The Army We Have

To fight today’s wars with an all-volunteer force, the U.S. Army needs more quick-thinking, strong, highly disciplined soldiers. But creating warriors out of the softest, least-willing populace in generations has required sweeping changes in basic training.
BLESS 'EM ALL: Recruits at Fort Benning get a little time off on Family Day in November 2006.

In demographic terms, at least, the Army should have no recruiting problem. Since the end of the draft, in 1973, the U.S. population has grown by almost 100 million. Meanwhile, with the end of the Cold War, the active Army shrank from 780,000 members in 1989 to fewer than 500,000 in 1996. (The Army expects to have 512,000 soldiers at the end of 2007; Gates’s plan would raise that number to 547,000 by 2012.) And many more jobs within all the services have been opened to women, who now make up about 15 percent of the Army.

But in reality, the numbers game is stacked against recruiters. In the prime age group for recruitment (17 to 24 years old), 7 in 10 are ineligible for military service, Army officials say. More than half the members of this youth cohort are disqualified for moral, mental, or medical reasons: They have had too many run-ins with the law, or they have gang-related or extremist tattoos; they have had psychiatric treatment for severe mental problems or antisocial behavior; or they have been diagnosed with one or more of a staggering list of medical conditions, from heart murmurs to obesity. Other potential recruits have too many dependents, scored too low on the Army aptitude test, or lack high-school or general-equivalency diplomas. Take out those already serving or joining other branches, those who are disclosed homosexuals, and those who are smart and healthy but have no intention of ever entering the military, and the pool shrinks further. From 1976 to 2001, the number of male high-school seniors who say they will definitely join the military remained constant, at about 10 percent. But those saying they would definitely not serve has risen, from 40 percent to 60 percent.

To expand the pool, the Army has in recent years added thousands of recruiters, more than doubled certain enlistment bonuses to $40,000, and granted more enlistment waivers for medical problems, past drug and alcohol abuse, and criminal records. (In the past three years, the number of waivers for criminal conduct jumped by 65 percent, to 8,129 in 2006.) The Army has doubled its admittance of recruits who score between the 15th and 30th percentiles on the Army aptitude test—up from 2 percent of total recruits—and now accepts some recruits with tattoos on their hands and necks. (The Marines, meanwhile, just instituted a rule significantly restricting tattoos allowed on forearms, describing them as unprofessional and contrary to the Corps’ traditional values.) In the past year and a half, the maximum enlistment age was raised from 34 to 40, and then to 42.

But finding willing and qualified candidates remains slow, tedious work. For every potential soldier a recruiter sends to training, he’ll talk to 150 to 250 people. He’ll find them by making hundreds of cold calls, visiting high schools, and walking through malls. Of these contacts, the recruiter will conduct 20 face-to-face interviews. Four of those applicants will take the Army aptitude test and physical exam. Just over half will score in the top half on the aptitude test. Fewer than half will pass the physical. So by the time recruits make it to training, the Army is keen to keep them there.

To this end, the Army has shifted the culture of basic training away from the demeaning treatment and harsh indoctrination that have always characterized standing armies. Drill sergeants are supposed to act more as coaches and mentors than as feared disciplinarians. They yell less; swearing and abusive language are no longer tolerated. “We don’t have to break a person down to make him a great soldier,” says Colonel Kevin Shwedo, the director of operations for the Army’s Accessions Command within the Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC. “As a matter of fact, you are going to find that tyrannical treatment is absolutely the wrong way to go. The most effective teams don’t focus on breaking you down; they focus on building your skills up and developing your self-esteem and ego.”

At the same time, Shwedo sees today’s recruits as the product of a society that can’t quite figure out how to raise its children. “Most kids coming into the Army today have never worn leather shoes in their life unless it said Nike, Adidas, or Timberland. They’ve never run two miles consecutively in their life, and for the most part they hadn’t had an adult tell them ‘no’ and mean it. That’s bizarre,” he says. “Our society says you can’t count in a soccer match, because you might hurt somebody’s feelings. Every kid is going to get a trophy, whether or not you ever went to practice or ever won a game.” But these societal shortcomings can be leveraged in the training environment, Shwedo says. “If you go up and do something as simple as slap a soldier on the back and tell them they are doing a good job, you are giving them the recognition that society hasn’t given them besides those cheap trophies.”

The less-threatening and more-respectful environment helps recruit new soldiers and lowers the attrition rate. About 6 percent of today’s trainees fail to complete their first six months in the Army, down from 18 percent two years ago. Advanced-training programs that prepare soldiers for groups like the Army Rangers and Special Forces can afford washout rates of 60 percent or more. Applicants for these special units far outnumber available slots, and a high failure rate maintains the groups’ elite mystique. Perhaps most important, the Army doesn’t lose these washouts; it sends them back to their old units or to new assignments. But when the Army loses a new recruit out of basic training, that body is gone, along with the invested time and money. By the time a soldier graduates from initial training, the Army has spent more than $30,000 on recruiting and training. An attrition rate of 18 percent would thus cost the Army $360 million a year.

Some attrition is unavoidable. Most of the recruits kicked out during their first six months in the Army have preexisting medical or mental conditions that were hidden from recruiters or simply overlooked. One recruit showed up at Fort Benning, one of the Army’s five basic-training posts, with fresh sutures from open-heart surgery. Another had a glass eye. Another was suffering from heroin withdrawal. Others have had mental breakdowns or homicidal thoughts. But many of the rest are kicked out for “failure to adapt,” and these losses are seen as preventable. Along with making the training environment more tolerable, the Army nowadays also gives more second chances. Before being kicked out, a recruit with attitude problems will often be recycled one or more times to an earlier phase of training with another company.

The Army has also changed its physical-training regimen to retain thousands of trainees who might have been lost each year to injuries. It has scaled back the runs and road marches and shifted its focus to gradually building up weak bodies. Moreover, trainees injured today go to special rehabilitation units; in the past, injured recruits were sent home to heal, and many never came back.

In addition to shifting to a kinder and gentler approach, in late 2002, TRADOC pulled together an Army-wide group to study whether recruits were gaining the right skills. The study group asked field commanders what their new soldiers lacked, and it incorporated lessons learned from Afghanistan. Since then, the Army says, the training of recruits has become more directly tuned to combat situations than ever before. In early 2003, training posts started issuing rifles in the first days of basic training. Previously, weapons were stored in locked rooms and drawn out only for trips to shooting ranges and for field exercises. Now, recruits carry their rifles everywhere—to physical training, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the bathroom—just as they will while deployed. This change has cut down on accidental shootings in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army officials say.

When recruits leave the company area, they load blank ammunition, mimicking combat. They wear body armor in the field, getting used to its cumbersome weight. They conduct convoy live-fire exercises and train more than previous recruits did on administering first aid and on operating in urban environments. They kick in doors, clear rooms, and react to gunfire and explosions while walking through fake towns. They fire the heavy machine guns and automatic grenade launchers they’ll use in Iraq, and they study pictures of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Drill sergeants leave items out of place around the barracks, encouraging recruits to pay close attention to detail, preparing them for combat patrols. Last summer the Army introduced more-intensive training on escalation of force, and soon every recruit will have to administer and receive an IV—a task that, for novices, can involve puddles of spilled blood.

Assessments of today’s basic training span from praise for producing smarter, more effective, and more adaptable soldiers, to criticisms that new soldiers are insufficiently disciplined and arrive at their units unable to meet minimum standards. “The standard when you go to combat doesn’t change,” says First Sergeant David Schumacher, who oversees an infantry company from the 10th Mountain Division, now in Iraq. (I deployed twice to Iraq with the same company.) “You still have to wear the same heavy gear. You still have to fight under the same conditions. The weather doesn’t change. The vehicles don’t change. What you do on patrol doesn’t really change. So why should your initial entry into the military change? Why cut that down early, and then all of a sudden there’s a gap between where they are when we get them and where they have to be? That gap is what needs to be taken out.”

Anytime soldiers talk about basic training, one theme recurs: Every generation of soldiers says they had it so much harder—their road marches were longer, their drill sergeants meaner, their punishments more severe. Their complaints, in turn, are dismissed as age-old bellyaching. I’d heard plenty about the new face of basic training, mostly from old comrades griping that recruits had gone soft. But I wanted to see for myself how this new approach works, so I recently spent time with the Infantry Training Brigade at Fort Benning, where I had trained for combat in 2002. No women go through basic training at Benning, and most Army soldiers have jobs outside the infantry. But plenty of clerks, medics, and truck drivers have found themselves in firefights lately, and if standards have changed for frontline troops, the ones kicking down doors in Ramadi, then training for the rest has surely followed suit.

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Brian Mockenhaupt is a freelance writer and former infantryman.

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