstacles due to the transient nature of military life. Deployments, frequent moves, remote locations of military bases, and child care needs are just some of the many challenges that military spouses deal with on a regular basis.
This is the case for one of the gift shop’s vendors, Misty Hofmann, a native of Mount Dora, Florida, whose husband is assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion,1AD.
Hofmann is an Air Force veteran with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and several years working as a DoD-contracted satellite imagery analyst under her belt.
Yet due to frequent relocations and having to become the primary child caregiver, she has not had a job since 2011. “It just became too difficult to find a job that correlates to my skill set at those different locations and for that small amount of time that we’d actually be there,” said Hofmann. When Hofmann discovered A Little Bit of Bliss, she was overjoyed. She had found a way to occupy her time and feel a sense of accomplishment.
“It’s rewarding for me, because as a homemaker, there are a whole lot of things that I do that never actually get finished. I don’t feel that sense of completion that I found when I was working, but my side business gave me something to focus on and feel that sense of completion,” said Hofmann.
Many military bases are located in rural or remote areas, leading to fierce competition in the job market. Living in an area like El Paso brings the additional challenge of a job market that often expects employees to be bilingual.
“I’ve had a hard time finding a job because I don’t speak Spanish, and it’s kind of required to work at a hospital in this area. I’ve been looking off and on for three years,” said Little Bit of Bliss vendor Meagan McCullough, whose husband is assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 13th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1AD.
Despite having career experience and an Associate’s Degree of Applied Science in Radiologic Technology, the Suwanee, Georgia, native said she has found the job hunt to be difficult.
According to Edwards, this is par for the course. “It’s really hard to get jobs here because we live in a place that is highly populated,” said Edwards. “About half of the spouses that sell their crafts here can’t find jobs and are just trying to make ends meet the best way they can.”
The store features many items with military, patriotic, Texas and El Paso among its popular themes. A percentage of the price of each item goes to the FBSA for its programming, and the rest the vendors keep.
The FBSA provides the opportunity for members to participate in social and creative activities while supporting worthwhile service and community activities. The FBSA also operates the Fort Bliss Thrift Shop, with proceeds providing community non-profits with grants and members and their local family members with merit-based scholarships.
Aside from independent opportunities like A Little Bit of Bliss, the Army is improving career and employment opportunities for military spouses through new programs and existing partnerships.
In a bid to support military families, the Army is taking an active approach to help military spouses find jobs, build careers and improve their quality of life.
Supporting Army spouses in continuing their work in a new place of residence with minimal delay and additional expense is important.
Spouses in professionally licensed fields face challenges resulting from delays and the cost of transferring licenses to a new state.
Many spouses may qualify for help in covering the costs of transferring those credentials when they experience a permanent-change-of-station move with their service member spouse.
Under the National Defense Authorization Act 2020, civilian spouses can now receive up to $1,000 in reimbursements for relicensing costs during permanent change-of-station relocations.
Policy details and reimbursement procedures vary by service branch. Spouses are eligible for reimbursement after getting their new license or certification.
Information for each service branch is available on the Military OneSource website.
For those who are interested in joining the A Little Bit of Bliss team for a more local, personal start to employment at Fort Bliss, Edwards encourages spouses to try their hand at crafting.
The shop currently has 23 spouses and service members that are selling their goods there, although typically the average is 50.
“Anyone who might be crafty or wants to try it should come on down, because we have plenty of space for more crafts!” said Edwards.
Fort Bliss’ 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team is about to go through the Army’s toughest training challenge.
About 4,000 soldiers from the Ready First Brigade – as it is nicknamed – are heading off to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
The brigade’s advance parties have already left and the main body will be leaving in late September. The brigade will spend most of October at NTC – undergoing a month-long training rotation.
Once there, they will go through an elaborate war game and will be tested by the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
The 11th ACR serves as the opposing force at NTC and tests visiting brigades 10 times a year. This unit is the Army equivalent of a scrimmage partner.
“We’re looking at NTC as another way to get better,” said Maj. Jim Trask, 1st Brigade’s executive officer.
When they finish, they will be ready to go anywhere in the world and do any mission the Army wants them to do, Trask said.
This will be Ready First’s fourth trip to one of the Army’s combat training centers in about three years.
The brigade went to NTC in June 2015 and October 2016 with a trip to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisana, sandwiched in between in January 2016.
That prepared the brigade to go on a deployment to Afghanistan from January 2017 to October of that year.
“The old adage is everyone tries to win,” said Trask, from Omaha, Nebraska. “But I think you don’t really win at NTC. It is more about learning, developing – what you have done well and what we need to improve on, areas we didn’t even think about.”
The brigade will basically go through a practice deployment – in which it moves its personnel and equipment about a thousand miles from Fort Bliss to California.
Once there, they will also be coached and mentored by a staff of observer-coach-trainers. They run and guide the exercise. They also serve as powerful role models. Collectively, the OCTs – as they are known in Army lingo – are experts in virtually every Army job.
Trask said the brigade headquarters will get plenty of practice at NTC – overseeing logistics and sustainment for the brigade’s battalions
and soldiers, coordinating artillery support, collecting and distributing intelligence and conducting mission command.
Of course, soldiers will get tested in almost every way – from having to deal with lack of sleep, to living in dirty, dusty conditions for a month to primarily eating Meals Ready to Eat or MREs.
“They will be living outside,” said Sgt. Maj. Cesar Sanchez, the brigade’s operations sergeant major. “They will be attacked daily and they will have to conduct nonstop operations. I think it will toughen them up.”
Ready First has been training for this rotation since January – when it went through testing for the difficult-to-earn Expert Infantryman Badge.
Soldiers then went through a traditional gated train-up culminating with the battalion-level Ready Focus and brigade-level Iron Focus, both at the vast Fort Bliss training area.
Sanchez agreed that the upcoming rotation is a powerful way for the brigade to see where it needs to improve and stress and test all its systems and procedures.
“They will be able to see what their shortcomings are, so they can get better at the end of it and refine all their systems,” said Sanchez, who is from Fresno, California.
Sanchez said it is a powerful way to make sure everyone in the brigade is as prepared as possible for whatever mission lies ahead.
“Next time, you can put this in your kit bag so you can be even better,” Sanchez said.
Maj. Patrick O’Rourke, the brigade’s operations officer, said the brigade should view its recent deployment and previous trips to the Army’s combat training centers as a badge of pride instead of an excuse or crutch.
“It is beneficial to us, that our organization has been forged by these events,” said O’Rourke, from Niceville, Florida, “It allows us to be better prepared, instead of saying we are worn down.”
“We can use them as a means of saying we are stronger than other organizations,” O’Rourke said.
By David Burge – Special to the Herald-Post
David Burge is a news producer with ABC-7 in El Paso. He has also worked at newspapers in California, New Mexico and Texas. Covering the military is a particular passion.