I think that the role of Drill Sergeants, in the Army anyway, is misunderstood by most civilians and often soldiers themselves. Just to clarify, Army Drill Sergeants are not called Drill Instructors, or DIs, at least not officially. Army basic training is not called bootcamp. It is called IET (Initial Entry Training) and is broken down into three types. They are, BCT (Basic Combat Training) AIT (Advanced Individual Training for whatever job skill they will have) and OSUT (One Stop Unit Training) where the soldiers stay at the same unit, with the same drill sergeants and go through both their BCT and AIT is combined together into one longer cycle.
The role of the Drill Sergeant is similar in each. But there are some subtle yet significant differences in each environment. I won’t go into those differences here. But I will make a disclaimer, and that is that the information I will provide is from my own experience having served as a Drill both in a BCT environment and later as a Drill Sergeant at an Army Drill Sergeant School. That would cover the late 80’s up to the mid 90’s. I transferred into the Inactive Ready Reserve in 2011, so I am sure there are many changes that have occurred since.
A few statistics. In 1988, the Army claimed that only the top 5% of the NCO Corps ever got to become Drill Sergeants or serve as Drill Sergeants. The Army always claimed that those soldiers who wear a Drill Sergeant Badge were unique among Army NCOs and as a result, highly trained leaders. I’m sure many who never served or were selected for Drill Sergeant duty would argue that. However, that was how the ARMY felt about it.
Back in those days, the Army gave you promotion points for having served as Drill Sergeant. The promotion points ended during the mid 90’s for Drill Sergeants. During the time I was a Drill, the Army had to select and force 70% of its Drill Sergeants to attend school and complete a tour as a Drill. When it came to female Drills, that number was 95%. That was because Drill Sergeant duty was never considered desirable. Becoming a Drill Sergeant was not a career path in the Army, but a stop during an Army NCO’s career. Once a tour as a Drill Sergeant was complete, he or she went back to their MOS (military occupational specialty) within which they usually, but not always remained for the rest of their career.
The unwilling Sergeant who was selected for drill sergeant duty, if he wished to remain in the Army, had to suck it up, attend and complete Drill Sergeant School satisfactorily, and finish his tour as a Drill without any significant disciplinary incidents. If he or she failed to do so, it was effectively a career ender. So, once selected, they packed their bags, went to school, and upon graduation, move himself and his family to whatever post within the Army where he or she was sent.
A word about Drill Sergeant School (DSS). This was a school for E-5 through E-7, and the instructors were Drill Sergeant Leaders (DSL) that had completed their tour at the IET level, and then were selected to teach at the school. It was a total control environment, in which the students were treated like privates. Called Drill Sergeant Candidates, they had repeated pretty much each subject they had when in basic training. The difference was that after being re-taught each subject by the DSL, the students then had to teach that subject flawlessly to complete that module and go on to the next. There are dozens of written and performance tests, and you could only fail a certain amount of these tests, and if you did, you got one chance to re-test. If you failed that, you were out.
Unlike the Basic Trainee, along with all of this, you were expected to keep your boots highly shined and uniform perfectly pressed at all times. You also pulled extra duty at the school appropriate for your rank. You stood inspections, and had better passed them. Graduating Drill Sergeant School was certainly one of the highlights of my military career.
Some time around 1989 and 1990, I worked at Ft. Dix, NJ as a DS. Dix was still an Army IET Post conducting BCT and AIT for soldiers who were mostly in support MOSs. By 1990, Dix had been downgraded by the Army, and no longer an Army Training Center. New soldiers would only be sent to Forts Jackson, Benning, Sill or Leonard Wood for BCT. Ft. Dix function as an Army Training Center would be almost eliminated, and remain open as a training area for reserve units. It turned out I was assigned, for a time, as a Drill to the last Basic Training cycle that ever went through there, and we cased those unit colors and they were sent to the other bases.
It was probably 1990 when I was working at Ft. Dix, and I had a platoon which was in their first week of Basic Training. It was their first week in the Army, trying to adjust to the new world that they chose to enter. My platoon was made up of new soldiers from the National Guard, Army Reserve and the Regular Army. Many people don’t know this, but if you join one of those components, you are placed on active duty and sent to an Army training center for your IET. The training is the same for all three components. Once successfully completed, those soldiers are sent back to the unit they will then serve in. At that point the gaining unit receives a disciplined, physically fit soldier who has started to make the difficult transition to Army life.
Drill Sergeants, I truly believe, have one of the toughest jobs in the Army. The days are long, and you must be in top form at all times. When you are near troops and wearing the campaign or DS hat, you can’t lean against a wall, you can’t slouch, talk trash, curse, drink anything other than water or coffee, eat candy or snacks, chew gum or smoke. The troops are not allowed these luxuries, therefore neither are you. You are also 100% responsible for their safety and overall wellbeing.
You do have to be ready to jump on and forcefully correct the smallest breach of uniform, safety, training or any other regulations. You must lead these trainees through physical training and do every task you teach them better than they can. You must be more physically fit than every soldier in your platoon and company. You must appear fearless and omnipotent, an expert in all things military.
From the minute you step onto the company street, at 0430 or whenever, until the time you put them to bed, it’s game on. And when you do get to bed after prepping for the next day, you might get three, at most four hours sleep. And after a week or so, it’s easy to get burned out, make mistakes or just not be at the top of your form. You must, at all times, provide an environment where soldiers learn to react to orders and instructions immediately and without hesitation.
It’s not unusual during your time as a DS to encounter some unusual situations, and you have to be prepared to deal with these situations as they pop up. You have to think on your feet, act immediately, and you’d better be right. Many situations are covered by Army Regulations, and Unit Standard Operating Procedures, all of which you have to be intimately familiar with. Many other situations require imagination and the old “adapt and overcome” type of philosophy. Like being a cop, it’s very easy for a DS to get into serious trouble by actions he or she may take, or, perhaps even more often, actions he or she failed to take.
Going back to 1990, it was about the fourth day my platoon had been in the Army and it’s training had begun. I was the “early man” that day, meaning I would be the DS to wake them up for another wonderful day in the US Army. I got up at around 0330 (yes, kiddies, thats AM) dressed, and got ready for the first part of my day. It was only training day 4, and I was already exhausted. I was hungry and knew it would be several hours before I would be able to have breakfast. I decided I had time to drive into Wrightstown to a 7-Eleven which was open all nite. After checking my appearance in the six foot mirror provided by the Army for just that purpose, I yawned a few times, then finally determined I was ready to show myself in public.
I decided to get a snack, which ended up being composed of a lousy cup of hot convenience store coffee (who knows how long it sat there) and a Drake’s Ring Ding to help jump start me. The bleary eyed clerk mumbled his thanks to the bleary eyed Drill Sergeant, as he put both items into a paper bag. This turned out to be fortuitous. I drove back to the company area. It was about 0415, and all was quiet. First call this day was at 0430, so while the minutes silently ticked away and it started to get light, I sipped my nasty coffee and swallowed my ring-ding as I sat in my car.
I then walked to the entrance of the barracks, where, with the exception of the fire guard who was already awake, the trainees were fast asleep. I slipped into my Drill Sergeant beast mode, and I noisily thrust the door open. Simultaneously, I screamed “GET UP” picking up the metal trash can (which was supposed to be emptied the night before but was not) and threw it as hard and as far as I could down the middle of the aisle. This startled the youngsters from their deep sleep and sweet dreams. After throwing the trash can I raced down the bay and admonished the platoon that they were moving so slow that if it had been an actual ambush, most of them would be dead.
After everyone was “toeing the (yellow) line” at attention on each side of the aisle, I ran up and down, acting like I was enraged at their performance. Which I might add was pretty bleak. But that was to be expected at this point. Finally, I quieted down and ordered the troops to carry on, make their bunks and get dressed for Physical Training. PT was a necessity that would turn into another hour long torture session for all but the best conditioned privates.
Eventually, my brother, who was also a Drill Sergeant showed up to begin his duty day. He had a different platoon in the company, which was in the same building, but he stopped by to visit and say HI. He immediately went to work on my platoon, which was acceptable protocol. The unwritten rule was that his interference with my platoon acceptable as long as he was in the same company as my platoon. I had 1st Platoon and he had 3rd.
Frank happened to be in a bit of a foul mood because he was running late (as per usual) and got stopped driving to the company area by the MPs for speeding. The post speed limit was 20 MPH, a speed which he protested at the time as being impossible for a normal person to adhere for more then a few minutes. He was doing a little over 30 MPH and sure enough, the MPs stopped him and an unpleasant exchange with those MPs followed. The MPs weren’t impressed by Frank’s DS hat (since Ft. Dix was loaded with DSs) we were nothing special. Nor were they impressed by his claim that he was late for first call .
So now all this (mostly) silent activity was going on, I patrolled the bay back and forth, occasionally stopping to question or comment to individual soldiers about whatever. Usually it was to say something encouraging, like telling them I couldn’t believe how screwed up they were and there was no way I was going to let any of them serve in my Army.
Now I had a private, I’ll call him Private Tom (not his real name) who displayed an unusual behavioral trait which began the first time he laid eyes on me. You see Private Tom, anytime I looked in his direction, approached him or spoke to him, would begin to hyperventilate. It always caused quite a stir, and he would eventually fall onto the floor panting, trying and failing to catch his breath. Before that day, each time he had an attack, he was sent to sick call, where he was examined, promptly returned to the platoon, the doctor declaring he was fully fit for duty. Tom only acted like this when I was around. He did not act like this when any of the other Drill Sergeants were around. Only near me.
As I walked over to Tom to give him some of my special encouragement, before I had a chance to chat with him, he started to hyperventilate. He created quite the scene, and it was starting to wear thin with the other privates, who at that point had no sympathy for anyone other than themselves. It was also starting to annoy me as well.
But, I had to take action! I had always heard that breathing into a paper bag would restore normal breathing for a person who was hyperventilating. I suddenly remembered I had the paper bag from my morning snack out in my car. I sent for it and gave it to Tom. I had him breathe into it, while I placed it and held it over his mouth and nose. Eventually, his breathing returned to normal, and after I was sure he was OK, I had a little conversation with him. At that point I figured this guy would have to keep a paper bag with him at all times, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to carry one for him.
While sitting on a bunk, I ordered him to pay close attention to me. I then folded the bag in a certain precise manner. I then asked him to demonstrate to me that he knew the correct way to fold it, and he did so to my satisfaction. I instructed him to have the bag with him at all times, and that he would carry the folded bag in a certain pocket. I told him that this bag would, going forward, be known as the M-294 anti-hyperventilation device. I told him that he must make it available for inspection, if requested by any of the Drill Sergeants or his platoon and squad leaders. I called both over, and instructed them to insure that Private Tom had his M-294 Anti Hyper ventilation device with him at all times, folded properly.
After I was satisfied he understood my instructions, I sent him on sick call again. He was of course sent back to the platoon again. But I started a chain of paperwork, in which I tried to convince the Company and Battalion Commanders he should be discharged from the Army due to his inability to adapt to military life.
Tom was with us for another week or so, but this behavior continued. I thought perhaps it would cease after he got used to the routine, and used to me, but he never did. The bag I made him carry was actually used again, and various Drill Sergeants within the company did stop him at random times and make him present the brown bag for inspection. He did get discharged a short time later, due to his inability to overcome this issue. He was a good kid, but he didn’t belong in the Army. He was certainly holding the platoon back because of his behavior. Can you imagine what could have happened when he was faced with a really stressful situation? I don’t even have to think about combat, where he could get himself or his buddies killed.
Sadly, Private Tom had to go. I don’t know whatever became of him after he was discharged from the Army, but I wished him the best when I left him to the hold over platoon, from where he would out process from the Army and head home. I sincerely meant it. None of us ever heard from him again.
By the way, even though the M-294 Anti-Hyperventilation device turned out to be an excellent field expedient method to deal with hyperventilation, don’t bother to Google it or check Army acquisition records for that device. It doesn’t exist. But, I guess you already knew that.