In the Army, promotions are awarded to soldiers based on experience and merit. Promotions bring higher pay, but also more responsibility. This increase in responsibility is perhaps most apparent in the transition from specialist E-4 to sergeant E-5. In the infantry and other combat arms, this promotion to noncommissioned officer often means a soldier will lead three soldiers in a fire team. Usually, a new NCO is allowed time in training environments to adapt to the leadership role. But I recently caught up with one outstanding NCO, my friend Sgt. Marlin Beckmann, whose promotion to NCO was a trial by fire in the war in Afghanistan.

Nobody could ever accuse Beckmann of being vainglorious. When I interviewed him, he was almost too modest. I guess that’s the way with the best soldiers and leaders. They don’t need to remind others of their skills, motivation, and leadership abilities but let their actions speak for them. Beckmann was quick to point out he was no hero but enlisted in the Army National Guard for college money, choosing a heavy anti-armor specialty because the unit was close to home. In February 2004, two events changed his life. He was promoted to sergeant, and he was called up for war.

Due to restructuring, Beckmann’s company was a new mix of men from various other units. He was tasked to lead a fire team. Pfc. Riggs was young and relatively inexperienced. Spc. Palden was a pacifist who’d been misled by a recruiter to believe the infantry was a medical job helping infants. Spc. Larson had previously served active duty and was angry he’d not received the promotion that had gone to Beckmann.

Being a team leader wasn’t easy. “The hardest part was having to discipline guys for not having their stuff together,” he told me. After all, Beckmann wasn’t much older than his men.

He learned a lot during our couple of months of training at Fort Hood, Texas. He recalled when our squad, driving a Humvee on some rough trails, reached a huge puddle, like a pond.

“We’d better go back,” Beckmann had said.

“Come on! What if the Taliban were on the other side of the water?” I’d taunted. “Just retreat?”

Beckmann changed his mind and ordered us through the deep water. The Humvee very nearly swamped out, but we somehow made it. Beckmann learned not to assume his drivers knew what to do and that a quick decision is better than taking too long.

Beckmann proved to be an outstanding leader, being trusted to lead our squad and even our entire platoon while regular leaders were on leave.

One night, after explosions rocked the Farah U.N. compound, Beckmann was further entrusted when he was assigned to work with our senior medic Master Sgt. Pierson as they prepared to receive and treat casualties. Pierson, a medical professional, quickly assessed Beckmann’s medical knowledge and experience, and they were ready for anything.

But Beckmann’s biggest test came early in our deployment. Leading his fire team in two unarmored Humvees protecting civil affairs soldiers on a patrol near the Iranian border, his convoy was ambushed. A civil affairs sergeant major panicked, but Beckmann calmed him down and took charge, ordering the convoy to break contact along the only route available, past a line of red rocks through a minefield, until they reached the safety of an Afghan checkpoint. He’d only been a sergeant for 10 months, but his quick thinking, sharp instincts, military knowledge, and courage helped save the lives of his fellow soldiers.

It was a struggle to convince my old friend to allow me to publish this. He doesn’t like the praise. He insists his service was nothing special and that he was just doing his job. But I know that Sgt. Marlin Beckmann is an example proving that by promoting just one motivated and experienced soldier, anything is possible.

*Some names and call signs in this story may have been changed due to operational security or privacy concerns. Trent Reedy served as a combat engineer in the Iowa National Guard from 1999 to 2005, including a tour of duty in Afghanistan.