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Making Bullets Count

RIGHT now, an NCO somewhere is "sweating bullets," not the kind that are fired downrange, but the bullet comments that describe his or her performance and promotion potential on DA Form 2166-7, the Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Report.

"I know I did better than this," a soldier may think while mulling over an evaluation. "There are a lot of details left out of the bullets. And why did he only mark one excellence box? I'll never get promoted with this rating."

 

Before marking the "excellence" box, raters should consider if the soldier actually deserves the rating.

 

Maybe the soldier received exactly what he earned. Or, maybe he received a lot better rating than he deserved. Regardless, that form will eventually be in the hands of a member of a promotion and qualitative management program board. The form will be included on his Official Military Personnel File and may be used by an assignments branch NCO to help select that soldier for a school or duty.

 

Brief, specific, accurate and honest bullets are the best way to convey a soldier's true strengths and weaknesses on the all-important NCOER.

 

To give the soldier a fair rating, those bullets need to be right on target.

SGM Walter Avery's well-thumbed AR 623-205, the regulation on the NCOER system, has a permanent place next to his telephone. Avery is the senior enlisted policy NCO of the Management Support Division, Evaluation Systems Office, at the U.S. Total Army Personnel Command in Alexandria, Va.

Each month, Avery receives a sampling of about 600 NCOERs from the U.S. Army Enlisted Records and Evaluation Center at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind. He tracks NCOER trends and fires the information back to soldiers through his quarterly newsletter, the "NCOER Update." One area that can always be improved, Avery said, is how bullet comments are written.

Rater Responsibilities

 

The rater is responsible for bullet comments found in Part IV of the evaluation form. In Part IV, labeled "Values/NCO Responsibilities," the rater describes the soldier's overall performance for the rated time period. The soldier is rated in values, competence, physical fitness and military bearing, leadership, training, and responsibility and accountability.

For each heading, the soldier is given an overall box rating of either "excellence," "success" or "needs improvement (some or much)." The rater is also given a block of space to explain, with a brief "bullet" comment, why he gave the soldier a particular rating.

In Part V, labeled "Overall Performance and Potential," the rater assesses the soldier's abilities and potential for a position of higher responsibility. The soldier is described as either "among the best," "fully capable" or "marginal." Based on this assessment, the rater also suggests potential positions for the soldier. Counseling --- Where Bullets Begin

Counseling is still the foundation of the NCOER system, Avery said, and raters have to fit the mandatory quarterly counseling into their schedules.

"If you're doing the counseling properly, you're writing the bullets down each quarter. So when it comes time to do the evaluation, it's easier, because you've gone over the bullets two or three times during counseling," Avery said. The information can be plucked right from DA Form 2166-7-1, the NCO Counseling Checklist/Record.

Regular counseling can also help soldiers avoid "needs improvement" ratings by identifying problems early enough so soldiers can improve their performance. More importantly, the counseling sessions provide leaders with an opportunity to assess and assist their subordinates. When a rater identifies an area needing improvement, the rater is also tasked, as the soldier's primary rater, to present a plan for bringing the subordinate up to standard.

Sheer complimentary bullets and esprit de corps sayings may sound good, Avery said, but often miss the mark.

Counseling can work two ways: soldiers can provide input to their evaluations by writing down those occasions when they believe they excelled in their performance and bringing it to the attention of their supervisor during counseling sessions.

"We know we work for busy people," Avery explained. "That's not to let the rater off the hook. But something you do in January may be forgotten by November for the annual report." How to Write a Bullet

 

The best rule of thumb is: the more specific, the better. A bullet comment should be one or two lines and should illustrate what a soldier did to receive a particular rating. For instance "won drill sergeant of the year" is a good bullet to explain why an excellence rating is given for the "competence" area.

"I tell people to write bullets without any adjectives first," Avery said. "Get the incident in there first, then go back and put adjectives in like they're diamonds. You have very little space to work with."

In the past, a longer, narrative description was required instead of the quick-read bullet comments. Raters had the tendency to write the narrative like an award citation, Avery said, bogging the facts down with a bunch of elaborated praise. Faced with a stack of personnel files, promotion board members were not reading all the information.

"They don't want to decipher anything. They want it laid out in short, clear, unadorned bullets. Be very specific," he said.

Details, Without Smoke Screens

 

The NCOER form includes samples of what information the bullets should include, but raters may wrongly use those samples to establish the soldier's minimum performance level. A good bullet has examples of how a soldier displays "mental and physical toughness" or shows "sound judgement."

A recent example of a poorly written evaluation Avery looked at concerned a master sergeant with an excellence rating for the "competence" block. "Works with no supervision" and "technical knowledge is exemplary" were the bullet comments used to support the rating.

 

Earning a skill-qualification badge such as the EFMB is one way to earn an "excellence" bullet on the NCOER.

 

"Name me a master sergeant that does not work without supervision," Avery said.

Numbers also help quantify bullets, especially when it comes to illustrating responsibility and accounting. A soldier who has 100 percent accountability of $80,000 worth of Army equipment may be responsible only for his Humvee, supporting only a success bullet. However, a soldier working in a parts department has a bigger responsibility for keeping 100 percent accountability of $80,000 worth of parts and may deserve an "excellence" bullet.

Stick to Soldiering

 

A soldier's off-post volunteer work may justify a bullet in the "values" block, but Avery said a rater may want to consider leaving the information out and focus the evaluation on what the soldier does for the Army.

"Stick to military duties," Avery said. "You're being evaluated on how well you do your Army job. Your rater knows you work at the homeless shelter, but you have a limited amount of space and the Army needs to know if you're a good tanker."

Sheer complimentary bullets and esprit de corps sayings may sound good, Avery said, but often miss the mark.

"'Best NCO I've ever known' means almost nothing," he said. "'The spirit of the bayonet' sounds very nice walking down the halls and when we salute each other, but it does not serve a purpose for the promotion board."

Bullet comments should not be used for "personal attacks," Avery added. Phrases like "I wouldn't let him lead my dog on a leash," should not appear on the form.

 

Avery won't reveal how many "excellences" the average NCO gets on an evaluation form, concerned that soldiers might wrongly shoot for that number.

In Pursuit of Excellence

 

Raters should be careful with "excellence" ratings, Avery said. Several unsubstantiated "excellence" ratings can cast doubt on the validity of the entire report. Promotion boards have always viewed with suspicion reports with all "excellence" ratings, because the bullets rarely justify the rating.

"This soldier is either a water-walker, or the rater is trying to shoot a lot of bull. It's usually a lot of icing and no cake," Avery said.

"Excellence" bullets are getting more difficult to write, Avery explained, because soldier performance has improved during the force reduction. The regulation is still the best guide in determining an excellence rating.

A soldier may simply not meet all the requirements of an "excellence" rating, when looking at the requirements for the blocks. For instance, a soldier may put "mission first" to achieve excellence in the leadership area, but may not have "genuine concern for soldiers," an area where he "needs improvement."

The regulation defines "excellence" as "exceeds standards, demonstrated by specific examples and measurable results; special and unusual; achieved by only a few; clearly better than most others." Adherence to this definition would decrease the number of excellence ratings, Avery said, and increase their value.

"We don't want any bullet to become cannon fodder, just a common bullet put on like a rubber stamp," Avery said. "We want each bullet to stay precious, so that when you see it as an 'excellence,' it says something to everyone who reads it."

Fighting Inflation

 

The NCOER has fought inflation since its introduction in 1989. The earlier evaluation method used a point system, with a maximum 125 points. That method became inflated and most soldiers always seemed to fall in the 123- to 125-point range, Avery said.

Avery won't reveal how many "excellences" the average NCO gets on an evaluation form, concerned that soldiers might wrongly shoot for that number.

However, only 2 percent of the NCO corps receives all "excellence" ratings, he said. The number of "excellence" ratings increases as it goes up the rank structure. Of 38,000 sergeants, only 34 received all "excellence" ratings.

"Promotion boards continue to promote soldiers who have had nothing but all "successes,'" Avery said. All "successes" means the soldier is doing his job -- what the Army is looking for. As long as these soldiers continue to be promoted, he said, the NCOER should continue to be a valid evaluation tool.

Senior Rater Responsibilities

 

In Part V of the evaluation, the senior rater assesses the soldier's overall performance with boxes labeled "successful," "fair" and "poor." The senior rater determines promotion potential and responsibility potential with boxes labeled "superior," "fair" and "poor." The senior rater is also given the opportunity to elaborate on the rated soldier's performance with bullet comments.

The senior rater bullets have become increasingly important, Avery said, and should be as brief as the rater's bullets. "Promote now," "never promote," or "send to ANCOC" are bullets that get to the point.

Read the Reg

 

The regulation is still the best place to start and finish, Avery said, and every soldier should read AR 623-205.

"It's one of the briefest regs we have, yet it covers the most important document in your OMPF." His copy is well worn, he said, because he often finds a new way to interpret the words. "The minute you think you know it all, that's when you're going to be turning in some bad reports."

 

Accurate ratings ensure both a quality Army and competent NCOs.

 

If a rater, senior rater or a rated soldier has questions that can't be answered using the regulation, Avery is available to offer guidance at DSN 221-9660 or (703) 325-9660.

Best Bullets

 

AVERY offered these examples of bullets extracted from actual NCOERs.

"Excellence"

* Earned the Expert Infantryman's Badge. (Training)

* Her K-9 section placed first overall in a 24-team competition. (Training)

* Maintained 100% accountability of more than $1.7 million of equipment. (Responsibility and accountability)

* Increased APFT score by 67 points during this rating period. (Physical fitness and military bearing)

* Won interservice racquetball championship for Olympic placement. (Physical fitness and military bearing)

 

"Success"

* Selected to compete at DA level in the Phillip A. Connelly Competition for small dining facility. (Competence)

* Personally responsible for platoon APFT average rising from 209 to 220. (Physical fitness and military bearing)

* Qualified superior on Bradley Table VIII. (Training)

Sets stringent, yet achievable, performance standards for subordinates. (Leadership)

 

"Needs Improvement"

* Late or missing for many formations. (Leadership)

* Late on most suspenses. (Competence)

* Does not wish to be held accountable for ensuring that squad leader tasks are completed. (Responsibility and accountability)

* Counseled many times on his substandard appearance. (Physical fitness and military bearing)

 

"Senior rater bullet comments"

* Promote immediately and assign as a Special Forces company sergeant major.

* Send to ANCOC immediately; promote ahead of peers.

* Promote now; will be an excellent combat engineer unit first sergeant.

* Should be given increased responsibility as food service sergeant of a major subordinate command.