New drill for Army's training officers
US Army drill sergeants, among the most feared officers in the military, tone down their training methods as the demands of war and recruitment change.
Fort Jackson, S.C.
Three tours in Iraq, as well as growing up on the streets of the Bronx, N.Y., has prepared Eddie Carabello well for his current task: In essence, whipping a bunch of no-good, Xbox-playing, iPod-listening, TV-generation-types into steely warriors. Fast.Skip to next paragraph
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"Whatever you do, do not embarrass me!" bellows the US Army drill sergeant at a cohort of freshly shorn recruits on the first day of basic training. Sergeant Carabello's trademark raspy voice booms through the Carolina pitch pine. His Smokey-the-bear "campaign" hat is tilted low over a scowling brow. "Don't ever leave your battle buddy behind, comrade!" he shouts at a soldier who has returned from the latrine alone.
Carabello, believe it or not, represents a softer, more sensitive drill sergeant. Back in the old days, he probably wanted to tattoo your behind. Now he just wants you not to embarrass him. Carabello is part of a significant but subtle change in one of the most feared and caricatured roles in the US military – the burr-headed officers who train young Army recruits for combat.
Let's be clear right up front: The "new" drill sergeants are not white-glove types. They still play the full thespian range – deprecator in chief, obstacle course bully, mess hall heckler, and all-around merry antagonist.
But new battlefield challenges, coupled with the realities of recruiting, are forcing Carabello and his fellow drill sergeants to dial down their methods. Gone are the days of instructors "getting physical" with recruits. Hazing rituals are out. Even the name-calling has changed: Instructors are supposed to use "warrior" or "private" or the recruit's last name when addressing individual soldiers rather than any abusive language.
"We used to be much meaner," says former Army drill Sgt. Veran Hill, now a civilian community affairs officer at Fort Jackson.
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One reason for the shift in tone at places like Fort Jackson is the changing nature of war. Most of today's recruits will end up on the front lines in Iraq or Afghanistan or fighting the war on terror in some other part of the world. Decisionmaking in these chaotic theaters is often pushed from the platoon leader down to the soldier. According to Command Sgt. Brian Carlson of the US Army Training Center here, rapidly moving situations and changes in Army structure increasingly require soldiers "to think for themselves and make decisions for themselves."
The tactical skills they need to learn are expanding, too. In addition to the usual physical training and weapons tests, recruits who may end up in street-to-street fighting in Baghdad are being taught everything from convoy protection to sniper detection – all in the usual nine weeks of basic training. The Army brass doesn't want the histrionics of drill sergeants distracting from instruction about modern warfare.
"It's a complete revamp of the soldierization process," says retired Army Col. Jim Hinnant, now an Army spokesman. "These are kids volunteering for the Army in wartime. We want the stress points to be the exercises they have to overcome, not the drill sergeant leading them."
The military is being prodded in some cases by the law as well. In 2005, four drill sergeants at Fort Knox, Ky., were charged with physically abusing recruits. As a result, the Army began prohibiting abusive language and anything that could be construed as hazing.
It probably doesn't hurt that the gentler training regimen may be helping Army retention, if not recruitment. Two years ago, 18 percent of new recruits failed to last six months in the Army. Only 6 percent now drop out.