Division NCO of the year leads Teufelhunden in Iraq

4 Apr 2007 | Lance Cpl. Christopher Zahn

Good leadership is one of the foundations the Marine Corps was built on. It is the art of inspiring Marines to rise above self-concern, to place the team first, and accomplishing the mission. It requires judgment, integrity, honesty, decisiveness and many other attributes expected of Marines on a daily basis. When Marines prove themselves as capable leaders they are rewarded for their efforts by being promoted, given awards, or placed on boards for high-level recognition.  They are also given more and more responsibility.

Sgt. Dwight Rodriguez recently received one of the highest forms of recognition for his outstanding leadership by being named the 2nd Marine Division non-commissioned officer of the year.

The process began when Rodriguez, an Atlantic City, N.J., native, won the NCO of the year award for his unit, the Camp Lejeune-based 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. Next, he won the same award for the 6th Marine Regiment, something he found out shortly before deploying to Iraq to lead Marines during combat operations in Al Anbar province. Winning the battalion and regimental awards put him in the running to be the NCO of the year for the entire division, which announced its winner after Rodriguez deployed.

“I found out over here,” said Rodriguez, 21. “I didn’t think I would make it that far. I thought I would only win battalion level. It was exciting for a minute, but then I realized the reality: I’m still over here.”

While the award came as a shock to Rodriguez, it was no surprise to his fellow squad leaders.

“They were impressed just like I was,” said Rodriguez, the squad leader for 3rd squad, 3rd Platoon, I Company. “One, Sgt. (Benjamin J.) Davis, always had faith. He always told me ‘Don’t worry about it, you got it’, They weren’t real surprised, they were like ‘so you did win, we told you.’ They actually had faith. I was the one who didn’t.”

Winning such a prestigious award usually requires a celebration of some sort. However, instead of a night of partying and fun, Rodriguez had a greater priority. He had to lead his Marines out on patrol, which is where he felt he belonged.

“It’s not about glory or anything like that,” said Rodriguez. “When I first came in (the Corps), there was this squad leader, Sgt. Ruiz. He inspired me, he always told me to never lower my standards, always keep them high and keep getting higher and higher. It stuck to me up to this point. Every time I go out there its like, ‘Okay, keep them up to the standards always.’”

Those high standards have rubbed off on his squad members. They no longer need to be reminded of the basics, or schooled on what to expect due to his leadership.

“It’s gotten to that point where he doesn’t have to tell me what to do all the time because I know what to do,” said Cpl. Phrarada A. Phanthavong, 21, from Cornelius, Ga. “I know what he expects from me and everyone else in the squad. I know what he expects of his squad and I keep it like that.”

The 2003 graduate of Atlantic City High School is a whirlwind of activity before every patrol. He checks and re-checks every Marine’s gear, gathers last minute information, and most importantly, shares every bit of that information with his Marines. 

“Every day I keep them updated on everything that happens in our area of operations,” Rodriguez added. “Everything that comes down I pass it to them.”

The members of his squad are grateful for the free-flow of information. In a war that is being fought in truly unconventional way, against an enemy that can disappear amongst the civilian populace, it pays to be well informed.

“It really is a big deal, because a lot of times it seems like we’ll just see the small picture that’s going on in front of us,” said Seaman Mario A. Morales, 20, from Manassas, Va.  “I’m a corpsman so I was brand new to all this stuff.  Going out there and seeing what situational awareness really is, that’s him.”

Leading in combat is vastly different from leading in garrison. Execution of orders in combat may mean immediate danger, or even the possibility of being killed or wounded. Subordinate Marines need to know why an order is given and how it is to be executed; a task and a purpose.  Above all, Marines need to feel that the leader giving the order is a capable leader.

“He goes that extra step just to make sure someone is really prepared,” said Lance Cpl. Bryan R. Dempsey, 19, from West Islip, N.Y. “He makes sure everybody knows what’s going on. The way he handles things you can just look into his eyes and see that everything is just money to him, that he knows everything that’s going on.” 

Natural leadership seems to come easy to Rodriguez; he is most comfortable and confident leading Marines on the tip of the spear—as a Marine Corps infantry squad leader.