Basic Training: Basic Courtesy for Our Troops

For the health and well-being of our military, training cannot succumb to leftist political leanings

Have you ever been slapped in the face for signing a document on the wrong line? I have, and it left a serious mark on me. Not a mark that scarred me and left me crying under my bed for years after, but the kind that woke me up as if from a dream, saying, “Hey, Buttercup, you ain’t in Kansas anymore” (it was really California).

It was day one of actual basic training. For those of you who have never been there, the first few days to weeks are spent in reception getting your uniforms and completing processing. Actual basic training begins when you step off the bus at the barracks and the drill sergeants introduce you to the “shark attack,” in which they all gang up on the new recruits. That was not my aha! moment; mine was hours later, when I was standing in line to sign for my linens.

They knew I was an active duty officer and were not phased by my frustration at how weak basic training had become.

I walked up to the window where my senior drill sergeant (and years later, my 1SG) had the privates sign the proper forms. I remember him pointing at the paper and snapping at me to sign for my sheets. I did what I thought he asked and realized as my face started to sting and my cover went flying that I had erred in following his directions. That moment was a religious experience for me. What was I supposed to do — cry, fight (not likely), run back home?

What was even better was that a month or two later, when we met with the brigade commander, he asked us if anyone had mistreated any of the trainees.

Not once did it cross my mind to say what had occurred. I was in the Army, and more than that, I was going to be a paratrooper.

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I believed then, as I do now, that there is a fine line between abuse and teaching a lesson. Did it hurt me when my senior drill sergeant slapped me? It definitely stung a bit. What it really did, though, was hurt my pride. More than anything, it taught me a lesson about what my place was in the big picture. I have never believed that basic training is designed to break a person down and rebuild them. Once someone is broken, the damage is done; they will never be as strong as they were before.

No, basic training is designed for other purposes — to turn you into a soldier (military values and norms, discipline, adherence to orders, etc.), make you understand that your physical and mental boundaries are all in your head and you can endure much more than you would ever believe, learn that teamwork is everything, and weed out those individuals who simply cannot adapt. This final one was important. Some people simply cannot adapt to military life.

Basic training stresses you mentally and physically in order to push you beyond your comfort zone in an effort to test you against yourself. It is far better to have a recruit crack under the pressure of basic training than to do so when thrown into combat. And in our world of short-notice combat deployments, newly trained soldiers need to arrive at their units physically fit and mentally tough.

Too bad that does not exist anymore.

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Just over a year ago, I happened to attend my son’s graduation from basic training. It was an event that was interesting to say the least. I showed up the day before for Parents’ Day and noticed that something was off with the trainees. They seemed to meander instead of moving with a sense of purpose. I remembered my days in basic, and you always moved as if you had a fire lit underneath you; doing otherwise was a sure-fire way to get the negative attention of a drill sergeant (DS). I spent some time talking to my son about the rigors of basic and how tough it was, and he completely burst my bubble.

I found out that over half of his class had failed their end-of-course physical fitness test, but they were still going to their Advanced Individual Training anyway. I was blown away by this — how could you send troops on to further training when they were not even able to meet the minimum standards in basic training? He explained to me that part of this was because each DS was only allowed to make the recruits do sets of 10 four-count pushups at a time (total of 20 pushups).

The revelations did not stop there, however. One of the things my son was excited about was the opportunity for Army Combatives training (the Army’s version of mixed martial arts). At the height of the War on Terror, the Army had come out strong in support of hand-to-hand combat training. The thought process was that it developed a warrior spirit, and through their own abilities, soldiers would gain confidence. It would appear this belief had fallen by the wayside, as his unit only had one day of training.

That was not the only thing that blew me away. My son explained to me that after the first week of basic, the drill sergeants were pulled into the commander’s office and chewed out for cursing at the privates. Apparently, this was done in such a manner that the trainees knew about it. After this, the drill sergeants were somewhat mollified in their dealings with the trainees.

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Then, there was the bayonet course — or lack thereof, since it was cut out of basic training. I am not saying that in our modern battlefield it is likely that soldiers will have to attach a bayonet to their rifles and charge the enemy. In fact, with all our modern technology, this is something akin to science fiction movies. Unless, of course, you entered combat on May 14, 2004 with SGT Dave Falconer, who ordered his Marines to fix bayonets and charge into close-quarters combat with the enemy.

To me, however, the icing on the cake was something far less important in terms of life and death. What really signified the difference was the Chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (called CS for short) Chamber. Almost anyone in the military will have memories of the CS chamber, either fond or horrific depending on your personal level of masochism. CS is a particularly strong version of tear gas that burns the skin and eyes and causes difficulty breathing, often with the added benefit of vomiting.

The chamber is a concrete building that you enter wearing a gas mask while the DS are burning the CS capsules. They have you take off your mask and put it back on to ensure you understand how to reseal it. The real fun, however, started after everyone had completed that exercise. It was at this point that you were to take off your mask and give your DS you name, social security number (used for everything in the military), and address. Basically, everyone stood there until the DS were sure everyone was breathing in the CS gas. You would then be allowed to leave the chamber and breath sweet, clean air.

During the Vietnam War, we attempted to rewrite thousands of years of military training doctrine.

While this seems cruel — and probably really is — it accomplishes several things. First, it gives you confidence that your mask works the way it’s supposed to. Second, and even more important, is that it is a rite of passage. It is another example of stepping out of your comfort zone to accomplish something you would not have thought possible. Finally, it bonds the soldiers in a shared accomplishment. It comes back to developing a sense of teamwork. No one leaves until everyone breathes in the gas.

At this point, I had my son introduce me to his DS. They knew that I was an active duty officer and were not phased by my disbelief and frustration at how weak basic training had become. They felt the same way. Many of them were combat veterans. They understood that what they failed to instill in these young men and women could easily be the cause of one of them or a fellow soldier being killed in combat. It was not something they took lightly.

Without exception, these NCOs were stellar examples of what we should expect out of our young leaders. They were idealistic with a desire to teach, train, and mentor. They looked at me and told me, quite clearly, that it was my fault. The sad truth is that they were correct. Not my fault personally, but my fault because of the failure of field grade officers in general in the Army. They told me how their battalion executive officer would secretly watch their training in an attempt to catch them doing some heinous crime, like calling out a soldier for lack of discipline and possibly even making him do extra pushups. They told me stories of relief for cause due to such horrific crimes.

On a side note, they also informed me this kinder and softer basic training was, for now, only focused on the non-combat arms jobs. The infantry, artillery, armor, etc. jobs were still mentally and physically pushed to exhaustion throughout their basic combat training. Again, they felt as I did about this separation, and the only word to adequately define it is ‘asinine.’ The enemy will offer no comfort or sympathy simply because the tower guard or gunner on top of the HMMVW was never properly tested in training. In today’s asymmetrical warfare, support soldiers have just as high a chance of being involved in combat operations as anyone else.

Our military has succumbed to the political leanings of the left, and in doing so, they have dismantled the very institution responsible for turning young men and women into warriors who can survive on the battlefield. As I stated earlier, there is a fine line between teaching a hard lesson and hazing or abuse. It is a line that needs to be looked at on a case by case basis. At the same time, it is a training tool that has proven useful in separating those able to handle the stress of the military and those simply not mentally tough enough. Due to a lack of faith in our NCO corps, we, the senior leaders, have relieved them of this ability and so our institutions of training are no longer producing the same quality of soldier.

During the Vietnam War, we attempted to rewrite thousands of years of military training doctrine. We took tried and true methods of team development and post-deployment decompression and completely threw them out the window to be more expedient—in other words, to take shortcuts. Up until that conflict, virtually every military in human history deployed as a unit so there was camaraderie between the troops. Likewise, every armed force had a cleansing ritual for their warriors before reintegrating them back into society. This allowed them to grieve with others who shared their experiences and losses.

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Someone decided that they knew better, probably in order to save some dollars along the way or make themselves look better for an evaluation. The result was that we virtually destroyed an entire generation of veterans. Our Vietnam veterans were never properly integrated into their combat organizations, thus they never had the coping mechanisms inherent in functioning military units. Then, at the end of their tours, they were simply pulled out of combat, put on a plane, and flown back home without a chance to mentally come to terms with what they had dealt with. We failed them, and we can clearly see the results of that failure.

We are doing the same thing to this next generation of combat troopers. As a nation, can we afford to inflict this upon them? Do we want them to be unprepared for the rigors and horrors of combat? I know what my answer to that question is. We owe them more than that.

These men and women volunteered for a variety of reasons. Yet at the end of the day, they all swore to do their duty in order to protect our freedoms. We need to ensure they are prepared for what comes with such an oath.

Matthew Wadler is a U.S. Army veteran and a senior OpsLens contributor. He served in the Army for 20 years as both enlisted and officer before retiring; his service includes time as military police, field artillery, adjutant general, and recruiting. His deployments include Somalia and two tours to Afghanistan. He holds a master’s degree in HR Management and is a strong supporter of the Constitution and an advocate for military and veteran communities. This article is from OpsLens and is used by permission. 

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