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The Making of a Warrant
At 5:30 a.m., the light flips on, and warrant officer candidate Jackie Keefer (left) and her roommate enter go mode. They slept in their socks, so they only have to slide on their shoes, saving a few seconds. Although they slept in their beds under the sheets (sleeping on top of the covers is considered cheating and punishable by elimination), they were careful not to unmake the bed during the night. This saves nearly a minute of precise corner folding.
Keefer heads down the chaotic hallway of the barracks at a brisk walk (no running allowed), which is now filled with about half of her 40 classmates, including one who made the mistake of passing their Training, Advising and Counseling (TAC) officer in the hallway without giving the correct greeting of the day. That candidate is now doing overhead handclaps while the TAC officer is “training and advising” the living daylights out of him verbally. “Strength in knowledge, Sir,” Keefer mumbles as she scoots by the pair.
She slides into the bathroom, brushes her teeth (not brushing is also cheating) and decides against stopping in a stall. She wasn’t lucky enough to wake up in the middle of the night to relieve herself, but even with all the time she’s shaved off already, that’s an extra minute she doesn’t have. It’ll have to wait.
Exactly 12 minutes after lights on, her class receives the command “Fall in!” outside in the parking lot. Everyone makes it just in time. Then the TAC officer starts walking around checking canteens. One of the dozen or so tasks that all candidates must complete during this daily drill is filling their canteens. One candidate thinks his is full enough to pass. He’s wrong. “Get on the ground, candidates!” They each do several push-ups. They won’t be the last today.
Keefer, a 68W medic from Connecticut who later described the earlier sequence, is in the middle of one of the Army’s most difficult—and distinct—schools: Warrant Officer Candidate School (WOCS). Each year, 1st Warrant Officer Company (WOC) cranks out around 2,000 graduates, providing the Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard with outstanding officers. WOCS at Fort Rucker, AL, includes five or seven weeks (depending on your rank) of intense training.
Another 250 candidates or so graduate each year from courses performed around the country at Regional Training Institutes (RTIs). These six-month courses are available only to E-5s who have attended the Warrior
Leader Course. During the six months, candidates train mostly on weekends, just like regular drills.
WOCS’ emphasis on attention to detail, and the top-down focus of its leadership on mentorship, helps build the Army’s warrant officers—technical and tactical experts at everything from conducting the band to flying helicopters. Because of the prior service requirements placed on most nonaviation warrants, students’ ages can range all the way up into the 40s or even higher. In other words, the training is special. And so are its candidates.
Soon-to-be Warrant Officer 1 Brian Wright is a perfect example of what makes WOCS different. He’s been in the military for 28 years. Before he came here, he was a first sergeant in a battlefield surveillance brigade, and before that he spent 20 years in Special Forces (SF). “The appealing thing about being a warrant officer is the fact that you’re taking your leadership to the next level,” Wright says. “In today’s Army, the warrant officer is that guy everyone goes to for advice. Having worked with warrant officers in operational detachments in SF, as well as with warrant officers in other areas, you find that today’s warrant officer is more rounded out as a leader than ever before.”
In the 13th century, the British Navy needed leaders who knew a topsail from a jib to run their ships. Regular “commissioned” officers were generally highborn, soft, rich dudes who knew nothing about leading troops in the real world. (No, that definitely does not reflect my opinion of current commissioned officers.) To combat this, the ship runners started promoting veteran sailors. They couldn’t make them completely equal with the commissioned troops, so they gave them a new title: warrant officer. They were officers because their position warranted it.
Today’s warrant officers serve the same purpose. They’re experts whose job is to be the best whatever that they are. They occasionally command troops but primarily serve as advisors, chief problem-solvers and trainers. They’re the Soldiers that commanders go to when they have a problem they can’t fix, and occasionally the Soldier who tells commanders the hard truths versus what they want to hear.
Warrant officers fill nearly every career field, although rarely in high numbers, often with only one or two positions in an entire battalion. And the Guard is looking for more of them. In nonaviation fields, they are almost always required to have held an enlisted position for a significant amount of time before being eligible for WOCS, and even when exceptions are made, it’s only for Soldiers with highly specialized skills, significant job experience and/or certifications.
To make officers capable of performing in this special role, WOCS must present special challenges to its candidates. Does it ever.
After about an hour of strenuous PT, Keefer and her class head upstairs to their mostly bare rooms with about 20 minutes to shave, shower (mandatory) and get their rooms inspection-ready. But saying their rooms need to be inspection-ready is like saying that astronauts need to be space-ready.
There isn’t a thing in the room that escapes inspection. Beds must be made, with sheets flat. Socks have to be rolled, as at other schools, but here they also need to have their openings pointing the right direction, and the amount pulled over the roll must be uniform. ACU pants need to be hung, with all buttons buttoned and all pairs hung with the same amount of fold on each side of the hanger. Shoes have to be in line, with laces tied and tucked into the feet openings. And just let TAC officers find a dust bunny in your room. You’ll be balled up faster than a pill bug in an earthquake.
Each item that’s “out of regulation” means demerits. Enough demerits and you can get held back to another class. Get set back more than once and you can get sent home.
With rooms and bodies clean, Keefer and her class head outside into the cool, sunny morning for the five-minute march to class. On the way they sing cadence—it’s one of the few moments all day when they can be sure that TAC officers aren’t watching. They sing loudly.
The checklist to start a Black Hawk helicopter has 92 steps in it, one of which is to turn the key. Yes, $21 million helicopters have keys. If you get this one step out of order, and turn the key on after fuel has started pouring into the engine’s combustion chamber, you can blow up an engine, putting your entire crew’s lives in danger. If a property book officer adds one column wrong on an order sheet, it can cost a unit tens of thousands of dollars. If a network management warrant officer sets up one function of a security system incorrectly, it can put hundreds of lives at risk.
WOCS requires candidates to be flawless, sock openings and all. And for good reason—no matter what unit they go back to, the skills they learn here translate directly into lives saved and mission success. Someone will be counting on them not just to be good, but to be perfect.
No one could achieve that perfection without help. That’s where the TAC officers come in. “They train the candidates on how to be warrant officers—they show them what a warrant officer should look like, should act like,” says Chief Warrant Officer 4 Joe Scarpill. He’s the commander of 1st WOC and oversees all training here. “[Our TAC officers] advise the candidates just like the candidates will go out and advise their commanders. They do that every day, and they also do it in one-on-one counseling—every candidate gets at least three one-on-one counseling sessions with their TAC officer.”
Candidates also spend close to seven hours every day in class on a broad range of topics. Classrooms have evolved over the years—they’re all high-tech now. But the biggest asset is still the instructor. They’re all warrant officers themselves, so the mentorship doesn’t stop when candidates leave the gates of 1st WOC. And if there’s one thing you can count on a warrant officer to do, it’s to cut through the crap and get to the point. Almost without exception, classes focus on real-world, practical instruction.
A couple hours later at lunch, Keefer’s class takes a back seat and the senior class steps into the spotlight. It’s a special day for them. They graduate in two days, and it’s time for them to sing their class song.
Tradition is a tricky thing. It can be used to perpetuate stereotypes, or discourage progress. It can also be used to remind people that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves.
You can feel the buzz in the small chow hall as the graduating class group up in the room just outside the main hall. There are about a dozen visitors here to see their loved ones graduate in a couple days, curious for a glimpse at what WOCS is like.
The class starts calling cadence before it enters, marching in four columns, singing with the abandon of young men and women who are about to be free.
The brief ceremonial exchange between the Chief Warrant Officer 5 “special guest” and the class commander is immaterial, just an exercise in formality.
The lyrics for the song they sing were written by the candidates. The tune mixed a song from the Disney movie Mulan with a Katy Perry song, sprinkling in words sarcastically referencing their time at 1st WOC.
With this strange custom, the class nods to WOCS history, as classes since the 1960s have sung songs just like this one. The tune has one foot in a long line of excellence and one foot in current culture—a perfect reflection of the warrant officer.
Try telling your commander his or her training plan has to be scrapped because a regulation says that pilots legally can’t fly without a break. Or that the new piece of gear your unit spent thousands of dollars on is useless because it doesn’t have the required security functions.
The Soldier responsible for walking into rooms filled with brass and explaining why they can’t have what they want needs to have some brass of their own—intestinal fortitude, let’s call it. For the warrant officer, affectionately known in most ground units as “the chief,” the iron will to just say no comes from confidence born out of both experience and a commitment to knowing the ins and outs of every appropriate regulation (just like they teach at WOCS). That confidence never wavers.
In 2010, I attended a warrant officer symposium, with all the warrants from my state convening in one hotel conference room to talk about various issues. Looking around, it struck me that at this gathering of warrant officers, each one thought they were the smartest person in the room (Unfortunately for the rest of them, I was the only one who was right.)
Confidence alone doesn’t ensure mission success, however. So a warrant officer has to be a professional problem-solver. If you ever have to tell a commander no, you had better follow it up with a “but.” The chief’s main weapon when telling a commander no might be the fact that he or she is right, but what keeps them in business is the ability to say, “Here’s a better way.”
At WOCS, cadre assess candidates’ ability to find these better, outside-the-box solutions through an exercise known as a Field Leadership Exercise, or FLX.
I show up to observe the FLX on a cool day, parking just outside what could’ve been a forward operating base (FOB) in northern Iraq. Aside from the pine tree forest surrounding the large clearing, which is probably an acre or so, you could’ve picked this entire complex up and transplanted it to the middle of the desert, or the mountains of Afghanistan.
Guard towers cut silhouettes in the clear sky above the concertina wire fence. Even the smell is right somehow, a mix of portable toilets, mysterious chow and post-mission Soldier, with a little gunpowder mixed in for good measure (if you’ve deployed, you know what I’m talking about). It wouldn’t have surprised me to see third-country nationals working the DFAC here.
As I park, the TAC officer who is assigned to show me around is walking through the heavily armored entrance to the FOB as the huge mechanical gate (the exact same as you’d see in Iraq) slides up to close.
The five-day FLX is one of the last big hurdles before graduation. It’s a combination of the take that-hill, real-world scenario training where candidates put their lessons into practice, and cerebral problem-solving exercises like the Leadership Reaction Course, which pits groups of candidates against obstacles, with minimal resources available and even less instruction as to what the “right way” to accomplish the task is.
As the platoon I’m following sneaks through the woods, Soldiers use hand and arm signals, and a sense of anticipation fills the air. The quiet rarely breaks since the path we are traveling is fairly clear. After about a half-mile hike, the team reaches its objective. In contrast to the pop-smoke-and-start-shooting concept that you might see in Officer Candidate School, our exercise starts anticlimactically.
The platoon has been tasked with investigating a weapons cache found near a farmer’s land. Instead of just assaulting the position, the squad leader has to speak with the farmer, a role-player wearing a white “man dress” with specific instructions on how the interaction should go. In a surprisingly passable Middle East accent, the farmer promptly invites the squad leader and his team to tea. He “loves Americans,” you see, and he’s naturally a “big fan of Oprah Winfrey.”
The squad leader reluctantly sits down, and over the next 20 minutes, the farmer proceeds to not answer questions directly, while his “cousin” keeps loudly proclaiming all of the American phrases he knows, like “I love New York!” and “Are you ready for some football?” When the (simulated) bomb goes off, shaking the dust off of the forest leaves, and machine-gun fire starts raining from the thick tree line nearby, the platoon leader barks instructions. Fighting positions are identified. Team tasks are shouted down the hedgerow that provides cover to the rest of our element, who are now advancing to assist. “First squad, come on-line! Move up and flank from the right when I say go! Second squad, you have covering fire from the middle. Focus on the machine gun!”
Violence of action is a beautiful thing when it works right. Today it works … mostly. When it is all over, first squad has (notionally) lost several troops, most mowed down by the same machine-gunning baddie. But second squad eventually flanks the objective, taking out the threat. Mission accomplished.
After the 15-minute walk back to the FOB, the AAR is extensive. Tactics and techniques are examined as if through a microscope. But to my surprise, during the AAR, there is no TAC officer to be found. The Soldier leading the discussion is a candidate named Seamus Ryan. “As NCOs, you’re focused on your lane,” he says. “As an officer, we need to start seeing the forest and the trees.”
Ryan came to WOCS from 1st Ranger Battalion, where he spent 13 years kicking down doors while bad guys shot at him. He had the tools for this job today because like most of his classmates, and most of the WOC, he brings a career’s worth of experience to the table. His tool belt is full from years spent in the real world, and he is allowed to use those tools today, because the TAC officers decided it was more important to utilize a resource like Ryan than to maintain a false impression that they knew everything. Today, Ryan gets to be the smartest guy in the room.
After the AAR, the platoon is released to its containerized housing units to complete various tasks and relax briefly before doing it all over again the next day. Ten days later, the entire class graduates, having successfully proved its ability to perform in the real world. The graduates’ rank, WO1, is just a beginning. They’ll have to overcome many hurdles to get promoted to CW2.
Keefer graduated on Dec. 17, several weeks after my visit, having earned her place in a proud corps. She says that looking back, the most important thing she learned in her time at 1st WOC was how important it was to support her training mates to her left and right.
“Most of my time in the Army leading up to 1st WOC was based on self-improvement and individual achievements,” she says. “As soon as I checked into WOCS, that mindset went completely out the door. I learned how much can actually be accomplished when you have a team on the same page. I learned how rewarding it is to be a part of something ‘bigger than myself.’ ”
Scarpill says Soldiers who want to follow in Keefer’s footsteps and meet the challenges of WOCS must focus on character. “Being that agile, adaptive, innovative leader” is what makes a successful candidate, he says. “Part of what we evaluate is how they react to the changing environment [here]. They’re going to have 29 hours of stuff to do in an 18-hour day, and the key is how they prioritize their tasks. They’re not going to succeed at everything, but seeing how they react to those shortcomings is what’s going to define them here.”
For Keefer, who will spend the rest of her career learning and growing as a warrant officer, all the time and energy spent at 1st WOC was worth it. “My experiences at 1st WOC have made me a better person and provided me long-term investments into my future successes as a warrant [officer],” she says. “The TAC officers really did have our best interests at heart. I’m extremely grateful for the time and effort they put into making me into a WO1.”
A BRIEF HISTORY
In the 13th century, the British Navy needed leaders who knew how to run their ships, but “commissioned” officers generally knew nothing about leading troops. Instead, ship runners promoted veteran sailors and gave them the new title of warrant officer—they were officers because their position warranted it. Illustration by ©Shutterstock
TEAM FIRST, AND ALWAYS
While there are some big training events that WOCS classes go through, like a major inspection and the field training exercise, the training progresses primarily based on each individual class and how it’s performing. This plays out through privileges (they’re called “rights” here) given to each class when its TAC officer thinks it’s ready.
When a class is new, for example, it’s not allowed to sing cadence while it marches to and from school until its TAC officer awards it “sound-off rights.” While at school, no coffee or soda is allowed until the class has earned “caffeine rights.” These earned privileges reward the class for learning to work together to accomplish the difficult tasks set in front of it, like the 12-minute morning routine. But candidates have to be careful—like all privileges, they can also be taken away.
IF YOU’RE GOING TO WOCS…
BE PHYSICALLY FIT.
The PT at WOCS is rigorous and will test your physical and mental limits. If you go into the course with any unsolved physical problems or without being in great shape, you’re going to be hurting.
KNOW YOUR D&C.
Drill and ceremonies may seem unimportant, but since WOCS requires each candidate to serve in a leadership position, you’ll need to be comfortable giving basic commands in formation. You’ll be evaluated on your time as a candidate leader, so make sure you’re setting yourself up for success.
CHECK YOUR ATTITUDE AT THE DOOR.
Everyone who attends WOCS is capable, and some of your classmates will be even more experienced than you. The sooner you all can forget your rank (and the baggage that can come with it) and work as a team, the better off you’ll all be.
BRUSH UP ON AR 670-1.
You don’t need to know the uniform manual inside and out, but you should at least know the requirements for the ACU and your dress uniform.
BE OK WITH NOT BEING PERFECT.
WOCS is set up to test your ability to perform too many tasks in too short a time frame. Go into the course knowing that you’ll fail at something. It’s your response to those initial failures that will tell your cadre whether you have what it takes to be a warrant officer.
WARRANT OFFICER BASICS
If you’re thinking about becoming a warrant and applying to WOCS, here’s a rundown of the job’s demands—and rewards.
Serve as the primary technical and tactical expert in your field—an indispensible asset for a commander.
Be a go-to subject matter expert for a commander. Provide continuity for unit institutional knowledge, as commanders come and go.
PARTS OF THE JOB
• Provide guidance for unit missions based on your experience, knowledge of regulations and research ability. (Know many things.)
• Consult for the commander when he or she needs an expert.
• Solve unsolvable problems.
• Say things like, “There’s a better way,” a lot.
• And ... create an air of mystery around yourself to help recruit young Soldiers into the Warrant Officer Corps.
Money, of course, should not be the reason to become a warrant officer. The desire to serve, excel and achieve should. But you will receive higher pay for your expertise and additional responsibilities. The pay scale for warrant officers falls above the enlisted ranks and below commissioned officers.
For more information about becoming a warrant officer, go to www.NATIONALGUARD.com/wocs