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First Step to "An Army of One"
Story by Heike Hasenauer

DOZENS of frightened teenagers, their faces taut, their bodies suddenly shaky, stumbled from the buses that had transported them from the reception station at Fort Jackson, S.C., to their basic-training company barracks -- their home for the next nine weeks.

As their drill sergeants shouted -- "Hurry up, hurry up! We haven't got all day! Fallin, fall in!" -- the magnitude of what they had done registered fully for the first time. Some of them fought back tears as they stood in a haphazard formation, wearing their newly issued BDUs.

Many of them were away from home for the first time. And judging from the looks on their faces, homesickness had hit them like a lightning bolt.

The night before, a different rotation of recruits -- from the basic training brigade's 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment -- marched roughly eight miles from a field training site back to their barracks for a spine-chilling ceremony that caps a three-day tactical event called Victory Forge.

The eighth-week occasion signifies the transition from civilian to soldier, said battalion commander LTC John Buckley.

Still wearing their field gear and camouflage paint, the young troops marched smartly into formation, to the tune "I'm Proud To Be An American."

As a light rain fell from the midnight sky, a traditional black cauldron of fire burned brightly, its orange embers crackling and sending sparks dancing through the darkness.

Orange spotlights, provided by a camera crew from the Army's new advertising agency, Leo Burnett, encircled the large pot so the crew could more easily film Company B's 3rd Platoon, the unit they had followed throughout its nine-week training cycle for GOARMY.COM website clips and television recruiting ads.

The scene bore a striking resemblance to the "Survivor" television series set where, each week, the cast silently awaits the decision about who will be voted off the island.

At this point, the eighth week of basic combat training, there was little chance an individual could be booted out, Buckley said. The only potential obstacle to graduation now would be a debilitating injury or a Jekyll and Hyde-like personality change.

Buckley opened the ceremony with some advice to the tired and dirty men and women, who hadn't yet showered or sat down to a traditional meal.

"As you continue on your journey in the Army, you may need a shot of inspiration," he said. "If so, think back on the faces and names of the soldiers to your left and right, the pain and gain of Victory Forge, and the light and heat of the flame burning in front of you."

The fire, he said, is an eternal flame, representing the fire that burned "in the patriots yearning for freedom ... inside the bellies of the doughboys fighting in Europe, inside the GIs fighting against the Axis powers, and the fires our adversary started in the Iraqi desert. It also symbolizes all the soldiers who have completed basic training before you, and all of those yet to come.

"Just as it takes heat and pressure in a forge to make steel, the heat and pressure of basic combat training makes great soldiers," Buckley continued. "You are the newest soldiers in the greatest Army in the world."

This time, to the sound of drum rolls, followed by music from the film "Bridge Over the River Kwai," the men and women fought back tears generated by pride in all they had achieved and hoped to achieve, some said later. After the ceremony, each of the five companies in the battalion conducted its own, more intimate, celebration. Each company commander presented his troops with the Army Values card that they'd hang on the chain with their dog tags.

"We focus on the seven core values throughout BCT, by attaching a value to every obstacle," said CPT Chad Campfield, commander of Co. B, 3rd Bn., 13th Inf. Regt.

The values are also printed in bold, black letters on the walls above soldiers' bunks. And throughout BCT, the new soldiers focus on such values as integrity, honor and loyalty, by exemplifying individuals in their platoons who have demonstrated those values.

Eight weeks earlier, the soldiers at Victory Forge had been the frightened kids at the Army's doorstep. But gradually, with guidance and encouragement from their drill sergeants, they learned to march with precision, assume responsibility with confidence and do for themselves what others had been doing for them for years -- and more, Campfield said.

In their second week of BCT, the training platoons completed the Bayonet Assault Course.

As the morning sun shone through the tall Carolina pines, casting shadows on the white-sand and pine-nettle forest floor, they practiced bayonet assault maneuvers and challenged each other with pugil sticks that simulate the bayonet in close-combat training.

Then, as the sounds of artillery and machine-gun fire blared through overhead speakers, they ran over log crossbeams, scaled wooden walls and inched their way, on their backs, through a barbed-wire "tunnel," all while holding their weapons over their heads.

As they approached a concrete-enclosed sandpit, filled with "enemy" troops, they instinctively stabbed the "weapon"-bearing green mannequins with the bayonets' sharp blades as they yelled, "Kill! Kill! Kill!"

"We operate using the concept 'insist, assist,'" Campfield said. "Commanders lay out standards, and drill sergeants assist the soldiers through each event.

"Basic training isn't about trainees versus drill sergeants," Campfield said. "It's about trainees versus tasks." Drill sergeants focus on standards -- that's where the toughness of basic training lies." Today stress in BCT results, as it always has, from the difficulty of a task. But drill sergeants rarely shout in soldiers' faces to elevate that stress.

Trainees experience stress not only from pending tasks, but from the BCT environment as well, said CPT Jerry Fisher, commander of Co. E, 1st Bn., 61st Inf.

"By June it's about 100 degrees out here and sweat's pouring down the trainees' faces," Fisher said. Still, they do one hour of PT -- alternating muscular strength exercises and cardiovascular runs -- Monday through Saturday.

Trainees take their first PT test within the first 72 hours of BCT and every two weeks thereafter, said 1SG Jack Williams of Co. C, 3rd Bn., 13th Inf. And there are six mandatory marches, from three to 15 kilometers each.

Additionally, the new soldiers must negotiate obstacles like the "Slide to Victory," -- a combination of cargo net, balance beam and free-fall cable ride -- the "Berlin Wall," "Five Walls" and the 40-foot "Skyscraper" tower.

"They're tough because some of the trainees don't have upper-body strength," said SSG Julio Maldonado, a drill sergeant with 2nd Bn., 39th Inf. "They have to get up and over the obstacles with each other's help, putting themselves in their buddies' hands."

Nonetheless, the day in the seventh week of training is one of BCT's most motivating, and probably the best confidence builder, Mal-donado said. "The soldiers love it."

The most challenging part of BCT is the first two weeks -- the "lock-in phase" -- when trainees are homesick and tired because they're not used to getting up at 5 a.m. and doing PT, or staying up late preparing for inspections, Maldonado said.

Some of them, as soon as they arrive at the 120th Adjutant General Bn. reception station, decide they don't want to be in basic training. This is where they may spend up to five days before being shipped out to their BCT units. During that time, they get shots, fill out paperwork, get measured for uniforms and get the first taste of what it's like to accept orders.

Quickly, their connection to the civilian world is severed. They're even told what to wear while sleeping. "The PT uniform is the pajama of choice. There's no option," said MAJ John Steves, executive officer of the 120th, one of five reception battalions in the Army. The others are at Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.; and Fort Knox, Ky.

New soldiers are allowed to call home only once in the first 72 hours, forbidden to have candy or soft drinks, unless they've been invited to attend a concert or sports event on post -- sometimes midway through the cycle -- or go off post. Off-post passes are issued only on graduation night, if family members are visiting, said SSG Wardell Jefferson, a drill sergeant with Co. E, 1st Bn., 61st Inf.

"Trying to get along with each other is, initially, one of the hardest things they have to do," said SFC Dennis Stockwell, a drill sergeant with 3rd Bn., 13th Inf. "At first, everyone wants to be in charge. They don't realize they can get a lot more done when everyone pitches in to help."

At home, they often sat in front of the TV for long periods of time, basically doing nothing, Stockwell said. "Here, they quickly realize how important time is. And many soon appreciate the regimentation of basic training, including regular mealtimes and PT."

One recent morning, male and female soldiers from Co. C., 3rd Bn., 13th Inf., gathered inside one of the company barracks for PT, due to heavy rain and the potential danger posed by flu season.

After each exercise set, the drill sergeant yelled, "Relax," and the soldiers shouted, "Never." Then they continued the PT regimen, chanting, "One young gun, two young guns ... one-zero young guns, drill sergeant.

"More PT, drill sergeant, more PT," they yelled. "We like it. We love it. We want some more of it. Make us sweat, drill sergeant. Make us sweat."

At about the halfway point, training focuses on basic rifle marksmanship, a time when trainees learn everything from the history of the M-16A2 rifle and its components, to how to clean it and correct malfunctions, Jefferson said.

They also learn range procedures, firing positions, safety precautions and how to take orders from the range NCO in the lookout tower.

Weapons training also covers such other weapons as the M-18 claymore mine, M-249 squad automatic weapon and M-2A3 grenade launcher.

Fisher said trainees often have difficulty zeroing their weapons, and learning the skill and discipline to scan an area to engage targets.

To successfully complete BRM, they must hit at least 23 of 40 pop-up targets, from distances of 50 to 300 meters.

"BRM is the part of basic that really makes you feel like you're in the Army," said PV1 Gabrielle Lloyd. "Here, we're wearing the gear and getting in the dirt.

"I started off shooting well," she added. "I thought I'd become a sharpshooter and protect the White House or something. But I haven't made the same scores two days in a row. If you look at one target too long, you start seeing doubles."

Today, new soldiers must complete 18 requirements to graduate. Traditionally, the number was four or five, Campfield said.

BRM and the Army Physical Fitness Test are among them, as is completion of Victory Forge.

Because many new soldiers initially have difficulty completing PT requirements, several PT tests are conducted throughout BCT to help drill sergeants identify weaknesses and help individuals prepare for the APFT, Campfield said.

During the three-day Victory Forge, soldiers must be able to march about eight miles to a field-training site, where they set up defensive positions and undergo situational-training exercises that test all the skills they've learned, including common soldier tasks and leadership, Fisher said.

The exercise includes a night infiltration course that requires soldiers to crawl 200 meters through the dirt under flares and simulated M-60 machine-gun fire, said CPT Kaci Cole, commander of Co. A., 1st Bn., 34th Inf.

On the third night they march back to garrison, to the Victory Forge rites-of-passage ceremony.

"All trainees are challenged in different ways, based on their backgrounds and abilities," Maldonado said. "If recruits come here and don't pass BCT, it's because they didn't want to. We're here to assure they pass. And if they need extra help, motivational training courses are offered to assure they succeed [see related story]."

"The attrition rate in my company is about 10 percent, primarily due to lack of motivation and failure to adapt," Fisher said. "There are those who are willing but unable to comprehend what the military is about. And there are those who are unwilling, who've decided joining the Army was the worst decision of their lives.

"We tell them that basic training isn't an indication of what Army life is like," he said. A few of them just don't want to wait and see.

PV1 Timothy Johnson of Burlington, N.C., said he questioned what he'd done during the bus ride from the reception station. "But, it isn't as horrible as I'd imagined. The toughest part is living with 50 people you've never met. At the same time, the people are the best part of BCT," said Johnson, who joined the Army to become an aircraft electrician.

PV1 Ruben Olyano of Washington said, "The first two weeks were hard because I wasn't used to being yelled at and bossed around. After that, the drill sergeants treated us as humans.

"I'm sure they're nicer than they were in the past," Olyano said. "But they still get in your face. You'll know it if you do something wrong." By the same token, he said, "they talk and joke with us."

At 25, PV1 Colleen Kell is older than most recruits. "It's sometimes made things more difficult for me," she said, "because I feel I know a lot more than some of the others."

Kell, who has a master's degree in criminal justice from the University of Central Florida, said, "Everybody calls me 'Mom.'" The soon-to-be mental health specialist hopes to complete her doctorate in forensic science.

PV1 Derek Minnis said BCT started being a good experience after he adjusted to being told when to get up, eat, even use the latrine. "I've made lots of friends and learned that 'hooah' is a universal word with many meanings. I've learned about responsibility, too, and I think I've matured a little more."

"At graduation, parents ask the drill sergeants: 'How did you instill discipline, motivation and self-pride in my child? In 18 years, I couldn't do what you've done,'" Campfield said. Basic training gave them one immediate goal. The Army will give them countless opportunities to reach new ones.

Above Article Courtesy of U.S. Army, Soldier's Magazine

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