BCT Changes

These changes are for basic training at Ft Jackson which is for non-combat arms soldiers. This is a subscriber article.

February 07, 2005

Groomed for battle
Basic training overhaul offers more trigger pulls, time in field

By Gina Cavallaro
Times staff writer

FORT JACKSON, S.C. — The hazy night was good for marching: cool and slightly humid under a dim quarter-moon.

The pungent smell of young soldiers who had gone awhile without showers wafted through the two-column formation, and the sandy white-dust trail muffled the sound of their steps.

The men and women of Delta Company headed down the last 15 kilometers toward their new lives in the Army, reaching their battalion headquarters around midnight drenched in the kind of raw emotion that comes with an extraordinary accomplishment: In another week, they would graduate from basic training.

It might have been a typical scene here, where 60 percent of all recruits are trained, except that these soldiers were schooled more in the business end of combat than in the customs and courtesies of the Army.

While they are slated to work as truck drivers and supply specialists and in other such jobs, they had just completed a level of training that only combat-arms soldiers used to get.

These support and combat service support troops are at the vanguard of an overhauled basic training course that has shed much of the traditional drill-and-ceremony drudgery and injected more weapons shooting, urban operations and field time.

Basic training still is a nine-week course, but the days are longer, busier and more physically challenging. These are the first changes to the course in eight years, and a recent visit here made clear that this is basic training for an Army at war.

“I’d heard nothing but horror stories” about basic training, said Capt. Corey Joyal, commander of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment, who had been on the job at Jackson for seven months. “But we’re focused on getting these soldiers ready to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. These aren’t even infantry soldiers and we’re preparing them for what they’re actually going to be facing.”

After a one-year pilot program incorporating tasks and drills based on lessons learned in Iraq, the Army on Oct. 1 began running recruits through the new course at all five basic training posts.

Trainees now are learning urban combat, convoy operations, checkpoint procedures and, mostimportant, weapons familiarization and a range of live-fire scenarios. And they’re learning it every day and night of the week.

Soldiers who weathered the course considered it a significant achievement to graduate from the grueling new basic.

“I think the whole entire company was excited. We weren’t just privates anymore. We had trained and trained and trained and we were finally becoming something,” said Pfc. Katie Patterson, 19, of Greenwood, Ind., who, after graduation, headed to Fort Lee, Va., for Advanced Individual Training as a mortuary affairs specialist.

Shooting for success

The M-16 and basic rifle marksmanship are still at the core of weapons training, but basic now includes advanced rifle marksmanship and quick fire, as well as at least one day on the range with the M240B, M60, M249, M2 or MK19 machine guns. All recruits also will go through a live-fire convoy exercise.

“We don’t expect to qualify them as machine gunmen, but we want them to be able to load the machine gun, fire the machine gun, clear a jam and unload the weapon,” said Col. Kevin Schwedo, operations officer at the Army Accessions Command. “If they’re on a convoy [in Iraq or Afghanistan] and the trained machine gunner is hit, we want [any soldier] to be able to man that machine gun.”

We learned a lot, obviously, from the 507th,” he said, referring to the deadly ambush on the 507th Maintenance Company in Nasiriyah, Iraq, in March 2003.

Among the many lessons learned from that ambush was the need for better training on basic soldier skills for troops not in combat-arms specialties.

The glitch in such training, however, is that at a post such as Fort Jackson, which never used to train combat-arms tasks, machine-gun familiarization is hampered by a lack of, well, machine guns.

Those weapons and other combat items such as night-vision goggles and close-combat optics are still trickling in, and training is catching up as the equipment becomes available, Schwedo said.

In the meantime, the training battalions are sharing equipment such as body armor vests and plates, knee and elbow pads, and some NVGs.

At Range 7 on a sunny afternoon, Staff Sgt. Brent Fowler watched over his now-armed-and-dangerous soldiers.Pop! Pop! Pop! Up and down the firing line, the soldiers in Week 5 of basic training were squeezing off rounds during advanced rifle marksmanship — and loving it.

This sort of quick-fire exercise is what really gets young soldiers excited, Fowler said, because it’s the fun stuff that, until now, only combat-arms soldiers got to do.

“The battlefields where most of the firefights are taking place are more like this. This is better suited to what they’re doing [in Iraq] now,” said Fowler, 29, who has been a drill sergeant for two years. “They’re a little more disciplined and more confident. They realize that they’re learning techniques and getting the type of training that’s more than the basic level.”

Another extension?

The new program of instruction, which trains or familiarizes new soldiers on 38 tasks and nine drills, was honed to what could realistically be done without significantly lengthening basic training beyond nine weeks.

Training days have been reconfigured to include 11 field training exercise days instead of three, and Sundays and evenings now are filled with scheduled classroom or garrison time.

Instead of the traditional three-day culminating field training exercise, soldiers spend six days of their last training week sleeping in the woods and conducting the urban-operations skills they’ve learned.

This is the first major overhaul of basic training since 1997-1998, when basic training was extended from eight to nine weeks and classes on Army values were added to the program.

The new basic is actually extended by one training day and Col. Thomas Hayden, deputy commanding officer at Fort Jackson, said he doesn’t expect that it will be extended again, even with the jam-packed operational tempo and the prospect of adding the live-fire convoy exercise.

Not that he’s opposed to a longer basic training course.

“If the Army saw fit to give us 10 weeks, I think it would be great. If they don’t give us 10 weeks, then we’ll do it in nine,” said Hayden, who spent five years training combat-arms soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga.

Schwedo, who is responsible for training operations at all five posts, said he doesn’t see a need to extend the program but hasn’t ruled it out.

“Right now, there is no requirement to extend,” he said. “But if we find that the enemy’s tactics change so drastically [in Iraq] that we have to expand, we’ll go back to the Army leadership and say this is what we need to do to train these soldiers.”

Training days

Pvt. Albert Allen, 18, of Columbus, Ohio, was filling sandbags to shore up a traffic checkpoint before taking his turn on watch.

Earlier that day, his platoon escaped the choking effects of tear gas in a simulated chemical attack. Well, most of the platoon escaped — those who got their masks on in time.

They also captured or killed members of an opposing force who ambushed them with small-arms fire while they were on a foot patrol.

Later, they sneaked up on a makeshift enemy hide-out in the woods, stealthily moving toward their objective in file formation, darting across danger areas, taking security positions and reacting to the silent hand signals of their team leaders.

Behind a cloud of purple smoke, the soldiers approached the target. Instead of a fixed structure one might find at a traditional urban training site, the flimsy, roofless hide-out was made of blue plastic sheeting strung up on rods, resembling something more akin to a large outdoor shower.

The hide-out was made with materials purchased at a hardware store a few days earlier by their battalion commander.

Under the close scrutiny of their drill sergeant, Staff Sgt. Jaime Isom, who spent more than a year in Iraq before becoming a Training and Doctrine Command trainer, the soldiers breached the blue “building” and neutralized the target, a raggedy store mannequin dressed as a bad guy brandishing a weapon.

Mission accomplished.

Allen, who will become a unit supply specialist (92Y), and fully expects to be in Iraq soon, was pretty jazzed.

“I didn’t know we’d be getting this training,” he said. “The simple fact is that even as a supply specialist, I may have to take a building over one day.”

That’s the kind of thinking drill sergeants said they are hoping to instill in their young soldiers, because the average time between the day a soldier finishes training and heads off to Iraq is down to about 27 days, according to TRADOC officials.

Speaking from experience

It’s a little bit of a leap for a combat vet such as Isom to try to mold these non-combat-arms soldiers into fighters. But having been there, he fully understands why he needs to do it.

“I still have to realize these are not infantry soldiers, but I still try to give them that mentality of where I come from,” said Isom, 30, of Seattle, a paratrooper who spent 13 months in Baghdad with the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. “I try to give them that aggressive, fighting mentality so they can come home in one piece.”

Isom, who completed basic training in 1994, said that with the exception of a few “knuckleheads,” the soldiers are paying attention and doing pretty well.

“I tell them to expect the unexpected. It’s like a shock and awe to them. You can see in their faces that they say, ‘Whoa! He was there.’”

Pfc. Angela McCain of Bradenton, Fla., spent four years in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and has a degree in mechanical engineering. Standing watch in a 4-foot-deep hole in the dirt, she praised the value of Isom’s firsthand accounts.

“It’s the way he brings it down to our level. He gives us reports on who is being killed [in Iraq] and how they’re being killed and why,” said McCain, who will train to become an AH-64 attack helicopter repairer (15R), and eventually wants to go warrant. “Some of it was disappointing — some lack of discipline and people not paying attention. Sometimes I think they should have started this training before.”

Isom said he stays in touch with soldiers he knows who are still on duty in Iraq and does a little investigating of his own to find out more about the circumstances surrounding casualties. Simple errors such as talking while on guard instead of paying attention, he said, have cost lives.

Nearly one-quarter of drill sergeants at Fort Jackson are wearing a fresh combat patch, and starting this month, the Drill Sergeant School will begin a new training program to fold in the tasks being taught in basic training.

Fowler noted the advantage of having Iraq vets among the drill sergeants.

“They help the soldiers realize that the situation is still pretty serious and that they need to take advantage of all the training they can get,” he said.

Spc. Christina Shelton, 25, who will be a human-resources specialist when she finishes Advanced Individual Training, has a degree in political science and wants to try Officer Candidate School.

The drill sergeants who talk about their experiences in Iraq “make it more realistic,” she said.

Staff Sgt. Amel Brooks graduated from Drill Sergeant School on Oct. 7. He may be new to the job, but he spent a year in Iraq with the 549th Military Police Company, 3rd Infantry Division, in Baghdad. He also worked with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

His message to new soldiers: Be disciplined, be in good shape, and keep an open mind about doing what needs to be done.

“You could easily find yourself doing something that’s not in your” military occupational specialty, Brooks said.
Bl*ody Hell T6!!! Quote war and peace next time, it's shorter!!

Other than, that spot on, it's good to see the lessons of a war being implemented so soon. I'm guessing "the deadly ambush on the 507th Maintenance Company in Nasiriyah, Iraq, in March 2003." is the one which brought Jessica Lynch in to the limelite.

I can only hope they can continue their training in their units, after all training never ends. Otherwise what was a brilliant start can soon die a death. And there's nothing worse than some one who was trained on something once, well actually a long time ago! Skillfade and all that.

But definitly common sense with soldiers from the US, and other countries, due to be in Afganistan and Iraq for an unknown amount of time.
I agree with you frog that the support units need to keep up their infantry skills or else they might be the next 507 Maint company.
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