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September 20, 2006

It's not softer, it's better...

And in many respects, I'm sure that's true. Still, you've all had it easy since I went through the last hard basic in the 70's...

U.S. Army trainees take swings at each other during a hand-to-hand combat competition as part of basic combat training at Fort Jackson, S.C., Aug. 9, 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall) (Released)

U.S. Army trainees take swings at each other during a hand-to-hand combat competition as part of basic combat training at Fort Jackson, S.C., Aug. 9, 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall) (Released)

Ah, pugil sticks. Now *that* was fun. At least it was if you were a wrestler and noseguard... and no, I don't know why it's a US Air Force photo of BCT troops at Fort Jackson.

Army training not easier. By Bridgett Siter Fort Benning Bayonet

FORT BENNING, Ga. (Army News Service, Sept. 7, 2006) – Lt. Col. Scott Power was in the last hard Ranger School class in 1989. Lt. Col. Chris Forbes was in the last hard Officer Basic Course in 1988. And Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Gaskin, he was in the last hard basic training in 1995.

“So goes it for every Soldier in the history of the Army. No matter when they came through basic training or Ranger School or whatever, they came through the last hard class,” said Power, who sums up his command philosophy to all the drill sergeants under his command at 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, with this message to naysayers and those who believe basic training has gone soft:

“I’m not impressed with leaders who think they have to abuse their Soldiers to train them to standard. I’m not impressed with leaders who think the lack of abuse makes basic training soft,” he said. “We were all in the last hard class – get over it. We do things differently now, and we’re producing Soldiers every bit as good as we ever have.”

A recent spate of letters to the Army Times from Soldiers lamenting the weakening of training, particularly basic and one station unit training, has those in the know – like Power, Gaskin and Forbes – mad as the word they no longer use when addressing new Soldiers.

“I’ve had it up to here with people who say basic training isn’t what it used to be, as if that’s a bad thing,” Power said. “We don’t need to use profanity. We don’t need to demoralize these guys who have volunteered to be here, knowing full well they’re joining an Army at war.

“We’re graduating Soldiers who meet all the standards. We stand behind what we put on Pomeroy Field,” he said, referring to the Sand Hill parade field where nearly 9,000 Soldiers graduate from the Basic Combat Training Brigade each year.

Another 20,000 graduate annually from the Infantry Training Brigade.

Power, Forbes, the commander of the BCTB’s 2nd Battalion, 54th Infantry Regiment, Gaskin and his fellow drill sergeants from 3 Bn., 47th Inf., Regt., addressed the frustrating accusations of a “dumbed-down” basic training last week.

Forbes insists it’s a misconception based on widespread misunderstanding about changes during the past few years. Take the issue of fitness standards, for example. It’s common knowledge, he said, that Soldiers are now only required to pass the PT test with a “50-50-50,” or 50 percent of the push-ups, sit-ups and 2-mile run on an age-based scale, to graduate from basic training.

“But what they don’t say, those who complain about it, is that these Soldiers must pass (advanced individual training) 60-60-60. They have to meet Army standard,” he said. “And the reason for that is we finally recognized that it didn’t make sense to break a Soldier trying to get him to standard in nine weeks rather than build him up in 13. We’re thinking smarter and producing Soldiers more fundamentally fit.”

Power elaborated on the subject of fitness. He’s repeatedly heard complaints about Soldiers doing push-ups on their knees. It’s a particular sore point with Power, because the media has hyped the misconception by printing photos of Soldiers in this position with no explanation.

And there is an explanation.

“We used to push them till they dropped,” he said. “We know better now. Now, when they reach muscle failure, they go to their knees instead of going to the ground. Using the modified technique is actually tougher than the old method; they can’t quit at muscle failure, they have to modify and keep going. We’re building a more physically fit Soldier.”

Power said claims of being among the last “old-school” basic trainees has traditionally been a matter of pride, a matter of jest, among Soldiers. But when they take it seriously, or the media takes it out of context, the facts get distorted or simply ignored.

“Standards change, they always have,” he said. “When I took my first PT test in 1984, we used the old three-event standard; push-ups 68, sit-ups 69 and the 2-mile run, 13.07. Two years later, the standards increased. It got tougher. So you want to talk about ‘back in the day?’ How far back do you really want to go?”

Gaskin, a 29-year-old combat veteran, said it’s the new Soldiers who ultimately pay for the spread of misinformation.

“They come here expecting summer camp, because that’s what they’ve heard. The first couple of weeks are a culture shock,” he said. “I say to anybody who thinks basic training is soft, raise your right hand, come on out and check it out for yourself.”

Gaskin insists basic training is actually “150 percent tougher” than it was when he attended 11 years ago. Back then, he said, training included a form of hazing Soldiers commonly call “smoking.” Gaskin called it unnecessary.

“Now we’re producing fit Soldiers who are ready for combat,” he said, “because they’ve trained with body armor, they’re geared up constantly, constantly doing battle drills and urban operations training and the kind of first-aid training that will actually save lives on the battle field, not the band-aid approach I learned in basic.

“Soldiers today will graduate knowing the kinds of things I didn’t learn till I got to my first duty station, and then some of it, I didn’t know a year later,” said Gaskin, who has been a drill sergeant for nearly a year. “I told myself it would never be that way if I was responsible for training. The worst thing that could happen to me is to know I had a Soldier here for nine weeks and he goes off to combat and something happens to him because of lack of training.”

Want to read the rest? Hit the Flash Traffic/Extended Entry.

Gaskin believes the year he spent in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division makes him a better drill sergeant. Sgt. 1st Class McKinley Parker agrees. The 37-year-old Parker spent a year in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Gaskin and Parker said new Soldiers want to know what to expect in Iraq.

“The most common question they ask is about Iraq – what’s it like. They want to know, and since we were there, we can tell them and drive home the point that they better pay attention to their training, because we were there and we know it’s relevant,” Parker said.

“We do something now that they didn’t do when I was in basic training,” he said. “We have a question and answer time at the end of the day. When I was in basic, you didn’t talk to drill sergeants. That’s changed. We have to be approachable, because you don’t want these guys to have to ask questions when they get to Iraq. Then it’s too late.”

Pvt. David Robertson is in a unique position to speak about the evolution of basic training. The 39-year-old retired firefighter reenlisted in the Army after an 18-year break in service. During an interview six weeks before his Sept. 28 graduation from 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry Regiment, Robertson spoke about the differences in basic training then and now.

“Drill sergeants are a lot more caring now,” he said. “You can tell they really care about their Soldiers and they’re genuinely concerned about preparing us for combat.

“They don’t carry on like they did when I went (to basic training) the first time,” Robertson said, “but I think I’m getting a lot better training with weapons and drills and all.”

One thing hasn’t changed, Robertson said. Drill sergeants are still sticklers for detail. It’s a phenomenon Soldiers refer to as “dress-right-dress.”

Power said that’s because Soldiers must “prove themselves capable of paying attention to the strictest details.”

“If you can’t do the little things well – tuck in your shoe laces every day – you’re not going to handle the big things well,” Power said. “That’s not abuse, that’s common sense training. We didn’t throw out the practices that proved successful and start basic training from the ground up.”

Take for instance, the traditional challenge new Soldiers face first day in basic; they’re given three minutes to make every bunk in the bay.

“That’s an impossible task and an impossible time limit,” Gaskin said. “But it builds teamwork. If you’re that Soldier, you feel real stress and you come together as a team with a bunch of complete strangers to accomplish the mission. We’re building smarter, better trained Soldiers, but everything is still based on teamwork.”

You won’t find “teamwork,” as such, listed in the Army values, but it’s there, Parker said. The majority of recruits “value self above everything else,” he said, but within 72 hours of basic training, the relatively new values-based training “starts to make an impact.”

“Everything they do, good or bad, we teach values,” Parker said. “They came here because they want to be a part of this. They want to fit in, and they start living those values.”

To teach values effectively, drill instructors have to model them, Power said. Gone are the days of “issuing orders from the sidelines.”

“Leaders must be role models first,” he said. “We have to lead by example. We can’t say, ‘Take a lap,’ and stand there and watch. A leader says, ‘Follow me,’ and he trains out in front of his Soldiers. He shows the younger Soldiers that fitness isn’t a basic training value – it’s an Army value, something we value for life.”

Power believes the increase in the number of Soldiers graduating basic training is a testimony to the success of his drill sergeants and the Army’s “new” way of doing business. It’s not, as some would say, the result of softer training.

Sgt. 1st Class Frank Meals believes it also. The 33-year-old combat veteran, a drill sergeant of nine months, said today’s Soldiers leave basic training better equipped to fight than he did in 1992.

“I left basic training prepared to run. I could do push-ups and sit-ups and run,” he said. “Today’s graduates can run, but they’re prepared to stand and fight.

“They know how to defend this country, how to fight and survive and make it back to fight again,” he said. “That’s the difference between then and now.”