Low-Key Drill Sergeants Retain Recruits

In the Army, gone are the screaming drill sergeants who struck fear into the hearts of recruits. They're now more like coaches or mentors. Some drill sergeants say they feel more like babysitters — and they wonder whether they are really preparing young soldiers for the stress of war.

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In the American Army, gone are the days when boot camp meant screaming drill sergeants who struck fear into the hearts of recruits. They're more like coaches or mentors now.

But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, some drill sergeants say they feel more like babysitters. And they wonder whether they are really preparing young soldiers for the stress of war.

TOM BOWMAN: The thundering drill sergeant is a khaki piece of Americana. He's been a rite of youthful passage for generations and the stuff of Hollywood movies, like "Forrest Gump."

(Soundbite of movie, "Forrest Gump")

Mr. AFEMO OMILAMI (Actor): (As Drill Sergeant) Gump, what's your sole purpose in this Army?

Mr. TOM HANKS (Actor): (As Forrest Gump) To do whatever you tell me, drill sergeant.

Mr. OMILAMI: (As Drill Sergeant): Gump!

BOWMAN: Now, this is the type of drill sergeant a recruit runs into at Fort Jackson, South Carolina; more low-key and understanding.

Unidentified Man #1: Really, so what do are you going to do when it's 140 degrees in downtown Baghdad and you do have a loaded weapon with rounds in the chamber? You going to point it at your toe or at your buddy or something like that?

Unidentified Man #2: No, drill sergeant.

Unidentified Man #1: Really?

BOWMAN: Why the change? The Army found it was losing too many recruits, about 10 percent on average five years ago. Now, partly because of a kinder, gentler drill sergeant, that loss rate has been reduced by more than half.

Keeping more recruits in training is even more important now. The Army failed to meet its recruiting goals for the past two months. Top Army leaders push for the training changes after complaints from recruits of verbal abuse, a lack of respect as the recruits were walking out the door.

The Army found it was catering to a new type of recruit, one who is technologically savvy, more of an individual, and less physically fit.

Unidentified Man #1: Ortega, just keep running. Just keep running. Don't slow down.

BOWMAN: During their nine weeks of basic training, recruits also get more time ramping up to the physical challenges, like running two miles.

Unidentified Man #1: Go on and get that stride out. You've got to extend your stride.

BOWMAN: Brigadier General James Schwitters is the commander of Fort Jackson. Three decades ago, he scurried off the basic training bus to screams of maggot, worm, meathead, and much worse. He says the drill sergeants made sport of scuffing up the recruits.

Brigadier General JAMES SCHWITTERS (U.S. Army): We're trying to replace that with non-commissioned officers establishing a calm authority, complete control in the right sense of the word, and respect based on competence, not on an act that we put on.

BOWMAN: As the training progresses, Schwitters says recruits are better able to handle an increased amount of stress.

Brig. Gen. SCHWITTERS: Which may not serve us well in the very, very beginning.

Unidentified Man #3: One niner.

BOWMAN: The more mellow drill sergeant comes at a time when the training itself is changing, more keyed to wartime.

Unidentified Man #3: We're going to move out to that location, but before we move out, you're going to plot it. But this is our general location right there...

BOWMAN: Recruits fire their weapons more, ride in convoys that come under simulated attack, patrol through Fort Jackson's endless pine forests.

(Soundbite of explosion)

BOWMAN: Where Sergeant First Class Joe Madison leads Charlie Company to beat back a mock enemy assault.

Sergeant JOE MADISON (U.S. Army): Enemy 12:00 o'clock unknown, unknown. Distance, approximately 50 meters. Fire, fire, fire.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

BOWMAN: And quietly coaches them on their mistakes as they gather around him at their makeshift camp.

Sgt. MADISON: Once they start moving, we're going to flank them. That's the whole reason why we do the flank, (unintelligible).

Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible), Sergeant.

Sgt. First Class MADISON: But you did everything else pretty good, (unintelligible).

Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible), Sergeant.

Sgt. First Class MADISON: So go back over to the staging area and drink water.

Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible), Sergeant.

BOWMAN: Madison says this approach makes more sense.

Sgt. First Class MADISON: No one is going to listen to someone who barks all the time. You got to be able to teach. You got to be able to coach them.

BOWMAN: But some of Madison's recruits, like 22-year-old Derek Shaidamento(ph) of St. Louis, longed for a more aggressive drill sergeant.

Mr. DEREK SHAIDAMENTO (U.S. Army Recruit): If I would have someone in my face constantly pushing me, I think I could have, you know, got even farther with it.

BOWMAN: And some drill sergeants at Fort Jackson agree. They say there's too much quiet coaching. Sometimes a shock is needed to mold a soldier. Stress, they say, is a part of combat.

Sergeant VICTOR DOUGHERTY(ph) (U.S. Army): And if you can't handle a little bit of stress here from the drill sergeant, you sure can't handle a bunch of stress from reality.

BOWMAN: Sergeant First Class Victor Dougherty served in Iraq, like many other drill sergeants here. And he says these recruits deploying overseas will face unlimited stress.

Sgt. DOROTHY: Because I'm quite sure if you were captured by an enemy, they're not going to say, hey, would you please pick up - somebody's going to be yelling at you.

BOWMAN: Some drill sergeants say this easygoing atmosphere is leading to more discipline problems, back talk, refusing orders. Some, like Patrice Coleman(ph), an 18-year-old from Houston, are being thrown out only after several incidents.

Mr. PATRICE COLEMAN (Recruit): The drill sergeant was talking to me and my - I was mad, and then my company commander came and she told me put on my hat and I didn't want to. And I threw it on the ground. So I got into trouble for that. And that was it.

BOWMAN: Sergeant First Class Chuck Nye(ph) says not enough recruits like Coleman are being kicked out. He says there is pressure to keep recruits in the ranks. The Army is desperate.

Sergeant CHUCK NYE (U.S. Army): There are some units where you're not going to kick anybody out. I know that for a fact, right here on Fort Jackson. Or if you do, it's going to be really hard. The guys way up high, you know, they're never going to hear anybody tell them that, because you know, when you get that high, a lot of times people are going to tell you what you want to hear.

BOWMAN: The commander here, General Schwitters, says there's no reluctance by top leaders to kick out recruits. He says Nye's comments may stem from a perception among some drill sergeants who haven't done enough to transform a recruit into a soldier.

Tom Bowman, NPR News.

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