Rukla, Lithuania, 20 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A new and important figure is appearing in the armies of the three Baltic countries, one who is likely to prove to be more important for their future integration into NATO and the West than any of the declarations by political figures east or west.
That figure is the professional non-commissioned officer, the well-trained and career sergeant or corporal on whom Western militaries have long depended but someone who seldom existed in the militaries of the former Warsaw Pact.
And nowhere is the rise of this new class of leaders anymore obvious or impressive than at the Rukla Training Area of the Lithuanian defense forces.
Located approximately 100 kilometers west of Vilnius, Rukla now serves as the headquarters for the training of both new soldiers and the seasoning of non-commissioned officers prepared by the Non-Commissioned Officer School in the nearby city of Kaunas.
Operating according to Western standards both in terms of facilities and training and doctrine, the Rukla Training Area prepared more than 1000 new Lithuanian soldiers during the past year and is scheduled to expand to train up to 4,000 a year in the future.
No one can visit the site without being struck by quality of the facilities themselves -- many of the buildings and much of the equipment exceed what is found in countries that have been members of NATO for many years.
But even more important than this very much changed physical situation is the shift in attitudes between officers and soldiers, a change that commanders there and in Vilnius suggest reflect the ever-expanding role of sergeants in this training enterprise and throughout the Lithuanian army.
In the view of these commanders, the professional sergeants and other non-commissioned officers, many of whom are competing for permanent positions and a large percentage of whom are women, play three key roles, each of which is more important than paygrades might suggest.
First, they perform many of the jobs that junior officers had to do in Soviet-style armies thereby allowing the latter to be leaders rather than operators.
Second, these sergeants and corporals represent an element of continuity, passing on military traditions to soldiers even as officers are shifted from one billet to another and thus promote the professionalization of both the soldiers under them and the officers under whom they serve.
And third, and this is almost certainly their most important contribution, the sergeants help to transform the image of soldiers among officers and of officers among soldiers, thus serving as a break against the kind of hazing all too common in Soviet-era armies.
Precisely because they are professionals, well-trained and often better paid than some junior officers, the non-commissioned officers enjoy remarkable respect from the men and women they direct and thus guarantee that officers respect not only themselves but the soldiers.
That shift in attitudes has had a profound impact on the nature of the Lithuanian defense forces. In the past, few Lithuanians saw the military as a profession to be pursued and military service as a status to be envied.
Instead, in a hangover from the Soviet period, many people until relatively recently saw military service as something to be avoided precisely because officers could be counted on to make life miserable for conscripts. Now these attitudes have changed, less because of declarations from senior government officials and military commanders than because of the day-to-day work of sergeants and corporals.
And consequently, it may well be that the sergeants rather than the generals who will improve the prospects for the inclusion of Lithuania and her Baltic neighbors not only into the world of modern Western militaries but into NATO as well.