14 June 2009

Kids these days…

Bah, those crazy kids these days and their crazy Basic Training! Next thing you know, they'll be thinking for themselves, showing initiative and learning marksmanship in the first week of basic training! (H/T SWJ and Corey at RC/CA)

Much of what the Army was teaching its new recruits at [Basic Training] was wrong or irrelevant to actual combat. Instead, what was being force-fed to recruits seemed drearily familiar to old soldiers who'd gone through "basic" here a generation ago. Marching in formation, for instance; rifle bayonet training that dated to World War I ("Lunge! Kill!''). And convoy live fire, a technique invented after Jessica Lynch was abducted in 2003, which became dangerously outdated almost immediately…

…"The training was mindless – here's the material, memorize it," says John Calpena, who fought with the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004-2005. "Today the enemy is always changing his tactics, his operations. We can't give soldiers mindless solutions. They have to think.''

Calpena is the command sergeant major, the senior enlisted soldier, of the 198th Infantry Training Brigade, which oversees all basic and advanced infantry training at Fort Benning.

During a week of field training, Calpena and others told me what lies behind their sense of urgency about making Basic more relevant. In the past, soldiers had the luxury of years of additional training before they might see combat. The peacetime Army could coast along.

Today's soldiers are likely to be whisked from Fort Benning right into Iraq or Afghanistan. They will have to know what they're doing from the get-go.

"It's a revolution," said Col. Dan Kessler, who directs the training here. He's one of the young Turks who's come back from combat determined to change the old ways.

In addition to a sense of urgency, combat has brought one other influence back home: you have to innovate, take risks, and try new things. That's always acceptable out in the field. It's not been so acceptable in garrison, where promotions seemed to come from "following procedure" and not making mistakes....
...Old way: New soldiers wouldn't be fully trusted with their own weapon until week three or four of basic training's 14 weeks. They learned to shoot by crouching in foxholes and firing straight ahead while a drill sergeant yelled instructions. They couldn't leave until a drill sergeant had "rodded" their weapon, pushing a rod down the barrel to make sure it had been cleared.

New way: Privates get their weapon on day three and are taught basic marksmanship right away. They are expected to clear their own weapons, under supervision, assuming responsibility themselves rather than letting that responsibility fall on the drill sergeant. By week seven they are maneuvering on the rifle range, reacting as targets appear – and quickly discerning whether the target is another U.S. soldier, a civilian, or a bad guy.

"Guys in the field (Iraq or Afghanistan) want soldiers who are self-confident, who can work under stress, and who can operate as part of a team," said Kessler, who was commissioned from West Point in 1983…

…Their mission was to assault a building held by insurgents. This is difficult and dangerous work, with a high likelihood of blundering and confusion. Off-duty soldiers play the bad guys. They and the privates are armed with paintball rounds, which can sting but not hurt. Each side is trying to win.

After drill sergeants handed the privates their mission order, the new soldiers drew up a detailed plan, assigned separate tasks to each squad – one to provide covering fire, one to rush the building and hold the first floor, one to rush the second floor, one to watch for bad-guy reinforcements to show up -- and held rehearsals, just like a seasoned platoon in combat. Then, they executed the mission, and while it wasn't perfect, it was impressive.

"They did it all on their own," marveled their drill sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Andre Green, 30…

I hear with a lot of "kids these days" speeches from older non-commissioned officers. Some of it is warranted—I'd say the physical training standards are nowhere near what they used to be a few years ago. But much more of it is unwarranted. In the past few years I've seen a marked increase in the ability of junior enlisted Soldiers and junior non-commissioned officers to think for themselves and act at levels of responsibility which far exceed their pay grade.

Physical training is important, don't get me wrong. But I'll take initiative, intelligence and responsibility over physical training any day. Getting Soldiers in physical shape is simple—teaching people to think for themselves isn't.

Focus: Bah, these kids these days and their no-shine boots and wrinkle-free uniforms! How do you expect them to fight a war?!

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