When the Army officially established the warrant officer corps 96 years ago, its original members were billed as subject matter experts in their particular crafts. The role of the warrant officer in the military actually traces its lineage back to early naval history, when boatswains served as the continuity aboard ships when captains moved on to new assignments. The boatswains knew the ship inside and out as well as its limits, capabilities and what it took to run the ship, which allowed for seamless transitions when new captains took the helm.
The Armyís first warrant officers, which officially came into existence July 9, 1918, hailed from the Adjutant General corps and served as field clerks. But as the corps grew, so did its role within the Armyís force structure.
Today, warrant officers remain subject matter experts in more than 40 different fields ranging from aviation, logistics, maintenance, field artillery or human resources management. But a renewed emphasis on building quality warrant officers in the Wisconsin Army National Guard and across the force seeks to draw heavily on the warrant officersí subject matter expertise as well as their innate leadership abilities.
ìI really see them in a dual capacity,î Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, Wisconsinís deputy adjutant general for Army, explained. ìIn the past, warrant officers were often thought of as strictly the technical expert within whichever field he or she may have had their expertise in. And they were kind of relied on solely from that perspective.
ìThe evolution of the warrant officer corps has really gone from that feeling alone to one of also being a leader within the organization as a commissioned officer,î he said.
As the warrant officer corps in Wisconsin celebrates its 96th birthday, it stands on the cusp of reinventing itself. Just since its 92nd birthday in 2010, the Wisconsin Army National Guard has reinvigorated its warrant officer corps.
In 2010, the state had 90 warrant officer position vacancies and warrant officer strength managers had only met 42.9 percent of its recruiting mission. As of July 1, the number of vacancies had been cut in half to 42, and in 2013, the corps met 163.6 percent of its mission for the year. In 2014, it's already met 93 percent of its mission.
And perhaps most impressive is the 15 warrant officer candidates currently training at the Wisconsin Army National Guardís 426th Regional Training Institute at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. The class, which is set to graduate in September, represents the largest National Guard warrant officer candidate school class in the history of all 54 states and territories.
But why such renewed emphasis in Wisconsin in recent years?
"We recognized that this was one of our weaknesses within our organization," Anderson said. ìThe inability to maintain sufficient strength in our warrant officer corps put our units at a disadvantage, having not only that technical expertise to rely on but that other arm of leadership as well.î
The buy-in from the officer corps, commanders, warrant officer leadership and the non-commissioned officer corps has been key to the turnaround in the state.
Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Shields, the stateís senior enlisted officer, said he sees the warrant officer corps as another avenue via which top-notch noncommissioned officers can progress within the organization.
"We have a partnership to identify and develop potential warrant officers early on in their careers, and what that enables us to do is to help ensure that they have the right experience and different assignments within their military occupational specialty to be qualified to become a warrant officer," Shields said.
He noted the importance of demonstrating that the noncommissioned officer corps and the warrant officer corps should work together to develop quality leadership for the Guard, not compete against each other for its best personnel.
As a show of partnership and solidarity, Anderson, Shields and Command Chief Warrant Officer Five John Freeman, the stateís senior warrant officer, all conducted a ruck march in June along with the current class of warrant officer candidates.
"This is another developmental route that good NCOs ó the top five-percenters ó can take," Freeman said.
Having quality Soldiers enter the ranks of the warrant officer corps is more important than ever, he said, because the role of warrant officers is changing.
"We're being broadened in what we do for the Army," Freeman said. ìWhen we first came around 96 years ago, we were more the subject matter expert. We were only focused on one item, whether that was a maintenance guy or a supply go or even an aviator. They were just concerned with flying the aircraft or managing the part or fixing the truck. But over the years, our capabilities have expanded.î
In some cases, that means warrant officers are filling positions traditionally held by officers. In Wisconsin, a warrant officer commands the 132nd Army Band, and another is currently commanding a group of aviators from Detachment 52 of the Operational Support Airlift Command serving overseas in Afghanistan.
Freeman himself is an example of how warrant officers are now expected to lead at all levels. Serving as a logistics expert with a Stryker brigade in Iraq, Freemanís brigade commander made him a detachment commander in charge of 120 logisticians, maintenance personnel, transporters, and food service technicians.
"We have morphed into something more than even what a warrant officer thinks he is in todayís environment,"he said.
As the leader of the stateís warrant officer corps, Freeman hopes to continue building that level of professionalism, technical competence and leadership to a point where warrant officers are always at the table with commanders as they plan missions, training or exercises ñ much like platoon leaders or first sergeants already are.
As part of his overarching strategy to get to that point, Freeman hopes to re-instill a sense of identity amongst the corps, by explaining what it means to be a warrant officer today. He took a big first step in March when he organized the first warrant officer muster in state history ó something he hopes will become an annual summit of the stateís warrant officers where they can share best practices and do professional development as a corps.
"What I wanted to do was re-glue ourselves," Freeman said. ìI was talking to Brig. Gen. Anderson, and Col. Mathews, the chief of staff, and they both agreed that we need to reintroduce ourselves to ourselves.î
A big part of the summit was to get warrant officers from all branches together in the same room to build camaraderie and even discuss baseline tasks like officer evaluations and mentorship.
It's already made a difference to many warrant officers in the force.
"I think we became very separate in this state," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jason Tobias, the stateís warrant officer strength manager.
He became a warrant officer in 2009 after making the rank of sergeant first class, and heís seen some big changes from then to now.
"What I saw when I first came in as a warrant officer was I knew my technical expertise in the human resources realm, but anyone outside of that was separate from me," he said.
"We had all these different branches that were separate from me," Tobias said. ìI didnít know any of those Soldiers. We didnít really reach out. We really didnít have any common bond other than walking down the hallway and seeing another warrant officer and saying, ëGood morning.íî
That culture has changed though, he said.
"Over the last couple of years what I've seen though, especially with Mr. Freeman coming in, is pushing that we're a warrant officer corps," he added. "We're not warrant officer individuals."