Saturday, February 18, 2006

Kinder Gentler Basic?

Thanks (I think!) to Greg H for sending me this.

Marching Orders: To Keep Recruits, Boot Camp Gets A Gentle Revamp --- Army Offers
More Support, Sleep, Second Helpings; Drill Sergeants' Worries --- `It Would Look So
Much Nicer'

By Greg Jaffe

15 February 2006

The Wall Street Journal

(Copyright (c) 2006, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- New recruits used to be welcomed to boot camp here with
the "shark attack." For decades, drill sergeants in wide-brim hats would swarm
around the fresh-off-the-bus privates, shouting orders. Some rattled recruits would
make mistakes. A few would cry.

Today, the Army is opting for a quieter approach. "I told my drill sergeants to stop
the nonsense," says Col. Edward Daly, whose basic-training brigade graduates about
11,000 soldiers a year. Last fall, Col. Daly began meeting with all new recruits
shortly after they arrive at boot camp to thank them. "We sincerely appreciate the
fact that you swore an oath and got on a bus and did it in a time of war," he
recently told an incoming class. "That's a big, big deal." He usually is accompanied
by two male and two female soldiers, who can answer questions the recruits may have.

"The idea is to get rid of the anxiety and worry," Col. Daly says.

The new welcome is a window on the big changes sweeping boot camp, the Army's
nine-week basic training. For most of its existence, boot camp was a place where
drill sergeants would weed out the weak and turn psychologically soft civilians into
hardened soldiers. But the Army, fighting through one of its biggest recruiting
droughts, now is shifting tactics. Boot camp -- that iconic American experience --
may never be the same.

Once-feared drill sergeants have been ordered to yell less and mentor more. "Before,
our drill sergeants' attitude was `you better meet my standard or else.' Now it's `I
am going to do all I can to assist you in meeting the Army standard,'" says Command
Sgt. Maj. William McDaniel, the senior enlisted soldier here.

New privates are getting more sleep and personal time. Even the way soldiers eat has
changed. Drill sergeants long ordered overweight soldiers to stay away from soda and
desserts. Today, soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood fill out a survey about their
boot-camp experience that asks, among other questions, if they liked the food,
whether they were "allowed to eat everything on the menu, including dessert," and
whether there was enough for seconds.

Recruits still must meet the same basic standards and pass the same tests for
physical fitness and marksmanship to graduate, say Army officials. But more variable
criteria that in the past might get a recruit expelled -- such as whether a drill
sergeant thinks a recruit has the discipline and moral values to be a soldier --
have been jettisoned. "Now it doesn't matter what the drill sergeant thinks. We work
off of the written standard," says Capt. Christopher Meng, who oversees a company of
11 drill sergeants and about 200 recruits at the base.

The new approach is helping the Army graduate more of its recruits. Last month, only
23 recruits failed to make the cut at Fort Leonard Wood's largest basic-training
brigade, compared with 183 in January 2004. Army-wide, about 11% of recruits
currently flunk out in their first six months of training, down from 18% last May.

Senior Army officials say attrition has fallen because the new techniques are
helping more soldiers reach their full potential. "This generation responds to a
more positive leadership approach. They want to serve and they want people to show
respect for that decision," says Maj. Gen. Randal Castro, the commanding general at
Fort Leonard Wood. Smarter training also is preventing injuries, Army doctors say.

Some drill sergeants worry that the "kinder and gentler approach" -- as drill
sergeants have dubbed the changes -- is producing softer soldiers. "If the privates
can't handle the stress of a drill sergeant yelling at them, how will they handle
the stress of bullets flying over their head?" asked Staff Sgt. Clayton Nagel as he
watched his recruits file past him in the Fort Leonard Wood dining hall. "War is
stressful. I think we over-corrected."

The Army's decision to overhaul basic training came last spring. The service was
having a hard time bringing in new recruits. It ultimately missed its 2005
recruiting goals for active-duty troops by 7,000 soldiers, or 8%, and National Guard
soldiers by 13,000 or 20%.

Meanwhile, boot-camp attrition was climbing. New soldiers brought in to replace
those who were tossed out weren't much better. "We realized that the further you go
into the barrel, the lower the quality," says Col. Kevin Shwedo, a senior officer in
the Army's Training and Doctrine Command in Virginia.

A team of 20 officers from the Army's training command was formed to figure out how
the service could help more soldiers survive the first six months. They consulted
sociologists and psychiatrists and even flew in MTV's senior vice president of
strategy and planning, in search of fresh ideas for motivating today's youth.

The changes, put in place this fall at all five of the Army's basic-training camps,
are apparent the moment recruits step off the bus at Fort Leonard Wood. On a chilly
Tuesday in January, about 200 new recruits in white Army sweat suits filed into a
big auditorium on the base for one of Col. Daly's welcome-to-the-Army talks. Staff
Sgt. Mike Gilmore grabbed a microphone and told the recruits what was going to
happen: "The brigade commander is going to talk to you. He is a colonel. He is way
up here. You are way down here," Sgt. Gilmore explained.

He then coached the recruits on how to spring to attention when Col. Daly entered
the room. "When I say `attention,' you stand up. That's it. You don't say nothing.
You do it quietly as possible."

"Attention!" Sgt. Gilmore ordered. The recruits rose slowly and unevenly.

"Could we all just stand up together?" Sgt. Gilmore said, sounding more let down
than angry. "It would look so much nicer."

A few minutes later, Col. Daly, a Special Forces soldier who served in Afghanistan
and was awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded in the U.S. invasion of Panama,
strode into the room. He told the recruits to take a deep breath and a swig from
their canteens. "There is no problem that you might have that in last 230 years the
Army hasn't already heard," he said.

The recruits then got 40 minutes to fire questions at the four privates accompanying
Col. Daly. One recruit asked if any of the privates had failed the Army's
physical-fitness test. (Two struggled with it, but eventually passed). Others wanted
to know how often they got to talk on the phone (once a week), how long they got for
showers (five minutes) and how many hours of sleep they got a night (8 hours). A few
asked if they had any regrets about enlisting. All four said no.

After the session, Pvt. Angela Holmquest, one of the privates brought in to answer
questions, said she worried that basic training had become too easy. "The drill
sergeants tell us we are in the low-stress Army. I'd rather be in the old Army. When
we need to lock it up and work together as a team we can. But we should be more
disciplined than we are," she said.

In recent months, the Army has told drill sergeants to back off the recruits in the
dining halls as well. A few months ago, sergeants would hover over new recruits,
rushing them through meals, quizzing them about Army regulations and chastising them
for minor infractions like carrying their drinking glass with one hand instead of

The dining hall still is far from relaxing. But drill sergeants no longer shout at
recruits. They aren't allowed to order overweight privates to skip dessert. At
first, some drill sergeants refused to embrace the new directive. "There was a lot
of balking on the dessert rule," says Capt. Meng, who oversees 11 drill sergeants.
"I have had to say, `Don't even mention it.'"

The Army also has cut the amount of running troops do in boot camp by more than 60%
in the past three years. "A lot of these kids have never done P.E. or sports. We
were injuring too many by running too much," says Col. Greg Jolissaint, an Army
physician with the command that sets baseline standards for boot camp.

Instead of running, privates do more calisthenics and stretching. They also are
spending more time learning the basic combat tasks they will need in Iraq or
Afghanistan, such as how to spot a roadside bomb. Last month, Sgt. First Class Kevin
Staddie, who spent a year in Iraq, was teaching soldiers how to move through a city
under enemy fire. Suddenly he called a halt to the exercise. A private who was
slithering on his belly lost his only canteen. Sgt. Staddie asked the private if he
knew the temperature in Baghdad in August.

"It is 115 degrees," the sergeant said in an even voice. "Will you give me a solemn
promise that you'll do a better job securing your canteen? You'll get a whole lot

The private nodded and rushed to continue the exercise.

Soldiers also get a few more chances to succeed, say drill sergeants. Not long after
she arrived at boot camp, Pvt. Starr Mosley was accused by another soldier of
writing letters home when she was supposed to be training. Her drill sergeant
ordered the 18-year-old private to crawl on her belly through the barracks and
chant: "I will not write letters in the war room."

Pvt. Mosley, who said she wasn't writing letters, refused. The Army offered her a
fresh start in a new platoon. There she struggled to meet the service's marksmanship
standards, her drill sergeant says. Sgt. Darren Baker, her new drill sergeant, spent
hours coaching her. "Without him I would have quit," Pvt. Mosley says. "He was down
there in the dirt helping me."

A year ago, a drill sergeant wouldn't have taken as much time working with one
struggling soldier. Today it is part of the job. "We're all working more one-on-one
with the privates," Sgt. Baker says.

Soldiers with certain medical conditions get more help as well. Recruits with mild
asthma now are allowed to carry inhalers with them. Privates who come to the Army
with a history of mild depression now can take Paxil or Zoloft. Both changes, pushed
through last fall, are "contributing to the lower attrition overall," says Col.
Jolissaint, the physician.

Some basic-training facilities also are setting up special units for soldiers who
are hurt or out of shape. In August, Col. Daly created a "Warrior Rehab" unit for
injured recruits. Before the unit's creation, soldiers hurt during training often
would go home to heal. The vast majority never came back.

Soldiers in Warrior Rehab practice marksmanship, take classes on map reading and do
low-impact workouts in the base's indoor pool. So far, 170 soldiers have passed
through the program. Only 30 have quit basic training.

Last month, about 40 members of the unit gathered in their barracks for a class on
how to ambush the enemy with an M-18 Claymore antipersonnel mine. The troops
included Pvt. Matthew Brent, a 29-year-old former hotel manager, who enlisted
because he "wanted a personal challenge." He came to boot camp overweight at
5-foot-10, 220 pounds and quickly went down with tendinitis in his ankle. In his
five months in Warrior Rehab, Pvt. Brent has lost 57 pounds.

Next to him was Pvt. Richard Hodgson, who has been with the rehab unit since it
started in August, trying to recover from stress fractures. He was having doubts
about his ability to stick it out. "I've just lost my motivation. I was supposed to
have graduated in September and I am still stuck here," he said. The sergeants in
Warrior Rehab have been working hard to convince him to stay. "I've had a few
mother-son type conversations with him," says Staff Sgt. Nicole Waters, one of the
drill sergeants. "We talk about his goals in life. This job is a lot more mental
than the typical drill sergeant job."

Not all Army commanders have embraced the new approach to basic training. Col. Daly
says one of the 14 company commanders he oversees is a "gung-ho combat arms officer,
who right now is just killing me."

Recently, one of that commander's recruits brought a round of live ammunition back
from the rifle range, which isn't allowed. The bullet was found by a drill sergeant
in the barracks common room. As punishment, the commander ordered the entire unit,
which numbers 60 soldiers, to don their helmets when eating in the dining facility.
He then threatened to send all the privates, who were just two weeks from
graduation, back to the beginning of basic training.

Col. Daly bristled when he heard about the threat. "I am not going to keep 60
soldiers back because one guy made a mistake," the colonel says he told the

Instead, Col. Daly ordered the commander to have his drill sergeants do a better job
of searching the recruits' pockets for extra ammunition when they leave the range.

"The commander's leadership style has got to change," says Col. Daly, noting that
the commander's recruits have gone absent without leave at more than twice the rate
of any other unit in the past two months.

Even among those units that have embraced the new approach, there is debate about
whether the changes have been too much, too fast. "It's a hot topic," says Capt.
Meng, another one of Col. Daly's company commanders.

Like many of his fellow commanders, Capt. Meng spent a year in Iraq, in a tour that
ended in 2004. He was second in command of a 100-soldier armor company. In the past
six months, the West Point graduate has been in the forefront in reducing attrition,
overseeing drill sergeants and recruits.

Last month, a few dozen of Capt. Meng's privates clambered onto olive-green trucks
for one of their final boot-camp exercises. The troops, traveling in an Iraq-style
convoy, were "hit" by a series of smoke-spewing roadside bombs. Enemy fighters,
represented by pop-up targets, sprung from nearby prairie grass. A broad-shouldered
drill sergeant ordered a counterattack.

Instead of leaping off the back of the truck, as they would in a typical exercise,
or in actual combat, the privates waited about 10 seconds for someone to walk to the
back of the truck and place a ladder on its rear bumper. They then climbed down the
5-foot drop, one at a time.

Capt. Meng conceded it wasn't realistic. He said the Army couldn't afford to have
privates twist ankles and wrench knees just a few days before their final physical
fitness test. "A few months ago attrition was seen as a good thing," he says. "It
meant we were sending higher quality troops to the Army."

Now he says he is racking his brain for new ways to motivate more soldiers who are
falling short of the Army's standards. He recently petitioned Col. Daly to let his
troops have an extra half-hour of sleep on top of the 30 minutes of additional
shuteye all recruits were granted last fall. Standard boot camp sleeping hours are
now 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. His troops rise at 5:30 a.m.

"It has been great for morale," Capt. Meng says. "A soldier's happiness is directly
proportional to the amount of sleep he gets."

The Iraq veteran says his boot-camp troops are in many ways better prepared for
combat than their predecessors were. They spend far more time working with their
M-16 rifles and more time in the field training on critical combat tasks like
defending a base camp from insurgent attacks.

Asked if his soldiers are as disciplined and tough as their predecessors, Capt. Meng
pauses. "There are some who feel we are not sending as high a quality soldier to the
Army. . . . I am not smart enough to tell you," he says.

In the near term, he has other worries. "The commanding general's No. 1 priority
here is to support the war," he says. "In order to do that right now we have to
graduate more privates."

The thing that gets me about all of this is the fact that at one time basic training was considered to be not only for training, but it also had the purpose of screening out those who would be unable to handle the stresses associated with combat or even everyday military service. It seems now that we are operating under the assumption that anyone who completes the paperwork and gets through the MEPS is fit for military service. Unfortunately this technique is being used in places other than BCT, most notably to me at least is the similar attitude that prevails at rotary wing flight training. Part of the problem is the focus on total number of students trained versus the quality of the product produced. Can someone name me an esteemed institution of higher learning that tries to graduate 100% of its student body? To have real quality a school needs to be difficult enough to eliminate some of the entry population.

Please don't misunderstand, the result of all this is not a broken Army, but units in the field are presented with issues that should have been taken care of before the soldier gets to the field, and unfortunately sometimes that means discharging a soldier that never should have made it out of basic.

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