Nothing is more basic than Basic Combat Training. Basic to the ways of war. Basic to national security. Basic to the very survival of the United States. So how come Fort Jackson, the single largest producer of Basic grunts, male and female, is under the command of a general who piled up more friendly fire casualties than anyone else in Desert Storm?
The Victory Tower looms up like a gallows, its timbers and planks cutting off the sun. It's a huge thing, three stories high, girdled with ropes and rope bridges, and fitted out with ladders. Next to it rises an awesome rappelling wall with a sheer, 40-foot drop to a sawdust pit. A line of young recruits are lined up, ready to leap, rope in hand, out over the edge.
WHUUUMP....WHUUMP....WHUMP...boots hit the wall. Three or four thumping steps followed by four dick-shriveling swings and the grunts are back on the ground. The first fewtwo or three male recruits take it as a rope-burning rite of passage that leaves their asses hot and their spirits high.
A fat guy stands frozen on the ledge above. The drill sergeant has to wet nurse him for 10 minutes before he flops over the side and drops like a bag of rocks. Then I spot the first female. Up there at the rim of outer space, she peers over her shoulder, her jaw quivering, tears streaming down her cheeks. She backs off until the drill sergeants surround her, talking quietly, gently cajoling her back to the edge, and this time she's out there flying, WHUUMP...WHUUMP...WHUUMP, tear-stained but game. "I'll be damned! Well done, soldier," I mutter to myself. The next female appears. This one collapses. No amount of friendly persuasion gets her to take the leap. Sobbing, she's led from Victory Tower in total defeat.
Welcome to Basic Combat Training. Welcome to Camp Snoopy, the U.S. Army's let's-play-soldiers theme park tucked in the piney hills of South Carolina. Does the idea of an obstacle course scare you? Hey, no sweat. The one they've build down here is called the Team Development Course. If you can't make it over the wall someone nice will lend you a hand. Do guns, bayonets, fists upset you? No problem. At Camp Snoopy you stick two marshmallows on a stick and duke it out with someone your own size. You say, you're no Hawkeye? Relax. If the drill sergeant can't get you through rifle training, the Chaplain can. At Camp Snoopy, they've invented a whole new meaning to "Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition."
It's just past 0800 hours at Fort Jackson and I'm sitting in a small conference room waiting for the commanding general. The general's running late because he's at a prayer meeting. The delay is fine with me. I use the time to review the e-mails that led me down here to South Carolina. on a fact-finding mission. The private who wrote "Basic training stinks" pretty much sets the tone for all the rest. A colonel who's hotter than Chili Red over "gender-neutral training" writes of a drill sergeant from Jackson whose take on coed basic training was, "Frankly, sir, they're screwing themselves silly." My favorite is a sighting from an old Vietnam chopper pilot who passed through the small service airport near Fort Jackson not long before I got there. What he saw shocked him one hell of a lot more than a paddy full of Vietcong. "The females were all carrying little teddy bears dressed in mini jump suits and cammies and the guys looked like they'd spent three days sleeping in their Class-A's."
Like armor piercing rounds, these e-mails now riddle the protective shield the Army has thrown up around a real disaster in recruitment and basic combat training. Over the past year, the signals from the field have been coming louder and stronger. From squad leaders, platoon sergeants and company commanders out where the rubber meets the road, the word is that basic combat training is producing soldiers who can't shoot, salute or scoot. Their physical shape is deplorable and their discipline stinks. And since Fort Jackson is the single largest producer of Basic grunts, I had come down to South Carolina to see for myself if things had really gone to hell in a bucket.
An aide comes in and tells me the general's ready to see me. I follow him through a maze of polished and dustless corridors, the wooden floors of the old building sagging after so many wars, their creak familiar under my heels. The last door opens and I'm facing General Raymond Barrett, a tall, lanky man with the beginning of a spare tire and thick, dark brown hair styled to a Ronald Reagan wave. He's looking at me as if I've just come out of the tree-line wearing a straw hat and rubber sandals, a wild old man who means to take a dump on his program and then frag him personally.
That's not the mission.
Go slow, Hack, I'm telling myself. Be fair. In fact, I'm so busy reminding myself that the stupidity of my own Greatest Generation filled a mountain of body bags that a few minutes go by before I realize the 'war' in the war stories General Barrett is telling me is Desert Storm.
Desert Storm? That 100-hour blow-out?
"I had the Third of the Fifteenth," he's saying. "Audie Murphy's old outfit."
I'm probably the only guy left alive in Fort Jackson who served in the same army as old To Hell and Back. But the outfit sounds familiar for another reason.
"We had the highest casualties of the war," General Barrett says in a practiced, John Wayne baritone. The two stars on his shoulders glow with the sanctity of command.
Suddenly it hits me.
"Excuse me, General, but weren't your troops shooting each other?"
General Barrett's handsome face goes redder than the clay at Fort Benning. But what can he say?
"Yes," he snaps. "We had the highest friendly fire casualties of the war."
If you're wondering why the Pentagon would put someone with this particular combat record in charge of its single largest basic combat training installation, I'm right in there with you. Last year, 80,000 men and women, most of them between 17 and 25, signed up to serve in the United States Army. Of these, almost half went to Fort Jackson to learn their basic soldiering, and nearly half of these Jackson High Fives were women.
The Army still has separate training for infantry, armor and artillery line troops--the bayonet-in-the-guts guys go to Fort Benning and the heavyweight shell humpers to Fort Knox and Fort Sill--but it's General Barrett who's become the point-person for the Pentagon's politically correct, squeaky clean, "values-based" Army. And if things keep going the way they're going now, Jackson will set the cadence for everyone else. "They want us to be the Army starship," one hardcore drill sergeant told me the night before my meeting with General Barrett. "Valhalla, man. Fucking Valhalla. You know what I think of these commanders? I'll tell you what I think. They can't take a piss without a Power Point presentation."
Sure enough, the General is now leading me back to the conference room, where a staff officer fiddling over a projector is getting set for the official Victory Starts Here slide show. When the officer finally nods that he's ready, the lights go off and down comes the snow. Here's what happens when you turn basic training over to art directors: you get a photo of three rock-hard drill sergeants and a quote that says 'Prove to us you're good enough to be in our Army and we'll let you in.' This is followed by a chart that shows a man has to do a staggering thirteen pushups to qualify for today's army--a woman, three. I learn that to graduate Basic in 2001 requires all of six foot marches, the longest being ten miles. Good thing these boys and girls weren't joining up with George Washington and the Continental Army' think about them hoofing it from Boston to Valley Forge to Yorktown with no way to hitch a ride.
There are slides on the Quality Management program, the Motivational Enhancement program (where recruits 'having second thoughts [are] salvaged'), the See It Through program that includes seminars on anger control and stress mmanagement. Today's Basic has remedial programs galore, including one with a 'Master Marksmanship Trainer--for anyone who can't hit a beer truck at ten yards with an M-16. All of these are great successes, General Barrett is saying.
"They've dropped the attrition rates to single digits.." I'm getting the feeling that the graduation rate for blind marksmen at Jackson would be 100 percent.
The "Down on your belly, dogface," approach to boot camp has given way to something called the Soldierization Process: a three-stage behavior modification program that follows a patriotic color scheme. The Initial Values Training is calledthe Red Phase, the transition toward combat is the White Phase, and the culminating three weeks of more rigorous combat training, culiminating in a program called Victory Force, is the Blue Phase.
Next to me, my wife Eilhys is scribbling notes even faster than I am. I brought her along to correct for my own bias against coed training and to make sure I'm fair to female recruits. She's writing on a small pad of General Barrett's personal notepaper, which she liberated from his desk along with one of his pens. The ballpoint is complimentary, a give-away souvenir, but the note pad, with its two red stars isn't. Each time she jots something down and rips off another sheet he smiles tightly. When she tells him the chow on post is "despicably unhealthy," he heaves an Al Gore sigh and the projector guy quickly picks up speed.
"We are here to provide these young people with opportunity," he says sturdily.
"Whoa, General," I say, "I thought we were here to prepare them for war."
I can feel Eilhys pulling on my choke leash. Okay, I tell myself. It's not about General Barrett. The Army has a real problem. It has to find those 80,000 people every year to do its job and they're hard to come by right now because the job market's been so target rich. Why sign up for the military and stand in the rain and get blisters and maybe get yourself killed when you can earn good money elsewhere and even MacDonald's is offering management training programs? If you're not from an old-fashioned family with a strong tradition of military service, if you're not a jock or someone born with a warrior's soul, you'd have to be nuts. So you don't have to be a genius to understand today's pressure for maximum bodies, minimum attrition and a triage training philosophy that says: Fuck it. If they don't get it in Basic, we can square them away when they reach their units.
The problem is, war's not a three strikes and you're out game. One strike, a single mistake, and you're in a body bag with the rest of your squad, your platoon's short, your company's crippled, the battalion's fucked and at Division HQ they're wondering why the battle's being lost.
A lot of first-rate kids, males and females, go through the recruiting office door every year, tens of thousands of them. But so do a lot of slugs. The problem at Fort Jackson and all the other Basic Combat Training posts starts right there. In peacetime, with an all-volunteer army and a good job market, quotas rule, not high standards. It's all too easy for the slugs to ooze through. When recruitment fell 6000 bodies short two years ago, the military spent --$113 million on advertising and $105 million in enlistment bonuses. Walk through that Recruitment Office door and even if you're holding a busted flush, you can leave the table with $3000 for signing up and $50,000 from the Army College Fund.
Nearly 10 percent of the trainees at Jackson are single parents, 4 percent male, 6 percent female. A great opportunity, as General Barrett says. But what happens when they get to their units and say, "Reporting for duty, First Sergeant. Where's my quarters, where's the day care center? I'm gonna need Food stamps to supplement my pay, and, uh, I won't be able to deploy to Bosnia
because my mom's sick of taking care of my kid?"
The bottom line is the big bucks, the college money, the job training, all the rest of the enticements--they draw, but they scramble a soldier's motivation. If you don't get off the bus at the Reception Battalion because your dream, however adolescent, is to be a warrior, or your moral vision, however retro, includes the duty to fight for your country, as soldier material you're starting two bricks shy of a load.
In the past, facts of life like the draft or a world at war solved this problem. If you didn't have a martial spirit, you went because you had to and you trained hard because if you didn't you died.
Today, the flip side of buying recruits is that the Army becomes just another job. It bugs you, you split. One joint in the latrine when the First Sergeant comes in, one trip to the Chaplain--"Uh, Padre, I think I'm gay" and you're home free. Happens all the time. The Government Accounting Office, the non-partisan numbers cruncher for Congress, reported that 36 percent of new recruits fail to complete their initial commitment. Instead of facing this crisis straight on, the Army seems to be trying to wish it away.
The next chalk talk is with Lt. Colonel Scott A. Henry, a water-walker bound for stars. The General considers him his best battalion commander and it's not hard to see why: five years in the Rangers, four years with Mech; at 39 he runs two miles in 12 minutes and 15 seconds. So it astounds me when I hear him drop the word "nurture" into his opening rap. Great Ranger in the sky, I think, who's been brainwashing this stud?
He concedes that the recruits are a mixed bag, but says that's the leadership challenge. He calls it Generation D for Digital. "They're less fit, but they're mostly bright. Their motivation is different. They're individualistic. They come in watching tv, playing Nintendo."
They also come in with an aAttitude the size of Duke Nukem or Lara Croft--that cyber chick with the titanium tits in Tomb Raider I, II, and III--and their attitude all too often is inversely proportional to their capabilities.
On that score, Lt. Col. Henry has no illusions. He says his mission is to sort them without prejudice.- "You have to identify what I call the Titanium Soldier," he explains, "And you have to identify the Porcelain soldier. The Titanium is all-varsity, an athlete, tremendous. You can push him hard. The Porcelain isn't doing so well. Maybe he's very scared, or maybe it's just that Grampa told him never to volunteer. You pound 'em too hard and you break 'em. You really got to watch it. These are good people. I don't want to send them home"
I feel the flashback coming--, the day I got off the train at Fort Knox ("Come here, dogface. Your ass is mine." ). I see myself a few days later trotting around the parade ground, holding the 60-pound base-plate of a 81mm mortar over my head, screaming "I'M a BIG ASS BIRD" at the top of my voice, shouting and staggering until my arms finally give out, the steel plate misses my head by a hair, and I'm lying with my nose in the mud wondering if I'll ever get out of Basic alive.
The point being, of course, that the very ruthlessness of the drill hardened me for something one hell of a lot more brutal.
"That's not our mission," Lt. Col. Henry says. The rough stuff's for the shock troops training at Benning. "Here we're inoculating them for the prospect of maybe having a fight, hanging in there until the cavalry or infantry arrives to save the day."
Tough training for the line units, marshmallows for the rear? Talk about denial. In modern warfare, there is no front. Command and control nodes, airfields, supply dumps, logistics units, transport, the hospital, everything's fair game. If anything, in guerrilla warfare and terrorist actions, those targets are even more likely to be hit. A young sergeant I know put it this way: 'That U.S. Army name tag on your chest is the biggest bull's-eye in the world. These young soldiers are going to be in Korea. They're going to be in Bosnia. They are really exposed, man. When our cooks and clerks ran convoys of deuces and hummers through the streets of Mogadishu, do you think the Somalis were not going to shoot at them because they were 'noncombatants'''
Sergeant Orfeo Provost, my escort, watches the disaster impassively: 14 years in the Army, a Ranger tab and a Ranger combat scroll on his uniform, a bronze combat jump star--Panama--in his silver wings, a drill sergeant's drill sergeant who's seen it all, he'd have his jaw sewn shut before he'd badmouth the Army.
He knows General Patton's maxim by heart: the more sweat in training, the less blood on the battlefield. When he was a drill sergeant, it shaped his whole day. He'd roll out of the sack at 3:30, jump in the shower and be slapping bunks in the barracks by 4: 05. He gave his recruits 10 minutes to make beds, knock the dirt off their teeth and get going. Out on the PT field, they had to keep up with his pushups. If recruits dogged it, Provost took them to Bunker Hill out beyond the barracks, using their personal time after evening chow to square them away. He was tough and he was fair. After lights out, when the other drills went home, he stayed an extra half hour, setting aside 20-minutes for gripe sessions. When a recruit had a bad problem, he tried to talk him through it; if he couldn't, he called the chaplain.
By the time he got home at 2200, the dinner would be in the microwave, the kids and wife in bed. He'd polish his boots and hit the sack ("Hey, mama, howya doing?"), but by then she was usually asleep. Five and a half hours later the three alarms he'd set would shoot him into another day, day after day, nine-week cycle after nine-week cycle.
The Army's drill sergeants are not the problem. Like Provost, the overwhelming majority of them really know their stuff. They're a new generation, not like the great old troglodytes I grew up with. My teachers were sergeants like Hugh MacAlwaney. After a few beers, this redneck with his fifth-grade education would roll up his trousers and show you the scars on his ankles from his days on a Georgia chain gang. There was the time in Italy when a jeep of MP's roared up to catch him at a whorehouse. While the MPs were pounding up the stairs, he jumped out the window into the seat of his own jeep, as if he were in an old Western. When the MP's gave chase, he pulled out his .45 and shot out their headlights. End of story.
If anything, Provost and today's drills are better than the Greatest Generation. They come from the three Orders of Gungness: the super-hardcore, the medium-hardcore, and the pragmatists. The first are training fanatics like me; they'll risk their stripes to do the job right no matter how the Army tries to hamstring them. I'd put Provost in the second group: guys who say, 'All right, I'll train whatever you give me, but I'm gonna do it my way. You're gonna fall out 10 minutes early, stand at attention, give me extra PT and come out a soldier." And when they dog it, he'll take them out to Bunker Hill. But the third group does have a go-along, get-along approach and the product's not going to be as good. They say to themselves, "The Army's full of shit on training, and I've got a wife and two kids, I can't lose my stripes, so I'm gonna do my two years and not make waves."
General Barrett has done everything he can think of to hide his super-hardcores, so I've located them myself. Since they're risking their careers to talk, I'd rather fall on a grenade than be seen with them or identify them by name. But each night, Eilhys slips out and brings them through the perimeter wire so they can tell me their stories over a beer.
Very few Vietnam-era combat NCO's are left, but most of the super-hardcore trained under that lost generation of warriors. They tell me about the sergeant who said, "I ain't running no fucking Loveboat," and was shown the way to the door; about the sergeant from Fort Leonard Wood so dedicated he missed his own daughter's open heart surgery to finish a cycle. His reputation proceeded him to Fort Jackson, where the post sergeant major told him, "You won't fit in real good here," and kept him miles from any training field.
The hardcores clink bottles and shake their heads. They say the Reception battalion is sending them recruits with asthma, bad knees, weak ankles, people bearing raps sheets dotted with criminal misdemeanors, a sprinkling of recycled felons, and dim bulbs ('rocks with lips') by the dozens. "You ask them when the War of 1812 was and they say, 'Uh, 1940'' Who did we fight in the Spanish American War' 'Uh, Germanee?'" I had this one gal from Baltimore I asked who wrote the Star Spangled Banner. She said, "Oh, that was Francis Scott Key. The rockets was goin' off and the bombs was fallin' and the Japanese ships were headin' into Pearl Harbor, and...' I'm not shittin' you, man."
I hear stories about road marches with stragglers strung out in goat Rope formation, dropping rucksacks, falling out. The old practice was for every squad, one way or another, to hump its rucks across the finish line. Now, they take a fuckup's ruck and toss it on the truck. "You go out on a march, they kept stickin' the magazine in their pistol belts, cradling the weapon so it'd be lighter,' a sergeant says. ' So I made 'em carry it at high port, ready to go. The Sergeant Major comes up to my buddy and me--my buddy's a 19 Delta, a Cav Scout--and goes, 'Who taught these privates to carry their weapon at the high ready'' I say, 'I did.' And he says, 'We don't carry like that.' So I tell him, 'Sergeant Major, they're not carrying the way they should,' and you know what he says' He says, "That may be the way they do it in the real Army, but that's not the way we do it here.' And I'm like, 'The real Army? What am I in? The fuckin' Boy Scouts?'"
The next morning, I visit the Pugil Pit to get a good look at the training for teamwork and hand-to-hand combat, the true, up-close and personal shit where only one of you leaves alive.
The scene at the Pugil pit reminds me of a fraternity row pillow fight. The Army doesn't scare the trainees with any hairy-chested talk about hand-to-hand combat. One of the sergeants tells me, "If the brass had the balls to say you'll actually have to fight or get killed, no one would show up." Instead, they call these training exercises pugil training, which sounds like something you might want your lap dog to have before trying out for best in show.
The grunts are drawn up in two lines matched to physical size, males against females wherever body size puts them. It's hard to tell the men from the women because everyone's wearing football helmets and vests so stuffed with padding they move at the speed of a sumo wrestler after chow. The weapon of choice today is a broomstick wrapped with tape, the ends fitted out with two thick foam pads.
Thump, thump. The men are laughing. I remember Korea, what a man looks like going into the body bag after a bad guy with a bayonet has explored his guts. Thumpity, thump. Is that a warrior, that little bitty thing coming up on line? Yes, it is it. I admire her grit and feel bad when the miniature male she's paired against steps forward and decks her.
My next stop is the Teamwork Development Course. Near a pair of wooden platforms linked by a crawl line, a team of five trainees studies a jumble of ropes and pulleys piled on the ground next to the dummy standing in for a wounded soldier. The drill sergeant looks at his watch. The team is good. After some initial fumbling, a bright kid dopes out the problem, quarterbacks it for the others and they all scramble up on the crawl line and drag the dummy safely across the chasm below them.
The team across from them fucks the duck. The trainees pick aimlessly at the ropes as if they are trying to straighten out a bad hair day. No one even bothers to check out the other, more together, squad. After a while, the drill studies his watch in disgust and calls on the next team. No one gets smoked. It's just 'Better luck next time.'
In the mess hall later, I study trays piled high with everything from hotdogs to pizza and ice cream and ask the six young privates sitting at my table whether they're being pushed hard enough. They look at each other uncomfortably. To a man and to a woman they stick to the message. All a little too good to be true.
The facts of life in the Army are these. Even in a good outfit, ten percent of the soldiers are warriors, the rest are rock huggers. It's human nature. But in a well-trained, disciplined unit, when the warriors get up and go the rock huggers move out, too, if only because they'd be ashamed to hang back.
The privates agree that the worst are not weeded out fast enough. One of the group pushes back his tray and says, "Pretty soon we'll be halfway through our training--we're in basic rifle marksmanship now, and they're still here and we're not making any progress."
Maybe it's just start up problems. To check the progress of grunts at the end stages of Basic, I go out to the Omaha Course, one of the combat ranges. These soldiers are heading down the homestretch towards graduation. Two soldiers shoot and scoot forward toward a large bunker. It's live fire. They hit the ground like two-hundred pound flour sacks; neither can get into a correct prone firing position: their boot heels stick up in the air, their faces say help me, help me. While the first crawls forward and uncorks his dummy grenade, his buddy "covers" him, firing wildly at the pop-up targets, missing at least half of them. The objective, an open sandpit big enough and wide enough to swallow an SUV, lies only 20 paces ahead of the lead grunt. He lobs his grenade. POP. Short. Exercise over. POP, POP, POP, POP. Four more teams. No one hits the target.
Out on the defensive range, it is just as bad. Everyone's hunkered within a make-believe perimeter fighting off the bad guys. The pop-up targets are jumping. BLAOO, BLAOO, BLAO. Once again, half the shots are misses. Sorry, kids, I mutter. You're dead.
On the rifle range, I discover why the marksmanship is so poor. I was taught to shoot by spending three straight weeks on the range. When I flopped down, the range lieutenant stomped my boot heels to make them lie flat; he kicked my arm so hard to align it under my M-1 that I was sore for a week. These recruits have the wobblies.
I remember that chart of General Barrett's, the one that puts the rate for basic rifle management at a perfect 100 percent, and think back to some of the stories I've heard over the past few days: the kid who emptied two boxes of ammo without hitting a single target but qualified after the Sgt Major examined the targets; the female crying because she couldn't hit shit, then qualifying after the Chaplain investigated her aim.
Later that afternoon, I get another clandestine visit from a truth-telling private who discloses the real secret for Jackson's sterling success rate. Out on the range, there are targets at 50 meters, 150 meters, 200 meters and 300 meters. To pass basic rifle management, you have to hit 23 targets with 40 shots. The trick is to hold your fire when the targets farthest down range come up and only shoot at the closest ones. When I ask one of the drill sergeants about it, he nods. "Out there, the 300-meter target comes up, you can hear the crickets singing in the woods it's so quiet. The 50-meter target comes up and its WHAAAAAAAAMMMMMM. Sounds like a fuckin' ambush.'"
Great, I tell myself. If you want to duke it out with greenhorns like these, all you have to do is park yourself in the bushes 51 yards out, whistle to get their attention and blow their brains out.
"Hormones will flow," Lt. Colonel Henry says with a straight face and I have to admire his way with understatement. Beyond the Executive Conference Room, where 38,000 young males and females, most just out of high school, have been thrown together over the past year, hormones aren't the half of it. They've been caught doing the dirty in the laundry and in the mop room, in the Clipper room where machines power wash the mess trays, in the wall lockers, where it takes tight bodies and true commitment for two to tango.
Most of the time, of course, they're not caught at all. "We teach 'em the buddy system for combat and they use it for gettin' down," one sergeant tells me. "One guy says to his buddy, 'We'll be in the laundry. If the drill sergeant comes around, yell 'At ease,' so I can pull my pants up and get outta there."
The game begins the moment they step off the bus. "First day, they tell us the Dumpster Story, the Woods Story, the Porta John Story,"a young woman tells me, choking back a grin. "It's like a How-To-Do-It-Handbook."
The Dumpster Story?
"Yeah, well, it's like, they say, 'If we ever catch you with a person of the opposite sex near the dumpsters you're automatically out. At the field bleachers you can sneak in between the rear seats and the wall, but something always hangs out to give you away. The great thing about the dumpsters is they've got a lid.' When hormones and pheromones reach critical mass, who cares about how anything else smells?
In a losing battle to keep the recruits zipped up and on course, General Barrett oversees something he calls the Safe and Secure Program. In the barracks, females and males sleep on separate floors. The doors are locked at night, and surveillance cameras scan for sleepwalkers. They have so many electronic alarms even Tom Cruise couldn't get through them. Mission impossible, the watchdogs say.
Yeah, right. With a piece of tinfoil from a gum wrapper you can disarm the klaxons. From the windows of adjacent barracks, you signal with flashlights. At chow you pass notes like wiseguys out of Oz. There's always a way.
One drill instructor says he discovered a young woman sitting at Mass one cold Sunday giving a fellow recruit a handjob under the blanket spread across their laps. He ungummed the couple and because the Army's nurture and salvage policy prevented him from toss them out on the spot, he sent them to Bravo 1/28, the post's school for scandal and reform. Once there, the fox was caught at the same handiwork on the bus to special Easter Services. Given a third chance, she went on sick call, where a sergeant made the mistake of accepting her services. Only then was she asked to go home. The sergeant is now facing jail.
I admit this case is extreme. In fact, the significant problem isn't even about sex, it's about distraction. The upshot of coed training is a level of tension that destroys focus and discipline, eats up time that could be spent on more important things like marksmanship'with the rifle, not the short arm.
Sure, a few asshole cadre do get it on with the female trainees. While I was on post, one battalion in recent cycles had lost three drill sergeants and one company commander. A female sergeant described Fort Jackson 'a playground where the drills do everything to get into as many BDU pants as they can." No doubt, that's a gross distortion, especially since the Aberdeen sexual abuse trials. The fact is that the majority of the drills, even the hardcores, are now scared to death of their female recruits. They have to take extreme measures in self defense. One of them tells the females coming in from Reception that he'll yell rape if any of them get anywhere near him without their buddy standing right by.
This begs two questions: How can a scared drill sergeant turn out a good Soldier? And what about equal treatment, the very heart of unit cohesiveness? You can go out to the dumpsters and kiss that one goodbye. "They all talk about equality," one honest female recruit tells me off base. "Then they break the standards. "The drill sergeant scuffs us, the men get 110 pushups the women 20. Everything's like that. If we trained separately in Basic, then integrated in advanced training, it would be better. Both females and males would be Soldiers first before they started working together."
As things stand now, her proposal is not acceptable to the political correctness crowd or to the Pentagon. "They tell us this is a gender-neutral Army," one of the hardcores shrugs. "They say, 'It's bought and paid for. Drill Sergeant, you will make it work. It's total, fuckin' BS. The gain is there, but it's not worth the distraction."
General Barrett has his numbers to prove that all's well in the best of all possible armies. His party line, as old as United States Army itself, is that 1 in 10 recruits will always be fuck-ups. Even with reduced attrition, Fort Jackson does wash out nearly 10 percent of the worst slugs.
But talk to the drills and the recruits, and the numbers change. The sergeants say that when they stand at graduation maybe twenty-five percent of the new grunts behind them are not good to go. Talk to the grunts, the figures are even higher. "Probably sixty percent of my platoon is high speed, low drag," says one platoon guide. "The others don't want to be there. They're not disciplined. They don't care. The brass would rather recycle a soldier eight times than boot him out of the Army."
I'm having one last round with the hardcores. Around the room, the talk gradually shifts from grousing towards what needs to be done. To a man, they say the order of battle isn't hard to grasp: a clearer eye toward quality over quotas at the recruiting office; sharper, faster weeding out of losers at the reception battalion and during the first two weeks of training; a better ratio of drill sergeants to recruits (in better times the figure was roughly 1-20; now a single drill can be looking at 64 gawky grunts); common sense, not political correctness, as the right judge of mixed training.
That's why the stupidity of the recent Army of One commercials is astounding, even for the Perfumed Princes around the Pentagon E-Ring who approved and paid for them. An Army of One is a contradiction in terms, an assault on every principle of success in war known to man. Individuals don't win battles, units do. How could the Chief of Staff ever have let those ads out of the box? Sure, you have to sell the What's-In-It-For-Me Digital Generation on signing up, but the campaign can only increase attitude problems, undermine unit cohesiveness and make life even worse for our best drill sergeants.
After Desert Storm, George Bush I received a blue ribbon after-action report that included a critique of the way mixed-sex Basic Combat Training had played out on the battlefield. It wasn't pretty. But when he lost his job, the findings were dropped down the memory hole. Now we have George II, with Colin Powell, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the Gulf War and Dick Cheney, who was manning the Defense Department, right there next to him. If anyone knows this particular score, they do. The question is whether or not they'll dust off that earlier report and do something about it. Instead of total obsession with mega-buck Flash Gordon weapons systems like an anti-missile shield that may not work, it would be a better bet to correct Camp Snoopy Syndrome.
The hardcores are hoping for the best. But they are outnumbered, fighting from within an ever-shrinking perimeter. Their only advantage, their only trump, is their combat experience.
"I'll play that card," one of them says as he stands up to leave. "I'll tell these guys, 'Look, I've had the displeasure of carrying a dead American on the battlefield and I don't want to ever do that again. You train harder so it doesn't happen. You train harder because you don't want to send your friend home in a body bag. It's not a pretty thing to think about, not a fun thing you want to talk about, but there it is. If we're not training 'em to be good soldiers, we're training 'em to be dead soldiers."