SEACs Take Look at History of Office, Need for Position   > U.S. Department of Defense > Story

As Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Troy E. Black took responsibility from his predecessor, Ramón “CZ” Colón-López, the men took some time to discuss the office and the changes it has already undergone.   

Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey became the first SEAC when Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace appointed him in 2005.    

“Just getting there was tough,” Gainey said during the discussions in the SEAC’s office in the E-Ring at the Pentagon. “The senior enlisted leaders of the services felt [the SEAC] was just duplication of their duties and that somehow it was an attempt to undermine them.”   

While Army Gen. Colin Powell was the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to try and appoint an enlisted advisor, it wasn’t until Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman from 2001 to 2005, and Pace, who served as vice chairman at the same time and then became chairman, that the services finally agreed on the new position.   

“Gen. Pace just asked me to be myself,” Gainey said. “He wanted me to be his eyes and ears on the enlisted force and also to bridge ideas from one service to another.”   

Gainey had to scrounge a staff and begin the process of building a collegial, cooperative atmosphere with the service senior enlisted leaders and those of the combatant commands.   

There was a break when Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen did not appoint a senior enlisted advisor, but Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey appointed Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Bryan B. Battaglia as the SEAC. Battaglia couldn’t make the transfer of responsibility ceremony, but SEAC John Troxell, who succeeded him, said he did much to build bridges with the service senior enlisted advisors and with defense agencies. Battaglia served from 2011 to 2015.   

Troxell came to his job after serving as senior enlisted leader in Korea, and he was appointed by Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford in 2015. Troxell said each SEAC had different priorities because each chairman had different needs. “When Gen. Dunford brought me in, and he said, ‘Look, if you’re waiting for me to tell you what to do, you’re going to be waiting for four years. I expect you to know what to do,” Troxell said.    

Dempsey and Dunford made it a goal of their tenures to spend time talking to troops. Each did it somewhat differently. Both men really did not want to just talk with service members the leaders vetted. Dunford, for example, would just walk into a hangar and start speaking to the men and women working on the aircraft. Dempsey made it a point to speak to units, but then would stay to speak with anyone who wanted to talk.  

Still, these availabilities were limited, and Battaglia and Troxell were often out with the troops getting the pulse of the force. Troxell went to Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Taiwan and the Southwest border.    

All of the SEACs said the scrutiny was different. “It’s different because you’re closer now to the political side of things,” Black said. As sergeant major of the Marine Corps, Black testified before Congress. “That was part of the job,” he said. “But this is a bit closer.”   

When Colón-López was appointed by Army Gen. Mark A. Milley in 2019, his mission was building on what Battaglia and Troxell had built. There was acceptance of the role of the SEAC with the service and combatant command enlisted leaders, but the job wasn’t well-known outside the enlisted realm. “By the time I got into the position, there were still people that were like, ‘so what is it that you guys do,'” Colon-Lopez said. “We needed to adjust fires to make sure that we enhanced the credibility and the value of the position.”   

He looked at Pentagon meetings where the enlisted were not represented. “We inserted ourselves in because we were not being invited,” he said. “We were very aggressive and successful in doing so. Then [the principals] started seeing the results.”   

Now the SEAC office is regularly included in Joint Staff and Office of the Secretary of Defense meetings. “People recognized that we were in these decision briefings because they involved the majority of the force,” Colón-López said.    

As SEAC, Colón-López would make it a point to brief the service and appropriate combatant command senior enlisted about the discussions. “It helped to bring a collective voice, this is collaboration without encroachment,” he said.   

Understanding of joint operations permeated the enlisted force, “because we had just wrapped up 20 years of joint warfighting and joint mentorship all across the force,” Colón-López said. “But we still had issues across the services that we needed to make sure that we didn’t get it wrong by going in different directions. That’s really where I saw the position of the SEAC as a synchronizer and integrator to be able to bring a common understanding of the picture.”   

There are clear virtues to having separate services, Black said. “If not, then we’d all wear the same uniform. But “a Marine family is no different than Army family, or an Air Force, or special operator.”    

There are areas of commonality and the SEAC is in a position to see these possible areas of collaboration.   

The job has grown internationally, also. Part of this comes from the examples of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian army, though outnumbered by the Russian invaders, won, in part, due to the noncommissioned officer corps they were able to develop since 2014. Molded on the U.S. model, the Ukrainians let NCOs make decisions and lead troops. The Ukrainian military pushed the Russians away from Kyiv and are working to recover the rest of their sovereign territory.   

“I think that resonated around the world,” Troxell said. “There are a lot of militaries out there saying, ‘Huh? Can we use the NCOs the same way?'” The Russians and the Chinese are looking at that now, but it would require a basic change to their political systems that they probably couldn’t tolerate, he said.   

“If you look at every single one of our strategic documents, they rely heavy on the efforts and contributions of our partners,” Colón-López said. “And the more connective tissue we have, the better off we’re going to be.”   

Colón-López said that while there were many differences among the SEACs terms, there was one constant: Maintaining the core values of the military. “The military must be prepared for the next fight,” he said. “We don’t know what that fight is going to look like, we don’t know who the enemy may be.    

“All of that is irrelevant,” he continued. “As long as we retain the core values, the discipline, the loyalty of what service is all about. I have a lot of people that keep using the moniker of ‘we have to mirror the society that we serve.’ And they’re grossly wrong. Because we don’t have to mirror anyone, we are our own entity.”   

The U.S. military is a subset of the American people that has been put through a crucible to become something different, he said.    

The military even has a different set of laws in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. “We’re different for a purpose, because 99 percent of the public chooses not to do what we do,” he said.    

Those people sleep well in their homes because young men and women are forward doing the fighting. “We need to ensure that decisions do not [adversely] impact that culture that makes young men and women become fighters,” he said. “Every single one of these SEACs is a proven warfighter. We have been on the battlefield. We’re not desk jockeys. We know what it takes. That is why this position is important: To ensure that we keep the focus on warfighting, and nothing else.”   

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