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Recruits get 'values' with their boots

Military commanders say teaching new soldiers character doesn't correct

By Dave MonizSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 13, 2000



COLUMBIA, S.C.

Lt. Col. Mark Bounds points to the busy wall of a hallway inside his training battalion headquarters at Fort Jackson, S.C.

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Next to posters of famous battles and heroes from the 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment's past are plaques that define today's Army.

The newer picture frames list his service's "core values" - respect, integrity, loyalty, duty, honor, personal courage, and selfless service.

"You can teach someone a lot of skills, you can teach someone to shoot, run faster," he says. "But unless the character behind that is a person of value," it might not matter.

As public schools and some colleges across America have started putting emphasis on teaching character development, the military services have moved out smartly with their own brand of values and ethics training. From boot camp to service academies and professional development courses, the military has decided that character does indeed matter.

At Fort Jackson and at Parris Island, S.C., a legendary Marine boot camp, ethical teachings have become a large part of basic training. The Air Force and Navy, too, have adopted this new ethos, making the Pentagon one of the strongest proponents of character education in the US.

"It's an investment in the future of service organizations and the nation," says Lt. Col. Fred Kienle, a former basic training battalion commander at Fort Jackson now stationed at Fort Monroe, Va.

Colonel Kienle is assigned to the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, which in the past three years has focused with intensity on teaching its soldiers the seven "core values." At Fort Jackson, the Army's largest basic training site, commanders and drill sergeants spend several hours each week studying ethical and moral lessons with recruits.

To explain personal courage, for example, drill sergeants might discuss soldiers who risked their lives to save comrades in battle.

The lessons are put to the test at the end of basic training in a grueling exercise known as "Victory Forge."

Recruits practice team building while navigating road marches and tricky obstacle courses. Sometimes a recruit is asked to have enough trust in fellow soldiers to fall backward off a raised platform with eyes closed.

The Marines have similar programs at Parris Island, where drill instructors have for several years taught recruits how to shoot, march, and tell right from wrong. They, too, have a strenuous training event called "The Crucible" to test how well new leathernecks have assimilated core values.

Commanders of the four military services say they must teach ethics and values to newcomers because there's no guarantee some have received them growing up. And in a world of peacekeeping and murky other missions, personal conduct becomes paramount to operational success.

"With the high rate of divorce, a lot of kids don't have a father or mother figure around. The transference of values is not always there," says Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, Parris Island's commander.

General Cheney and many other military commanders say they strongly support character education in the military and claim the training is popular among recruits and effective.

The Army is expected to release a favorable study of how the core values program is doing in the next several months. The analysis doesn't quantify how core-value lessons have improved soldiers, but will suggest that the teaching has been widely embraced.

It has only anecdotal evidence so far, but Army officials also believe there have been fewer minor infractions such as shoplifting and theft among newcomers.

The Marine Corps' Cheney said the focus on character will have a short - and long-term benefit.

"The value in the training is, we're going to build a marine who is going to make the right call, at the right time, particularly in the combat environment," he said.

The Army plans to continue its values and ethics training during the course of soldiers' careers, including during professional development courses in mid career. The Navy, which holds the same core values as the Marines, also teaches values and ethics to midshipmen at the Naval Academy.

Fort Jackson's Bounds views what soldiers get in basic training as "Values 101," to be reinforced in subsequent years. He supports public schools focusing more heavily on values and ethics, and applauds a recent initiative by Gov. Jim Hodges to bring the studies to South Carolina schools.

Rear Admiral Edward E. Hunter won't argue. The Navy, too, has grown fond of character education and stresses it heavily at boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, Ill.

Any movement by schools to mirror what the services are doing, Hunter says, "is a good idea."

But even proponents admit the limitations of teaching right from wrong to 20-year-olds.

Hunter and others suggest that character education is not a fix-all for society's ills.

You won't find many military people nave enough to think a few doses of values training can save deeply troubled recruits. But commanders believe that for most people it's beneficial.

"Three months of boot camp [with core values taught] is not going to make a perfect citizen," Parris Island's Cheney says.

"The kids who walk off the parade deck have some flaws, but they are a hell of a lot better off than they were.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society