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In part, because of the war in Iraq, the U.S. Army is transforming the way it train soldiers. During the nine weeks of basic training, the Army is doing away with some of the ceremonial: marching, standing at attention, and pressing uniforms in favor of the practical. They'll emphasize more of the skills these recruits will need to stay alive in Iraq and Afghanistan: how to spot a roadside bomb, how to defend a convoy against an ambush, how to save a wounded comrade.

NPR's Tom Bowman visited Fort Jackson in South Carolina.

TOM BOWMAN: Basic training: week five. Trucks filled with Army recruits wind their way around a dirt track. They fire at pop-up targets spread among the abandoned vehicles. It's all meant to simulate a convoy under attack somewhere along the brutal roads of Iraq.

Sergeant Alvino LaBleau(ph) stands in the back of the truck.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Sergeant ALVINO LaBLEAU (U.S. Army): The vehicle was struck by IED. Passenger's side, dismount. Driver's side, engage the target.

(Soundbite of gun firing)

Sgt. LaBLEAU: Engage the target, driver's side. Engage the target.

(Soundbite of gun firing)

Sgt. LaBLEAU: Make sure you've gotten clear - get that weapon pointed back down range.

BOWMAN: These recruits are not what the Army would call tip of the spear. After nine weeks of basic training, they will learn to be cooks, mechanics, truck drivers. They are known as support troops.

But in Iraq, there are no frontlines. That became even more clear on a March day in 2003, when a support company that included Private Jessica Lynch came under insurgent fire. Most of those soldiers never fired a shot.

Lieutenant General Robert Van Antwerp and other top Army leaders came to realize that every soldier, even a cook, has to be a warrior.

Lieutenant General ROBERT VAN ANTWERP (U.S. Army): So we went to a really a different approach to basic training.

BOWMAN: Recruits are issued their M16 assault rifles just three days after arriving here. In the past, it was three weeks. They also spend more time firing their weapons. And Van Antwerp, who recently stepped down as a top training officer, points to other changes.

Lt. Gen. VAN ANTWERP: For one thing, we cut out like 40 hours of drill and ceremony, and we put in their combatives, we took them to the field three times.

BOWMAN: Combatives, that's hand-to-hand fighting in the field includes what are known as shooting lanes.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Unidentified Man #1: Watch the tire.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

BOWMAN: Recruits walk carefully past upturned cars, concrete walls - all meant to resemble an urban wasteland. Later, they patrol inside a dense pine forest. Role-playing enemy soldiers are waiting in ambush.

(Soundbite of horn)

Unidentified Man #2: Hey. Let's go. Let's - you all stay. You all stand by. Stand by. You stand by. Let's go.

BOWMAN: Being in the field is what recruits say they like best. Private Derek Scheidemental is a 22-year-old from St. Louis.

Private DEREK SCHEIDEMENTAL (U.S. Army): We learned a lot. Probably, I wish we would have been able to do more of this because this is some of the stuff that you're going to be doing more than anything out there.

BOWMAN: And carrying a weapon has become second nature.

Pvt. SCHEIDEMENTAL: Well, it's a piece of me now. As soon as I turn it in, I'm sure I'm going to be looking for it all the time. So you get used to it.

BOWMAN: More than three quarters of the drill sergeants here are Iraq veterans, like Sergeant Victor Daugherty, who served with the 10th Mountain Division during the run to Baghdad in 2003.

Sergeant VICTOR DAUGHERTY (U.S. Army): I tell them that, you know, it's reality. And if you don't learn your warrior skills here, don't rely on nobody else because the bottom line is you got to know it for yourself.

BOWMAN: At times, Daugherty will pick up his cell phone and call fellow soldiers in Iraq, punching in speakerphones so all his recruits can hear.

Sgt. ROBERT WILLIAM THOMAS (U.S. Army): All the drill sergeants constantly talk about their experiences in Iraq.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Robert William Thomas stands near recruits throwing their duffel bags on a truck.

Sergeant ROBERT WILLIAM THOMAS (U.S. Army): Throughout the course, we talk about IEDs because that's the biggest threat in Iraq.

BOWMAN: The IED or improvised explosive device - that's a roadside bomb. It accounts for nearly 80 percent of the casualties in Iraq. Thomas says to survive, soldiers have to be aware of their surroundings, any sudden changes. An abandoned car, an unopened box, even a dead animal could conceal a bomb.

Sgt. THOMAS: We have the capability to do simulated explosions. We also have different props that we use that we'll set alongside the road and get the soldiers to notice that something was there that shouldn't be there. We have remote-controlled toys with mock explosives strapped to them. We might lay a toy cell phone on the road that could be a giveaway.

BOWMAN: There are some Iraq veterans here, like First Sergeant Chuck Nye, who worry about the overall quality of Army recruits. The Army is accepting older recruits, more without high school diplomas, more who receive waivers for crimes or medical conditions, more who score lower on the military's aptitude test. But Nye says the recruit training is far better than when he joined the Army nearly two decades ago. And it keeps getting better.

First Sergeant CHUCK NYE (U.S. Army): I think our quality of training has dramatically increased since - in the two years that I've been here, you know? We - it looks like a 180. I'm putting out a product a lot better than it was two years ago.

BOWMAN: One of those products is Private Kaija Juliette Stiehm. She's a 40-year-old former flight attendant. Stiehm realizes she may deploy to Iraq. But after spending five weeks in the South Carolina woods, she feels ready to be a soldier.

Private KAIJA JULIETTE STIEHM (U.S. Army): The training here is good. And everybody, you know, our instructors are good, our drill sergeants, you know, right up the chain of command. And then they teach us what to do and how to do it.

BOWMAN: And the Army is looking at expanding recruit training from nine weeks to 10 weeks. That would give drill sergeants more time to tell a recruit heading for the battlefield what to do and how to stay alive doing it.

Tom Bowman, NPR News.

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