The old ways are no way for Army drill sergeants
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Drill Sgt. Danielle Brooks watched patiently as a squad of recruits at Fort Jackson tried haplessly to get a bloodied mannequin, representing a wounded soldier, across an imaginary creek. They were allowed to use only a zip line, stretcher, two carabiner clips and some nylon rope.
They fumbled. They fussed. They failed.
“Time’s up,” Brooks barked. “You just killed your battle buddy. How’s it feel?”
In the old Army, this probably would be accompanied by a torrent of curses and oaths. Butts would be kicked. But this is the new Army and Brooks just shakes her head, sternly calls the group together and starts teaching the recruits the right way to do the exercise.
“I don’t like to yell and scream a lot,” said Brooks, who has trained recruits for nine 10-week cycles over the past three years. “If you’re yelling and screaming all the time, when are you going to teach them? Patience is a virtue when you are trying to instill discipline.”
Brooks recently left her post training recruits to become the newest teacher in the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant School at Fort Jackson, which marked 50 years of the drill sergeant program this week. It is the only place in the nation where the Army trains drill sergeants. Brooks was chosen by the academy’s commanders – all drill sergeants themselves – to wear the distinctive belt, brass buckle and badge that proclaims “This We’ll Defend,” the drill sergeant motto.
Brooks doesn’t fit the image Hollywood usually assigns to Army drill sergeants or Marine drill instructors. They most often are portrayed as hulking, red-faced, profanity-spewing brutes, a terror to any recruit unfortunate enough to enter their universe.
Take Hollywood’s most most famous: R. Lee Ermey’s Sgt. Hartwell in the movie “Full Metal Jacket.” He’s a full throttle Marine drill instructor who calls his recruits “maggots,” punches one in the gut for an infraction and forces another to choke himself “with MY hand.”
In contrast, Brooks is 5 feet 4 1/2 inches tall, and proud of the half inch. She lives in Northeast Richland with her wife, Shakerian. And she spent five years as a vocalist with the U.S. Army Europe Band and Chorus.
But watch her and her team of drill sergeants train new recruits in the sweltering fields, forests and firing ranges of the Army’s largest basic training post, and you see that the difference between real drill sergeants and movie drill sergeants isn’t all about gender, sexuality, ethnicity or profanity.
It’s about results.
“You don’t want to spend so much energy on the screw-ups that you don’t spend enough time with the ones who want to learn,” said Sgt. 1st Class Nicole Brannan, a drill sergeant leader.
But make no mistake: Brooks and Brannan, like any top drill sergeant, absolutely can dress down a recruit who is slacking off or, even worse, smarting off. Yelling comes in long, loud bursts when it comes and it is a fearsome thing to witness.
“We don’t smoke people anymore,” said Brooks, meaning using excessive physical training – running or push-ups – to break or wash out a recruit. “But sometimes you have to give them a little extra TLC.”
Drill sergeants are chosen from the top 10 percent of soldiers in the Army. Drill sergeant leaders represent the top 1 percent of drill sergeants.
When they don the distinctive wide-brimmed campaign hat, or bush hat for female drill sergeants, they say they are “on the trail.” It recalls the Old West, where cowboys would wrangle large herds of cattle across the plains from range to railhead.
Some sergeants volunteered to be on the trail. Some were “volun-told.” They represent every ethnicity, class and social strata. But they are all “on point,” meaning they look and act like model soldiers, examples for the herds of new privates they are charged with molding.
They are the first authority figure a recruit sees in the service. They are also the person who will teach them such things as how to make a bed, how to fire an M240B machine gun and how to clear a building of the enemy. A bad drill sergeant can screw up a soldier for his entire career. A good one can shape the next chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
“You will have a future battalion commander in your platoon,” Command Sgt. Maj. Lamont Christian, the academy’s commandant, told a group of drill-sergeant candidates who graduated recently. “Show them what right looks like.”
All drill sergeants have completed the school’s nine-week course, going through every step of basic training again. But at the same time, they learn how to lead it. And they will lead it over and over again in the two years to come, in 10-week cycles, with only a few days off in between.
Their day often starts at 4:30 a.m., before the recruits wake up, and ends at 9 p.m., when the recruits have lights out.
Drill sergeants are required to do everything a recruit does – the marches, the runs, the obstacle courses, the PT – and then some.
“You don’t ask a private to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself,” Brannan said. “You show them what’s right and tell them why.”
The “why” is one of the main differences between real drill sergeants and the Hollywood image. And so is the discipline.
In Hollywood movies, and often in the old Army, if a soldier asked why he should do something, he was punished swiftly – maybe by a punch to the stomach, a brutal round of push-ups or a back-breaking run with a full pack.
“When I went through, you just did it without question,” Brannan said. “But this generation is different. We’re telling them, ‘Do as I say, but learn to think for yourself, too.’ That’s how things have changed.”
Military studies show that in the post-Cold War and pre-9/11 Army, recruiters could be very selective about who they accepted. But after 9/11 — and particularly during the surge in Iraq from 2005 to 2007 — the Army was forced to accept a lower level of recruit. That could change now that the Army’s ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be at an end after 13 years and the Army is poised to shrink significantly.
Brooks said she wanted to become a drill sergeant leader in part to instill a high level of discipline in the Army. “Drill sergeants have the most impact on the Army,” she said.
She will be patient with a private who is trying. But she will light up a private who is “jacked up,” meaning intentionally sloppy in dress or execution.
“We’ve been so busy getting soldiers ready for war that disciplinary standards have dropped,” she said. “We have to get out of that in-theater mind set. I feel like I can motivate NCOs to care (more about discipline). If they care, then everything else is easy.”
Training at the academy has changed as well under Christian, the commandant. Drill-sergeant candidates used to just complete basic training again and then were sent to a cadre – made up of a first sergeant and about six drill sergeants for each company of about 200 recruits – to learn how to teach on their own.
Now, Christian requires the candidates to lead their fellow candidates in drill and training exercises, all of which is overseen by the drill sergeant leaders. Candidates also are embedded with basic training companies, to see first-hand how training is conducted with actual recruits.
“While soldiers in earlier days of the Army may have been taught with brutal approaches and harsh treatment ... what we’ve done is understand the adult learning model,” Christian said. “That Hollywood image of the drill sergeant constantly screaming is not the drill sergeant of today.”
The 10-week basic training cycle is broken up into three phases: Red, White and Blue.
The first phase – Red – happens in the first three weeks of training. It is during this time that drill sergeants come as close to the Hollywood version as the regulations allow.
On the first day, recruits in all manner of dress and hair lengths are kept up all night during reception. They are issued uniforms, immunizations and buzz haircuts, and then are bused to their battalion’s barracks.
There, they meet their drill sergeants for the first time. It is not a pleasant experience.
There is intense yelling as the recruits get off the bus and are shaken down for contraband. Their bags are dumped. Every misstep is loudly noted and loudly corrected. It’s called “shock and awe.”
The drill sergeants even are trained to yell properly, from the diaphragm, to save the throat and achieve that distinctive drill sergeant bark.
“There is nothing more powerless and embarrassing than a drill sergeant who can’t yell,” said Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Torres, a drill sergeant leader.
Then, the stunned recruits immediately are herded to Victory Tower where they have to climb ropes and nets and rappel down a 40-foot wall. The rappelling is mandatory for all soldiers.
Yelling has its limits. While profanity in some battalions or companies is common, it is forbidden altogether in others.
“It depends on the battalion commander or the company first sergeant,” Brannan said. “You can drop an F-bomb in some battalions. In others, it will cost you your hat.”
Army training regulations say only that profanity cannot be “extreme.” But they also say recruits can’t be touched in any way, nor can recruits be “degraded.”
But in theory, drill sergeants, if allowed by their superiors, can tell a recruit to “get the (expletive) off my obstacle.” But they can’t call a recruit a “(expletive) scumbag” or say they or going to “(expletive) you up.”
“That would cost them their hat and probably a stripe,” Brannan said.
Christian teaches restraint, even in allowed profanity.
“At some point the private will stop listening,” he said. “So you save that for when you really want it to count. Otherwise it won’t have the impact. Sometimes a little ‘hell’ or ‘damn’ can make your point.”
For Brooks, the reward for patience comes at the end of the cycle, when she leads her soldiers onto the parade ground at Hilton Field to graduate. Sometimes, when family members rush out to reunite with their soldiers after 10 weeks, they’ll walk right past, not recognizing this new person the drill sergeant has created.
Many soldiers want their parents to meet their drill sergeants. Often, they will ask Brooks how their son or daughter did in basic.
“I’m honest with them,” she said. “I’ll say, ‘Little Johnnie was a knucklehead. But look at him now.’”