The difference between commissioned and noncommissioned officers can be explained simply. In the United States, commissioned officers are those members of the armed forces who have an official commission. These commissions are obtained through specific channels. The three by which commissions are almost always obtained are a Service Academy, the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), or an Officer Candidate School. There are various locations and institutions that represent these channels. For instance, the United States Military Academy is an example of a well known Service Academy.
A typical graduate of a Service Academy, such as West Point, will attend their institution of choice for at least 4 years. During this time they will be considered Active Duty. They become commissioned upon graduation, becoming part of a group that makes up roughly 20% of the US Armed Forces. These commissioned officers become the commanding officers of the Armed Forces.
Noncommissioned Officers enter the service via other channels, such as recruitment. They are promoted from the general ranks to positions of prominence due to demonstrating excellence in their duties and among their peers. Specific examples of how noncommissioned officers rank in different branches of the United States Armed Forces varies branch to branch. For example, in the US Army, all corporals and sergeants are examples of highly ranked noncommissioned officers. These deal closely with the activities of lower ranked members of the general forces. Noncommissioned officers have typically a pay level of E-4 or higher. They will also have completed courses on the leading of troops. Commissioned officers have achieved statuses from O-1 all the way up to the level of General.
Graduates from programs like the ROTC and West Point will enter the service at at the level of second-lieutenant. A serviceman is considered a noncommissioned officer when he or she has attained the level of Specialist or Corporal. A NCO’s career could potentially lead to a position as high as Sergeant Major. However, it should not be assumed that every soldier’s career progresses along each step one at a time (corporal to sergeant, sergeant to staff sergeant, etc). Some soldiers will be promoted directly from Specialist to Sergeant, or any other higher level.
Both commissioned and noncommissioned officers can enjoy long and fruitful military careers. For members who distinguish themselves, both paths can lead to high levels of promotion, job security, and pay grade advancement. Not everyone will be in a position to enter the military through the academic route, or through general enlistment. However noncommissioned and commissioned officers alike enjoy challenging and dynamic positions as well as the respect of their fellow servicemen and their country.