New Boot Camp Takes 'Gentler' Approach

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Today's basic training involves less shouting and more encouragement. Journalist Brian Mockenhaupt talks about his Atlantic Monthly article where he writes about what he calls a "kindler, gentler approach to basic training." Guests discuss the best ways to train a soldier for war.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Every generation of soldiers believes that they had the toughest drill sergeants, the longest marches, the most demanding basic training ever, and that - well, the kids today have it easy by comparison. Brian Mockenhaupt says this time they're right.

Mockenhaupt went through basic himself five years ago, and after two tours in Iraq he returned to Fort Benning, Georgia to find big changes in basic training, starting with recruits who are fatter and weaker, drill sergeants who are kinder and gentler, and an Army that faces enormous challenges to recruit and train even larger numbers of young men and women in the middle of a war. He joins us in a moment. We'll also speak with a sergeant who trains drill sergeants.

Later in the program, another edition of the Political Junkie. If you have questions about an Iraq funding bill without deadlines, Monica Goodling's testimony on the fired U.S. attorneys, yesterday's primary election in Kentucky, or the rest of the week's political news, you can send us emails now; the address is talk@npr.org.

But first, basic training. If you served in the Army, what was basic training like for you? Too tough? Not tough enough? If you're a drill sergeant or an officer, are today's recruits any different? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog. It's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And joining us now from member station WDET in Detroit, Michigan is Brian Mockenhaupt. He's a contributing editor to Esquire magazine and a former infantryman. His article in the Atlantic Monthly is entitled "The Army We Have". Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. BRIAN MOCKENHAUPT (Contributing Editor, Esquire): Thank you, Neal. A pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And let's begin with some of the challenges you described in your piece. You point out that the all-volunteer Army is experiencing its first sustained combat with relentless demands on human and material resources, and that has put an incredible strain on recruiting in particular.

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: It has. What you're seeing when you talk to a lot of the recruiters is that Iraq is one of the first thing first things that comes up. People say they don't want to go to Iraq and get blown up. They think they're going to go and they're going to die over there. And that is definitely something that kills any enthusiasm that a lot of people have to join the Army.

CONAN: So even though the population of the country continues to grow and you'd think that the pool of potential recruits would be ever larger, in fact it's not so many people and standards are lower than they used to be.

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: Well, it is. In the Army, one of the - one of the numbers that they put out there is that in the prime age group of recruits, 17 to 24 years old, seven in 10 are ineligible. Half of them are taken out for moral, mental, or medical reasons. Either they have too many run-ins with the law, they've had some past psychiatric treatment in their history, or they have any number of medical issues from obesity to a heart murmur that rules them out.

Some others have too many dependents. There's also disclosed homosexuals, people who score too low on the Army aptitude test, and those who are interested and - excuse me - who are qualified to serve but they don't have any interest. They're in college, or they just have gone a different direction in their life.

CONAN: And as you point out, to entice recruits in this environment, which also includes, you know, they've got a lot of other options as the economy's doing fairly well in a lot of places, so that the bonuses for signing up are higher? The age limits have been increase to now 42?

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: They have, and that's going on over the past couple of years from 34, and it's now up to 42. And the Army last year spent $1 billion on recruitment and on retention bonuses. And that's up I think about three times from what it was before the Iraq war started. Some of the individual bonuses have gone up to - for enlistments - have gone up to $40,000, depending on the job.

CONAN: And so one of the things that they wanted to do - also they wanted to incorporate the lessons learned from Afghanistan and Iraq as well into basic training.

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: Yeah. And you really have to separate the changes that have happened to basic training into those categories. In late 2002, the Army put together a task force to study if new recruits were being taught the right kinds of skills. And what they found was that basic training hadn't change much over the years. New recruits were being taught to shoot straight, they're being made stronger through physical exercise, and they are being taught discipline.

But when they take experiences from the battlefield from Afghanistan and then now of course from Iraq, and those lessons learned were showing them that they don't have the whole skill set that they needed, so now they're being taught a lot more about first aid, convoy operations, how to react to an IED, operating in urban environments.

The second set of changes targeted attrition. And they were looking at the number of recruits that they were losing in the fist six months of service. Now, two years ago, in May of 2005, that was about 18 percent. They've since reduced that to about six percent, which is pretty significant - a pretty significant drop for them, and part of that, you know, it saves them money. If you spend about $30,000 training a new recruit and you're losing 18 percent of them, you know, that's about 300, $350 million a year that you're losing.

But the money here isn't really the big issue, because every recruit that you lose, you have to go out and find a new recruit. And so once they get them there, they're really keen on keeping them there, and that's where you see some more of the changes about adjusting the tone and sort of the culture of basic training away from, as you had the clip from "Full Metal Jacket" on at the beginning…

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: …the harsh and kind of demonic drill sergeant.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Email is talk@npr.org. We'll begin with Ernesto. Ernesto's calling us from San Antonio.

ERNESTO (Caller): Hey, how are you doing today?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

ERNESTO: I'm a sergeant in the Army right now, and I initially came in in 86 and then got out right after Desert Storm. And what I've noticed, the big difference is, they're much more delicate in their language because when I train soldiers, I was in charge of physical training at my last company, and I give it to them loud and extremely filthy.

And when I talk, I have a few people say they're insulted by my language. I say, well, we're not going to go to nursery school, we're going into combat, and if words hurt your feelings, bullets are going to hurt a lot more. And it seems that the soldiers we're getting now - much more sensitive and much more delicate. And I don't expect robots, but I don't expect a soldier who - one, cannot pass a P.T. test.

CONAN: Physical training.

ERNESTO: I'm sorry. Yes, physical training test. And two, a soldier who gets his feelings hurt by an insult, because what's really insulting is seeing videos of soldiers getting killed, and if they can't handle dirty language or a little, a little shove or a little angry comment, then I don't know how I can trust some of these Joe's in combat.

CONAN: Would you agree with Brian Mockenhaupt that many more marginal recruits are being retained?

ERNESTO: Oh, absolutely. We've already had problems with the new, quote, "moral waivers" that have come in to effect, where felons are allowed in, people with - like the tattoo policy. I don't - I personally don't care about tattoos because I have some myself, but in order to get more people, they've waived regulations on tattoos, as far as tattoos on the neck, arms and hand.

Again, I don't care, but it shows that the political reality of the world is, the war is unpopular and most people don't want to go to Iraq, so if you yell at a guy and use profanity that insults his mother, then he's going to say, well, hell, I don't want to do this anymore, I'll just get myself kicked out. And it's a political reality that people don't want to deploy anymore. I mean I've got many friends who have literally three, four and five deployments in this war between Afghanistan and Iraq, and guys are getting out with seven, eight, 10, 12 years.

And the simple fact is, you look at a recruit and you frankly get them upset or give them an impression that he doesn't feel the Army should be, he'll just do what he can to get out, and we have to find a way to keep them in. But I've always felt that the way to keep them in is to give them an esprit de corps and a sense of accomplishment, not stroking his hair and kissing his neck and making him feel warm and fuzzy.

CONAN: Brian Mockenhaupt, there's a lot of sergeants you quote in your piece who feel the same way than Ernesto does.

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: I think, by and large, that is the general feeling. And it's hard for some people to adapt to the new culture even if it is in just toning down their language. And some have been able to adapt and be just as effective. But I think a lot of the drill sergeants feel that in some ways their hands are being tied a little bit, that they're having to find ways to get around the current system to train soldiers in what they see as being the most effective way.

And then on the other end of it, when you - when the soldiers get to their duty stations, most of the squad leaders and platoon leaders that I spoke to had the same assessment. They said the young soldiers that they're getting today are smart and they're eager, but they lack discipline. In many cases, they lack physical strength, and they can't perform to the standards that they would expect, and that they sometimes just give up too easy.

That's a really, that's a really tough problem for them to deal with as they're preparing for deployments and they have to bring these new soldiers up to speed, up to this minimum standard they feel they should be performing at. And so I think a lot of them feel like there's being too much pushed off onto them, that soldiers aren't where they feel they should be at when they graduate basic training.

So before they can get into more specialized training in preparing the unit for deployment, focusing on collective tasks like the platoon moving through an urban area and clearing a building, they have to work on things like making sure that a soldier who's slower can keep up with the rest of his unit. Or that, you know, that he - they can address on discipline problems that either should have been dealt with in basic training or should have been red-flagged at basic training or in the recruitment process, and the person shouldn't have made it into the Army in the first place.

CONAN: Ernesto, thanks very much for the call.

ERNESTO: Thank you.

CONAN: I appreciate it. And Brian Mockenhaupt, as you point out, you not only went to Fort Benning to watch what was going on in basic training these days, you went back to your old unit up at the 10th Mountain Division up in upstate New York to see how these recruits were being received into the actual units that are on their way to Iraq.

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: I did. And that was as they are preparing for their deployment. They've now been in Iraq for several months. So they were in the final stages of preparing for their deployment. And you know, for the most part, they do get brought up to speed. And they will be brought up into the fold and brought to that standard that they feel that they should be operating at. But it's a question of how much time you're taking away from honing other skills.

CONAN: We're talking with Brian Mockenhaupt. He's a contributing editor at Esquire magazine. His article "The Army We Have" appears in the latest edition of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. He served two tours in Iraq. We'll take more of your questions in just a moment. 800-989-8255. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-TALK. Email us, talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Iraq and Afghanistan have placed heavy demands on the Army. This is the first time the all-volunteer military has faced sustained combat since the end of the draft. Basic training has adapted, and it's no more Mr. Mean Guy.

Brian Mockenhaupt is here to tell us about it. He's a former infantryman who served in Iraq. His article " The Army We Have" appears in the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Of course we want to hear from you, especially if you served in the Army. Are today's recruits different? Is the training different? Is it better or worse? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And for another perspective, we turn to First Sergeant Bradley Houston. He is stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri where he trains drill sergeants. He joins us now from the studios of member station KSMU in Springfield, Missouri. And Sergeant, nice to have you on the program today.

First Sergeant BRADLEY HOUSTON (Chief Drill Sergeant, Fort Leonard Drill Sergeant School): Thank you, sir.

CONAN: And I know you've been listening to Brian Mockenhaupt's description of the changes in basic training. Do you broadly agree with his description?

Sgt. HOUSTON: Well, I do agree that the training has undergone numerous changes, obviously learned from lessons with our global war on terrorism on both fronts. You know, he talked about the collective task training that was observed at Fort Drum, and concur with him, however realizing that again we are teaching soldiers basic individual tasks that must be developed and built upon at whatever unit they're assigned after that training.

CONAN: And when you drill - you drill drill sergeants, they're forthcoming drill sergeants - when you talk to them these days, do you say, look, this has to be different from the basic that you went through?

Sgt. HOUSTON: Well, you know, the biggest thing is as we talked to them about the transformation of the culture change. You know, we use the definition coined as AURA that we use - acceptance, understanding, appreciation and recognition of our soldiers that show up today.

So is it different? Yes, it is. However, the - I don't think the intensity has changed. Maybe the fear is not there between drill sergeant and task, but what was the fear meant for between the drill sergeant and the trainee? There's a healthy respect of that drill sergeant's power base and what he is willing to do to train each soldier to meet this goal. But the task is between - or the stress is between the task and soldier.

CONAN: And are soldiers - are recruits themselves different these days?

1st Sgt. HOUSTON: Oh, most definitely. I think we take at look at society; it's much different these days. I would concur that soldiers arrive to us that are less physically fit, not for, you know, any certain reason, you know, you look at obesity rates, you look at schooling, you know, amount of physical education required in high schools today. So it is a challenge when you talk physical fitness.

And more importantly, if we're to continue down the same trend of five or 10 years ago with the way we were training soldiers on that, the injury rates would continue to increase versus decrease as we have shown with the new standardized physical training program.

CONAN: And injury rates in terms of those very long strenuous marches, 12-mile runs in full pack, that sort of thing.

Sgt. HOUSTON: And yes, and you know, again, I know that, you know, as you started off, everybody's got a story about how it was harder when they came through. But in my time in the military, now spanning over 17 years, I've considered myself to have serve in some pretty elite institutions, and I have never felt the need to take soldiers on a 12-mile run to condition them. So again, you know, stories be they may, 12-mile runs are not going to save a soldier in combat in Iraq. I personally have served there as well.

CONAN: All right. Let's see we get some more callers in on this conversation. Let's go to Allison. Allison's with us from Virginia. Hello?

ALLISON (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

ALLISON: Oh, okay. I just had a question is to why some sergeants feel that it's necessary to use the old style of extreme profanity and telling somebody that they are a scumbag, or they're worthless if treating them in a different fashion actually raises morale and makes people want to pass these P.T. tests, instead of trying to run them down and make them feel like, well, I'm not part of a part of a unit.

I would think that if these are - we're facing a very different type of warfare, and you want, obviously, very intelligent soldiers that are in there working as a team, how running people down and, you know, how you could feel that, well, if we're not swearing at them in the old ways, we're just not making tough soldiers.

CONAN: And I have to say, it sounds like you speak from experience here.

ALLISON: A little bit. I mean, you know, my experience is varied. I'm not going to say, you know, that all people behave that way.

CONAN: Okay, but you were in the Army.

ALLISON: I went through the recruiting process, and I was one of those people who had to back, you know, withdraw because I felt like the attitude was that you're just a piece of crap and you're worthless. And I went in and I could run two miles in 18 minutes. And I was 120 pounds and five-foot-one and had a college degree and wanted to make this commitment. And I just went, I'm not a piece of garbage, I want to do very well and succeed. But if I'm made to feel like I'm nothing, why do I want to do this for you?

CONAN: Brian Mockenhaupt, I'm not saying you're one of those who think that you have to go back to the old ways necessarily, but I know you talk to some people who do.

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: Well, and I think the Army has really gotten away from, over the past many years, the idea of making people feel worthless or turning them down that far. But as one of - the previous caller had mentioned, there's a lot of people who feel that there's merit in keeping the stress level high and that it's hard to mimic in any way the source of stress of combat.

But at least by introducing that, with someone's first experience in military culture, then you're giving them a little bit of what they can expect when, you know, when they go off to deployment. So in that way I think there's something a resort for having some heightened level of stress in the training.

CONAN: And Sergeant Houston, as you listen to Allison, do you think that some of the changes that have been instituted in recent years might have addressed some of her concerns?

Sgt. HOUSTON: Oh, yes, sir. Most definitely. You know, I think we've proven that we don't need to degrade a soldier to increase the stress level. These soldiers know what's going on in the world when they signed up. Many of our drill sergeants have served a tour of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and they understand that what's important to teach them may keep them alive in that first 30 days on the battlefield.

CONAN: Allison, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ALLISON: Here's what treated like that made me feel like. Do I want to trust people to make decisions about the value of my life out there on the field if they think I'm worthless? And that's a very serious question. Do I want people like that making decisions about sending me into a situation where I might die if they don't have any real value for who I am and what I offer within that unit?

CONAN: Allison, again, thanks very much.

ALLISON: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the call. Let's see if we can go now to - this is Randy. Randy is with us from Raleigh, North California.

RANDY (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call, Neal.

CONAN: Sure.

RANDY: I had a call, I guess, a general question about recruiting. But after listening to Allison, I just, I wonder if I could just interject my own particular experience and maybe differing opinion on - I spent 20 years in the Air Force and this is back in '75 through '95, and I got, actually, I interpreted the treatment, which at that time I think the Air Force maybe was a little bit lighter on the treatment than maybe the Army or the Marine Corps, but I'm kind of interpreted the treatment from our TI or DI or whatever terminology you want to use as kind of a tough love of treatment that ultimately by the time the end of basic training rolled around (unintelligible) greatest respect for at least the majority of my basic training - I had the greatest respect for our TI. We jelled as a unit. We gathered that there was a sincere, intimate connection between us and our TI, and not to go off on tangents or anything, I just - I never felt personally like - there were a lot of cussing, there was a lot of yelling, there was a lot in your face, there was a lot of do this, do that. But it somehow was presented or at least my interpretation was that it was a positive training thing ultimately I think proved in my particular case to be very valuable throughout my Air Force career. Anyway.

CONAN: Okay.

RANDY: I just wanted to interject that. Thanks and I'll go ahead and take you off the air.

CONAN: Okay, very much. Thanks. I appreciate the call, Randy. Here's an email we have from Dan in Tucson, Arizona. I went through Army basic training 20 years ago and thought my experience then was soft compared to what the movies and my father and friends led me to expect. If it's gotten softer, I think they're doing soldiers a huge disservice in failing to prepare them for the pressures of battle. Sergeant Houston, let me ask you about that. Do you feel you're doing enough to prepare the soldiers for the stresses of battle?

1st Sgt. HOUSTON: Well, I think we're doing much more than what they've done 20 years ago, I would say even much more than 17 years ago. When you look at the basic training POI - the program of instruction that these soldiers are going through - you're talking about urban operations, increased amount operations for city fighting. Soldiers are breaking down, loading, unloading and firing every U.S. weapon that we have in our arsenals. We've done advanced rifle marksmanship with both simulators, advanced optics and lasers. We've increased field training to 120-hour field exercises. We've integrated combat lifesaver training for initial entry soldiers that all those skills are deemed necessary in the war that we're fighting right now.

So for us to say that it is softer is way off the mark. The mentality in which it is trained is different, but by no means is it softer. It is more relevant and rigorous than it has ever been at any time in our nation.

CONAN: Hmm. It's interesting, Brian Mockenhaupt, some of the people you talked to said, look, if you ask the people who just, you know, just barely qualified, they said that this was incredibly rigorous, as tough as they could take and that it really was stressful. If you ask people who were sort of the middle and upper end of the percentile, they said, well, it was hard but it wasn't anywhere near as hard as I thought it would be and maybe not as hard as it should've been.

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: And that's probably something that you would have generations ago. You know, it's always easier for the people who don't struggle with it and they say, well, it could have been harder. And as Sergeant Houston was saying, you know, even when I went through basic training five years ago, none of those changes were put - had been put in place yet. You know, we were still taught to - one of the training was reacting to a nuclear blast, which was you lay down facing the direction of the blast with your face down on the ground and your arms tucked under you so that when the windstorm comes over, you know, your helmet deflects the debris, you know, not very relevant in today's environment.

CONAN: It was interesting to me that you said that in basic training these days, first of all, the soldiers are issued their rifles much earlier than they used to be and they do all of their training in full body armor.

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: Yeah. And that's really, that was to address, you know, the problem of accidental or negligent discharges once they got into theatre under deployments. You know, it takes a while to get comfortable carrying a weapon that has live ammunition in it. And so that's been a fantastic change. They spend all of their time with their weapon. They're familiar with it and then when they qualify with their weapon, they're wearing body armor. Whereas before they weren't. But they looked at that and said, well, any time they're firing their weapon, they're going to have body armor on, so it makes sense to have them wearing it when they're doing it.

You know, but there's also the question of, if you're lowering, you know, some standards with who you're letting into the Army and giving people maybe second chances or looking at some more of the gray areas and whether you should allow someone to pass on to the level, instead of just making it black and white, I think for the people who are on the receiving end of these new recruits, that's where they have questions about whether there should be sort of more stringent criteria applied to letting them advance or not.

CONAN: That's Brian Mockenhaupt, a contributing editor of Esquire. His article in the Atlantic Monthly is called "The Army We Have." Also with us, First Sergeant Bradley Houston, chief of drill sergeant school at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go to, this is Abe. Abe with us from Coral Springs in Florida.

ABE (Caller): Hello, how are you today?

CONAN: Hi. Very well, thank you.

ABE: I started my Army career in 1964. We had a World War II, Korean War kind of a training. As you probably recall, that was before Vietnam was a real deal. I spent 34 years and most of my time was in infantry units. And most of that time was in the reserves.

So I come out with a totally different perspective and I have to say that I retired in '97, so none of my comments are valid for what's going on today. But the historical perspective - I think what we look at for Army training, the stereotype is really a Marine Corps kind of training. As your little promo piece said, with the drill sergeant yelling and calling names, maggots…

CONAN: Yeah.

ABE: We never had that. We did have in your face. We did have a lot of yelling and screaming. There was foul language but no one ever called us maggots or any other kind of nasty name or title, but we were put under the pressure to perform, and we did. And as I observed over the 34 years, the training seemed to get easier and easier, less and less strenuous. Now, the first sergeant can speak to whether the training that's offered is relevant for today's warfare.

But I think the Army has reflected society, getting more and more less physical, shall we say; the kids are less prepared. They're fatter, they're slower, they're less physical, and you do have the exceptions but - but I think the Marine Corps type training is really excellent for the Marine Corps, or for the Rangers or for the Airborne units. But for the military, the Army at large, it probably doesn't fly.

But I do think that we do need not so much of a loving, kindly, let-me-tuck-in-your-blanket-for-you kind of deal; these people have to be soldiers. Many of them are away from home for the very first time. They need to stand on their own. They need to understand that youthful days of college camaraderie are over. What we're doing now is for real.

CONAN: All right. Abe, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

And Brian Mockenhaupt, let me ask you. I guess what comes down to the fundamental question, you're not that far removed from Iraq yourself. Would you be comfortable going back to Iraq with the products of the basic training that you saw at Fort Benning whenever you were there?

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: Well, I think for the most part a lot of these soldiers are going to have at least a couple of months in their unit, and they will be brought up to speed. You know, I think the Army units do a pretty good job of that. And it becomes a hard thing to quantify tangible differences if you have a few people who don't perform at quite the same level.

Obviously the vast majority are going to be good soldiers. But you're going to have a few that are going to bring down the capability of the unit and take up a lot of their leader's times. If you ask anyone who's been in a leadership position in the Army, the majority of their time dealing on personnel issues is spent with a minority of their soldiers. You know, you might spend 90 percent of your time dealing with 10 percent of your sort of problem cases.

And there's always been those cases and there always will be.

CONAN: But there may be more of them now than they used to be.

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: Well, and that's the problem.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: If you're going to spend a lot of time dealing with one person, then if you have another person come in, you're spending that much more time and it's taking training time away from the rest of the soldiers.

CONAN: Brian Mockenhaupt, thanks very much.

Mr. MOCKENHAUPT: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Brian Mockenhaupt. His article again, "The Army We Have." It's in the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Sergeant Houston, we appreciate your time today as well.

1st Sgt. HOUSTON: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: First Sergeant Bradley Houston joined us. He's the chief of the drill sergeant school at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. He was at KSMU, our member station in Springfield, Missouri.

Coming up, the Political Junkie, Ken Rudin, will join us. He's got the inside scoop on the primary election in Kentucky. I think there's been a bunch of other political news this week as well.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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