BOOT CAMP GOES SOFT

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As a group of Army recruits relaxed last month in a grove of tall oaks at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., finishing their catered lunch of roast turkey, scalloped potatoes, green beans and apple pie, Captain Lee McQueen's cell phone rang. The call was from his commander, warning that a practice assault planned for the base's bayonet-combat course might have to be called off: the mercury was creeping into the 90s. McQueen's team of drill sergeants--those fabled hard-noses delegated to whip raw recruits into shape--went into action. They dutifully set up a "wet-bulb globe-temperature-index calculator" and tested the air. Sure enough, it was too hot to attack.

Instead, the 204 men and 57 women of Bravo Company spent the afternoon walking the course, looking more like the slo-mo replay of an N.F.L. game than the cutting edge of the 21st century U.S. Army. "There isn't any training value in walking the course," McQueen groused. Even his recruits were unimpressed. "I expected basic training to be tough, like the movies," says Private Jerry Brunelle. "This is more like summer camp."

It's not just the Army. Complaints are ricocheting in all branches of the service that "basic" has lost its edge--the rigors aren't all that rigorous, there's more silliness than saluting at shape-ups and there's altogether too much flirting between men and women. For most of this century, basic training was a deliberately harsh introduction to military life, a daily dose of screaming drill instructors dishing out vulgarity and physical intimidation to mortify--and motivate--trainees. These days drill sergeants spend more time mentoring than menacing. "We're no longer the charge-the-beach, stogie-in-the-mouth, cussing, hard-drinking, woman-chasing, World War II guy," says Senior Master Sergeant Paula Byrnes, who supervises basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. As the military's technology has grown more sophisticated, she says, the need for traditional warriors, trained in traditional ways, has waned. "The more technologically advanced we get," says Byrnes, "the less overtly brutal we need to be."

Maybe. What is certainly true is that the services are under increasing pressure to stem a high dropout rate among trainees. One way to do that is to make basic training easier for everyone to complete. The number of recruits who wash out after fewer than six months--which is how long it takes most members of the service to complete basic plus some advanced training--has climbed by a third over the past decade. "What we're ending up with is a kinder, gentler drill sergeant who is trying to keep attrition down," says Charles Moskos, a leading military sociologist at Northwestern University. "And kinder, gentler drill instructors are not necessarily creating the kind of force you want to go to war." Although the military denies it, many male soldiers and outside experts also believe that mingling men and women in boot camp--as the Air Force has done since 1977, the Navy since 1992 and the Army since 1994--leads to relaxed standards of physical performance and sexual tensions that diminish boot camp's effectiveness.

Misgivings about the sturdiness of basic go all the way up the ranks. As part of a review of the integration of women into the services, Defense Secretary William Cohen has ordered an outside panel to assess training in all four branches of the service. In the defense-authorization bill it passed in June, the House also called for an independent panel to examine basic training. That request is expected to be part of the final bill that goes to President Clinton later this summer.

No one who went through boot camp in the 1950s or '60s would recognize the place today. Soldiers-in-training have swapped combat boots for sneakers (easier on the feet), fatigues for gym shorts and T shirts. Instead of running in formation, they run at their own pace, to challenge the speedy and avoid injuring the slower ones. On military obstacle courses they can run around, instead of over, some walls. In some quarters the very phrase "obstacle course" is frowned upon as too harsh. For the Navy, "confidence course" is now the preferred term.

To discourage physical abuse, which was once tolerated though never sanctioned, drill sergeants are forbidden to so much as touch recalcitrant recruits in an effort to get them to perform. "Stress created by physical or verbal abuse is non-productive and prohibited," says the Army's training manual. "Drill sergeants used to be able to discipline soldiers on the spot when they misbehaved," McQueen says. "But now you can't even touch them to check their ammunition."

The nine weeks of Navy basic training begin on a luxury bus that takes recruits from O'Hare airport to the Navy's lone boot camp, Great Lakes Recruit Training Command, just north of Chicago. Onboard they watch an 18-min. orientation video with a rock-music soundtrack in which recent boot-camp grads tell the new arrivals that "physically, anybody can get through boot camp," and that it's O.K. to cry. Recruits get a "Blue Card," which helps them deal with stress. The card instructs a recruit to hand it over to a Navy trainer if he or she feels blue. "Thinking about running away?" it asks. "Help is less painful!"

On arrival recruits face a "moment of truth" during which they are told to divulge every secret in their past, such as drug use, arrests and even traffic tickets. For years, that debriefing was a bit like a police interrogation, with signs threatening $10,000 fines and jail time for liars. Those signs have been replaced by posters of naval vessels and slides exhorting the kids to embrace "honor, courage, commitment." "When they see all these nice pictures, that gives them a warmer welcome than I got," says Senior Chief Petty Officer Norman Pretlow, a recruit division commander.

The Navy has dropped other basic-training practices that old timers say fostered cohesion and discipline. Since sailors don't usually salute other sailors below the rank of officer, recruits no longer salute their drill instructors, who are petty officers. Since few will ever use firearms in the line of duty, marching with rifles went out last year. The Navy says it's trying to instill standards that the recruits will understand and embrace, not just follow. "If I just say, 'At attention! Fall in!' I may get the behavior I want--80 recruits standing at attention--but what are they thinking about?" asks Master Chief Petty Officer Alan McCue. "But if you tell them that we're going to have this personnel inspection to instill pride in the unit, you will get pumped recruits who want to do it."

The Navy also says that approach gets results with young recruits who crave strict standards they may not be finding at home or in school. "The old method of getting right in your face and screaming and hollering sends them running," says Captain Cory Whitehead, commander of the Great Lakes boot camp. "They're hungry for standards, and if they're given one, they embrace it." Some officers outside of boot camp still think the whole enterprise has gone squishy. "When these kids get to the fleet," one commander says privately, "you can see it isn't working."

Lighter physical training, which many recruits get just three times a week, is another sore point. "They want us to put the Navy into our heart, not our muscles," complains recruit Michael Evans. Captain Whitehead counters that the old system overworked recruits, leading to stress fractures and other medical problems that delayed, or ended, fledgling Navy careers. "We had recruits piling up, waiting for them to get better so we could do it to them again," she says. "Now we rarely break them."

As it happens, basic has become more congenial at the very moment when instructors face more recruits who, as products of an unbridled youth culture, have no instinctive respect for authority. "The resistance to leadership exhibited by this 'generation that was never spanked' undermines discipline and the rank-authority system," concludes a draft report prepared for the Pentagon by the Rand Corp., a California think tank. Older officers also complain that the new generation is more motivated than their predecessors by the financial incentives of the all-volunteer Army. "People used to come here for the 'duty, honor, country' aspect," says Sergeant Shawn Brown, an Army Reserve drill sergeant. "Now they're here for the Army College Fund." Retired Admiral Stan Arthur, who commanded Navy forces in the Persian Gulf War, sums it up this way, "It is almost as if the services are becoming unionized."

Mixing men and women in basic training has also caused some problems. Fresh from the sex scandal at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, the services are determined to make drill instructors understand that sexual exploitation of female recruits will not be tolerated. At the same time, military brass wants to discourage trainees from becoming distracted by the opposite sex. A recent Army study of mixed-gender training two years ago concluded: "Drill sergeants felt they had to keep the soldiers focused on the training, while the soldiers were focused on one another."

Congress is looking into the wisdom of resegregating basic training. The Army in particular is sensitive on this point, having suspended mixed-gender training in 1982 after a five-year attempt--too many women were injured and too many men complained that training with women wasn't tough enough--then reinstating it in 1994. While Army officials insist it's going well this time, reports from the field suggest caution. "Some male drill sergeants said standards had to be lowered to accommodate females, especially for physical training," a new Army report says. "They felt they could not go 'full bore'."

Last week there were rumbles at the top levels that change could be looming. The Army's top trainer, General William Hartzog, said he may lengthen basic training beyond its current eight weeks, primarily to include more human-relations instruction designed to curb sexual harassment. But Army officials say they are also weighing beefed up physical standards for recruits. That draft Rand Corp. study now circulating around the Pentagon says only 42.9% of the troops surveyed believe their unit is ready for a crisis. "That number is unsettling," the study notes, "given that the military's job is to be prepared for what is essentially a sustained crisis." At Fort Leonard Wood, a lot of recruits agree. "If basic training was tougher, we'd end up with better soldiers," says Private Tony Steinhart. "I want somebody with me in my foxhole who can help me fight, and doesn't expect me to do it all."