Non-commissioned officers (NCOs) are the glue that holds together the American military, and at the very top of the NCO mountain are a rare and select group of men and women who have in front of their title the word “Command.” To be selected as a command NCO is to be told that you are among the most trustworthy and respected people in the U.S. military. At the top of America’s special operations forces (SOF), in an office not far from that of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Commander Adm. William H. McRaven, sits Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Faris.
Faris probably never imagined when he enlisted in the Army decades ago that he would’ve had the career and life that brought him to the position of SOCOM command sergeant major. Army Ranger, Special Forces soldier, “operator” with the Army’s special mission unit of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and now senior enlisted adviser to McRaven and Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, Jr., at SOCOM, Faris has guided generations of enlisted service members in their careers and worked with some of the finest officers in special operations. Over the past decade of extraordinary operations tempos, however, those serving in special operations forces have been under serious strain, including in their personal lives. Recognizing that the strains on his own family were echoed by the experiences of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines throughout the SOF community, Faris and his wife, Lisa, opened up about their own struggles in an attempt to help those with whose welfare he is entrusted. Faris recently took the time to answer a few questions put to him by John D. Gresham.
The Year in Special Operations: Can you please tell us a little about your background and what made you join the service?
Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Faris: I was born in the great Peach State of Georgia, in Thomasville, but moved as an infant to Tallahassee, Fla. I consider myself to be a Floridian that was fortunate enough to take advantage of all that Florida has to offer in the way of its beautiful natural resources. I attended Leon High School and graduated from there in 1980. After waffling about for several years, I joined the Army in 1983 under a Ranger contract and entered one station unit training [OSUT] in January 1984 at Harmony Church, Fort Benning, Ga. Upon completion of OSUT and receiving my 11C MOS [Indirect Fire Infantryman Military Occupational Specialty], I attended airborne school and reported to 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga.
In 1988, I went to selection and was accepted to attend the Operator Training Course [OTC] for the Army’s special mission unit. While attending OTC, I had a negligent discharge of my weapon and was asked to leave for 12 months and then return for a relook. During that time, I attended the Special Forces Qualification Course and upon graduation was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Fort Campbell, Ky. In 1990, I returned to the special mission unit, where I remained until September of 2008. While there I was a team leader, OTC instructor, troop sergeant major, unit operations sergeant major, squadron command sergeant major, and the command sergeant major of the unit. I left there and became the command sergeant major of the Joint Special Operations Command until September of 2011, when I was named the command sergeant major of U.S. Special Operations Command.
What drew you toward an association with special operations forces, and what is it about the SOF lifestyle that is appealing to you?
I joined the Army because it was what I was meant to do. I had always wanted to be a soldier and as I learned more, I knew I was drawn to special operations. I came in under a Ranger contract because I knew my ultimate goal was to try out for the special mission unit. Due to the time in service prerequisites, I knew I wanted to spend my time in an elite organization such as the Rangers. Much of who I am today I owe to the tremendous experience of being in the Regiment. It was in this unit that I learned discipline and the basic tenets of special operations and the high standards required to be a part of an elite group of men and soldiers.
What attracted you about being a noncommissioned officer?
The No. 1 attraction for me of being an NCO is an ability to truly have a lasting impact on soldiers’ lives and careers. The NCO corps is where the rubber meets the road in terms of grooming leaders – both enlisted and commissioned officers – mission success, unit culture and effectiveness, and a myriad of other aspects. As I have risen in rank and position this has remained true. The nature of the focus may change over time, but an NCO’s continuity and contact with the force remains the cornerstone to any organization’s success, and this is especially true in special operations, where the NCO is the majority of the force structure.
One feature of the American military, and really all great military services across the globe, is the strength of its NCOs, sometimes described as “the glue that holds a great military together.” What are your thoughts on this, and how do you feel about the current quality of the NCOs that you see throughout America’s military today?
It is said that the NCO corps is the backbone of the military or the glue that holds our military together, and this is quite true. After a decade-plus of combat, our NCO corps is stronger and more experienced than ever. Never in the history of our military has the NCO ever been more empowered and given such broad authority. If one examines why, I think you can find it in the nature of this conflict. This war has been dominated by small unit tactics – executing a counterinsurgency in two nations which are culturally diverse and complex against an asymmetric threat driven by similar yet divergent motivations.
This dynamic operational environment has forced the NCO to take on more as our commanders are geographically dispersed and fighting mini-campaigns within a broader operational and strategic campaign. These mini-campaigns have been forced by dynamics such as culture, local politics, tribalism, religion, education, etc., and also by geography in the case of Afghanistan. In order to accomplish that, commanders have had to delegate their command authority as never before.
As with anything, there is a second order effect that is not necessarily wholly positive. I fear that NCOs are gaining a sense of entitlement or expectation that comes with this delegation of command authority. Concurrently I am concerned that our junior officers are becoming so accustomed to the new dynamic that they are forgetting that it is their command authority that empowers the NCO. It is something that needs to be watched, and leaders need to ensure that this dynamic does not get out of balance. This will be especially true as we implement the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s vision of Mission Command and also, for SOCOM, as we transition from combat operations to building partner-nation capacity around the globe.