Army leaders: Changes to basic training wil produce better soldiers

by Ali Rockett
Daily Press (Newport News, Va)

NEWPORT NEWS (Tribune News Service) — Most civilians' idea of basic training is embodied in a burly and ill-tempered drill sergeant yelling at young soldiers as they run or do pushups.

Times have changed, said Thriso Hamilton, a former drill sergeant and now a civilian training specialist at Fort Jackson, S.C., one of four sites where the Army's Basic Combat Training is conducted.

The Army recently validated changes to its 10-week Basic Combat Training program that will take effect Oct. 1. The changes, which emphasize fitness and character building while thinning the skills to those most relevant to a non-war-going force, were formulated at Fort Eustis' Center for Initial Military Training.

Recently retired Maj. Gen. Ross Ridge, who stepped down last month as the center's commander, said the changes reflect the service's transition away from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We needed to change everything, so we went from an Army at war to an Army of preparation, so that we start to produce these professional, trusted soldiers, who can win in this next complex world that we anticipate that we're going to have to deal with," Ridge said in an interview after his change of command.

The Army has been training soldiers for almost immediate deployment — after completing basic and Advanced Individual Training, or job training — upon arriving at their first unit of assignment. There, they learn advanced medical techniques including administering intravenous fluids and how to use weapons that most soldiers — even if they were deployed — don't use. The new curriculum has soldiers learning basic first aid and qualifying with their assigned weapon both with and without the use of optics.

More participation is now expected of soldiers in land navigation. The current system has teams of four navigate to specific coordinates in the field, but testers found that typically only one or two of the group were actually doing the map reading. Soon trainees will practice map reading in pairs.

The Center for Initial Military Training, known as the "front door" of the Army, oversees the training of about 120,000 new soldiers a year. About 11 to 12 percent quit or fail basic training, Ridge said. The goal is to lower that rate.

Most of the attrition comes through the physical demands, because a recruit can't keep up or gets injured. The new program adds an initial fitness test within the first weeks of training to gauge whether some may need more than the 10 weeks to pass a final physical assessment, which has always been a part of basic. Commanders will soon be able to recycle those that aren't ready physically.

The fitness regime will slowly escalate starting with a 4K march, working up to a longer, final distance of 16K — nearly 10 miles.

Alterations weren't only made to what was taught, but how it was taught.

Ridge said emphasis was placed on ensuring soldiers understand why they were learning particular skills and could adapt and emulate them even if the conditions or scenarios change.

James Walthes, chief of the Proponent Development and Integration Division, an element of the center also located in Fort Jackson, went through basic in the early 1970s.

"I remember when I went through basic training, it was 'Do this, do that,' " he said during a recent trip to Fort Eustis. "Where today, it's more of a mentorship program to educate the soldier on why they need to know this."

Hamilton, the training specialist, said they encourage soldiers to ask a lot of questions.

"The mindset changes from just sitting there to actively participating in what is being taught," he said. "Training is where you want to the questions to come from. When they are under a combat situation, it's time to execute."

The course is broken into three phases, named for the colors in the American flag. The red phase, weeks one through three, focuses on character building, Army values and physically fitness. The white phase, weeks four through six, covers individual skills including marksmanship, first aid, navigation and communication. An assessment will now be given at the end of each phase to ensure retention.

The final phase is blue, from weeks seven to 10, which brings everything together with team drills and more complex strategy, such as rules of engagement and law of land warfare. These elements used to be taught at the very beginning, Ridge said, "when there was no context."

"We can teach folks to shoot rifles and to navigate on land, but in order to be a good soldier you have to have a good ethical, moral foundation," he said. "First, I teach you how to shoot, now I teach you how to shoot responsibly. ... Then I start to teach you how to take the skills you learned and think through. Do I shoot at this target or do I not shoot at this target? It builds."

To those who think training is getting easier, all three men say it is becoming more difficult.

"People are too quick to say it's too easy now," Ridge said. "It was just as demanding for me then as I see it is for them now."

And more importantly, it will produce a better soldier, Hamilton said.

"We are producing a very good soldier right now, but we think we're going to produce a better soldier, a more skilled soldier."


©2015 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

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