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.
"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.
Some critics, in fact, see the toned-down training as simply that: an attempt to coddle young soldiers in order to boost recruitment numbers in a time of war. "The coddling, the softness, it's not good preparation for warfare," says Stephanie Gutmann, author of the "The Kinder, Gentler Military." "Trying to make drill sergeants less tough and forbidding [shows that the Army] has the wrong end of the stick. Eighteen-year-olds today are part of a generation that has had it too soft and is longing for real tests, Spartan conditions, and authority figures."
The basic training regimen has changed throughout the decades with the demands of war. Adrian Lewis, chair of the military history department at the University of North Texas in Denton, and a former drill sergeant, says the last time the Army went "softer" was after the Vietnam War, with the all-volunteer force. But he says that the nice-guy routine faded as time went on and the "Army got back to being the Army."
Today, the age requirement, physical standards, and some personal codes have been loosened slightly: Recruits can now have tattoos on the hands and back of the neck, for example.
But no one here thinks the training isn't rigorous. Col. Kevin Shwedo, the top US Army training command officer, believes it's even tougher – but better. "We've gotten smarter in building a soldier and building self-esteem and confidence and making them more effective in an ambiguous kind of environment," says Colonel Shwedo.
Part of the change, he says, is making the drill sergeant more teacher than tormentor. "People love the old movie thing where the drill sergeant comes in and rips your butt off for no purpose at all," he says. "But if they're destroying you from top to bottom for five minutes, what are you going to do at the 30-second mark? You're going to mentally turn me off...."
To help with the instruction, drill sergeants at Fort Jackson are being introduced to recruits earlier in the training process. In the past, a recruit's first meeting would come on the drill field or obstacle course. Today, the drill sergeant plays the role of host, meeting recruits at the bus, helping them through processing, and spending nearly five days with them before field training.
The Army is trying to deal with each soldier at his or her level. "Soldierization is a unique process, and it's up to the drill sergeant to make sure that each soldier gets to the end state," says Command Sgt. Berry Kelly of the 193rd Infantry Brigade here at Fort Jackson.
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On the "fit to win" course at Fort Jackson, the heat rising slowly as the morning matures, fresh recruits are at best paying attention, at worst ruining drill Sgt. Robert Lee's day. Sergeant Lee glowers as he admonishes a young soldier: "Where's your rucksack, private? What's going on here?" Boot camp still isn't teatime.
Another sergeant taunts other recruits. "Do you need to go to the potty? You all have a tendency to take your time!" he shouts. "Well, we don't have time for you to take your time!"
A sturdy soldier, wheezing with exhaustion, grabs the trunk of a pine to steady himself. "Is that tree falling, soldier?" asks his nearby nemesis.
Indeed, if the Army has gone even partially warm and cuddly, someone forgot to tell Pfc. Undrea Beasley, a mother of two from Texarkana, Ark. (Thirty percent of this platoon is women.) "I've been getting my butt chewed all day," she says with a smile. "I knew we'd get into discipline, but I didn't know it would come this fast." She explains how a drill sergeant berated her throughout an obstacle course run, urging her not to disappoint her gender by coming in last. She finished second from last.
"Stop talking with your hands, private," a drill sergeant barks as she's telling her story.
Some recruits admit that they come for the discipline, and expect it from the Army. And as long as Carabello is inspecting formations, they're likely to get it. "I love this job!" Carabello booms, as a nearby recruit winces.