Relaxin' at Jackson

By David Hackworth
web posted December 11, 2000

Earlier this year, Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, who achieved the highest rank ever held by a woman in the U.S. Army, said, "This is not your father's army."

I just spent a week at the Army's biggest basic-training center at Fort Jackson, S.C., and Kennedy -- who, just before she retired, accused a male general of hitting on her -- was dead on target.

This is especially true at Fort Jackson, where about 55,000 young men and women swap flab for muscle, and pop and hip-hop for martial melodies, every year.

But the one thing that hasn't changed since soldiers swung swords are the sergeants. They wake up the roosters, then their young charges -- and they're still all over them, like a small T-shirt on a Ram linesman, at lights-out, 16 hours later.

Then most of these professionals, who are carefully picked and trained for this vital job, go home to families who long before have snapped off the lights. This marathon goes on seven days a week for nine weeks, until their platoons proudly pass in review on graduation day. And then the training cycle begins again.

Noncoms are the steel backbone of any military force. Unlike the colonels and generals, who rotate in and out of command jobs, they're in the trenches with the troops for a minimum of 20 years or until a bullet stops them. They do the hands-on training, and in combat they're the ones who shout "Follow me" as they lead their units into the Valley of the Shadow.

Marine drill sergeantHere at Fort Jackson, and at other Army training bases across our nation, the sergeants who take the newly sworn-in couch potatoes and mold them into trigger-pulling soldiers are called "drills." Male drills, who wear the stiff old Army campaign hat, look like tight ends; females, at least as fit, sport dashing Australian-style headgear. They're awesome figures: starched and tailored, boots spit-shined. Most are combat vets, and many have college degrees.

A standout among exceptional leaders is SFC Orfeo Provost, who guided me and my partner Eilhys England through the obstacle and confidence courses, ranges, classrooms, barracks and training areas so we could get a snapshot of the modern making of a soldier.

Drill Sgt. Provost, presently tasked with training new drills, says, "We take what society gives us and do the best job we can to make them soldiers." And so the drills do, considering the many restrictions placed on them.

The training's no longer "Full Metal Jacket" mean, designed to break down recruits and then rebuild those who soldier through. Sociologists and enlightened generals have eliminated or adulterated the techniques that forged the Private Ryans from 1776 to the 1980s. The drills' job is no longer to "break 'em but to make 'em in a stress-free environment," commented a sergeant who's swapping his lot as a drill for college.

This easy-does-it way of training soldiers has put the drills in the center of a minefield. If they slip into the no-nonsense mode of how they lead their soldiers in the real rubber-hits-the-track Army, they're immediately in a world of hurt with the brass, who say they're not in tune with the Army's new standard.

And at Fort Jackson, boys and girls train together, many bringing their anything-goes values to the barracks. Drills say keeping them apart greatly distracts from their primary mission of pounding out disciplined soldiers. Hey, if Gen. Kennedy got stuck in a sex mess, what about 18-year-olds?

But in spite of the risks, the dedicated drills still try to instill the hard lessons of old in these mainly good but soft kids. They take career-killer chances because they know if the recruits don't get it right in training, they won't make it when the slugs start to fly.

That's what motivates the dozens of drills I spoke to on base during the day and at night over a beer when Big Brother wasn't listening. But most of the drills -- off the record, of course -- worry that the training's not hard enough, that the fire they've built on the sly isn't hot enough to forge the right stuff needed to make it on the battlefield.

Maybe the generals should take off their stars and have a few beers with their drills.

One of most decorated soldiers in American history, Col. David Hackworth (Ret.) is the author of the syndicated column Defending America.Sign in for the free weekly Defending America column at his Web site. Send mail to P.O. Box 5210, Greenwich, CT 06831. © 2000 David H. Hackworth

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