TROY, N.Y.--When Karen Marotz first came to New York Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Denis Topliffe's section of the 42nd Infantry Division headquarters, she was a new intelligence analyst without much experience or confidence. In the span of one conversation, Topliffe saw her potential, Marotz said.
A few months later, the burly, mustachioed, fast-talking Topliffe placed Marotz as a team leader during the 42nd Infantry Division's annual training. Soon after, she had the confidence to go to Officer Candidate School.
Topliffe knows more about the officer life than most noncommissioned officers. The Albany, N. Y. resident was once an officer, but then he resigned his commission and stayed in the Army as an NCO.
In the NCO corps, he found a calling.
Wanting to be the best he could be led Topliffe to enlist in the military in 1983. After participating in a unit challenge, he won an ROTC scholarship. Soon, he was a rising officer, a captain with a wife, a teaching job, and three beloved children. But then, Topliffe's life became a tangled web when a messy divorce and a deployment meant the possibility of losing custody of his three children.
Fresh off his service in the shadow of Ground Zero--the New York National Guard's multi-month response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City-- a weary Topliffe opted for the Inactive Ready Reserve.
Then he learned he was going to be activated for a deployment. Topliffe then learned that if he deployed, custody of his children would go to his ex-wife.
With the advice of Army lawyers, he made a decision that would affect the rest of his life, and his career.
"I resigned my commission, I stayed in the states, and I won custody of my kids," Topliffe said. "Resigning my commission and re-enlisting -- there wasn't a question. If that was the way I was to maintain custody of my kids, then it was going to happen." For the first time in years, Topliffe was an enlisted Soldier -- this time as a sergeant. But what would seem like a setback to some became a challenge to Topliffe; he said he threw himself being the best sergeant he could be.
Now, when he speaks to his young troops -- or kids as he calls them -- he draws from his experiences as an officer, as an NCO officer, as a teacher, and as a father.
As an NCO, he found great satisfaction in working with Soldiers and maximizing their strengths. "It's the most fulfilling thing that I've ever done," Topliffe said, "going to work every day to mold Soldiers into great NCOs and officers."
Topliffe is a sergeant first class, and he said doesn't plan to stop until he gets to the top. His children have grown up, but he still has his "kids," the Soldiers he mentors into leaders before, during, and after drill.
One of those leaders, Staff Sgt. Joshua Stickle, said that over the course of seven years in the military, all under Topliffe, he's learned the importance of helping Soldiers grow. "I want to be able to take care of Soldiers as well as he does," Stickle, an East Greenbush, N.Y. resident, said. Another of Topliffe's Soldiers, Marotz, now a first lieutenant in Topliffe's unit, agrees. "You can see it every time a Soldier comes back: he makes sure to introduce them and immediately makes them feel a part of the team," said Marotz, a Watervliet, N.Y. resident. Soldiers like these are why Topliffe has chosen the NCO corps. Topliffe deployed in 2004 with the 42nd Inf. Div., and during his rise up the NCO ranks, he was offered both a warrant officer slot and an officer slot. And each time he refused.
"I really examined my career, and decided I'd make more of an impact on the Army and my Soldiers my being an NCO," Topliffe said. "For me, it was an honor to be an NCO."