Boot Camp Lite
he bus load of sleepy-eyed teen-agers who stumble into formation outside a low-slung recruit processing center at Great Lakes Training Center, a sprawling military base just north of Chicago, look tired and wary. Many have been awake for more than 18 hours, and most have never been so far from home. All of them are expecting the worst.
They know the Hollywood version of boot camp by heart. Any moment now, recruit division commanders, or RDCs-the Navy's version of drill instructors-will descend upon them with an in-your-face, profanity-laced tirade, delivered with an occasional boot to the backside.
But the tirade fails to materialize. The RDCs are firm but surprisingly patient and restrained in explaining exactly what the recruits can expect for the next nine weeks. We are the people you will fear the most, the RDCs say, but we're also the people that care about you the most. We want you to succeed. We may yell at you, but no one's going to physically abuse you or call you names.
"We used to bring recruits in totally exhausted on the first night, and we would traumatize and terrorize them," says Navy Capt. Cornelia Whitehead, commander of the Great Lakes Recruit Training Command. "We'd scream at them constantly, but not tell them anything, because we wanted them to try and figure things out themselves. We called it 'breaking them down' so we could 'build them back up.' And mostly what it did was make them want to jump the fence and quit."
It's not just basic training that has changed. The people taking it have, too. Except for the Marine Corps, all of the services now have gender-integrated training.
The Navy began mixing the sexes in boot camp in 1992, and today at Great Lakes nearly 14 percent of the roughly 12,000 recruits in training are female. The Army began mixed-gender basic training in 1994. The Air Force has been mingling the sexes since 1977.
Largely as a result of the Army's recent sex scandal at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.-where a number of drill instructors sexually preyed on female subordinates-legions of reporters and congressional investigators have recently been visiting Army and Navy basic training camps to view the new experiment in mixed training. Many were shocked to discover a kinder, gentler version of boot camp. Some didn't like what they saw.
"Many of us who have visited the military training centers are concerned about the loss of rigor and warrior spirit," says Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., an Army reservist and chairman of the National Security Subcommittee on Military Personnel. "I was more impressed with the gender-segregated training we saw at [the Marine Corps'] Parris Island, where no one was distracted by issues of sexual misconduct and fraternization." Buyer plans to hold hearings on the subject of whether mixing the sexes has led to a dangerous softening of boot camp.
In December, a civilian panel appointed by the Pentagon to study mixed-gender training recommended that male and female recruits once again be segregated for much of basic training. "The present organizational structure in integrated basic training is resulting in less discipline, less unit cohesion, and more distraction from the training programs," the panel reported. The services are preparing their responses to the study.
While the overall tenor of basic training has undeniably mellowed, interviews with nearly two dozen military leaders, drill instructors and recruits at Great Lakes and the Army basic training center at Fort Jackson, S.C., indicate it would be an oversimplification to point to gender integration as the only, or even the primary, reason.
Besides the new dynamic of co-ed basic training, experts say other factors have contributed to the transformation of boot camp, including the wish to avoid needless attrition in an increasingly difficult recruiting environment; a desire to minimize personal abuse in a more racially and ethnically diverse military; and the need to accommodate "Generation X" recruits who are characterized as less physically fit and disciplined, yet smarter and more inquisitive than their predecessors.
By far the most frequently cited factor in the change, however, is wholesale abandonment by the military of a leadership model which manifested itself at the entry level with demeaning treatment, and in the upper ranks with rule by fear and intimidation.
"Unrelated to gender-integrated training, the approach to leadership in the Army from the very top has changed. Some officers and NCOs [noncommissioned officers] still curse, yell and scream, but they're in the minority now," says Maj. Gen. John A. Van Alstyne, commander of the Army training center at Fort Jackson. "People long for the 'good old days,' but those days often weren't so good."
According to Rear Adm. Kevin Green, commander of the Naval Training Center at Great Lakes, the Navy also discovered that the fear and intimidation model of leadership evident at boot camp in the past was at odds with the fundamental culture in the fleet.
"Why would you train recruits and officer trainees with a model of leadership that you would never think of applying out in the fleet?" says Green. "In the fleet, you're taught to value everyone you serve with, junior and senior, and you are all part of the same team. What's the matter with applying that model to boot camp, while still providing an environment that is very demanding emotionally, physically and mentally?"
The Pendulum Swings
Finding the middle ground between a boot camp environment that is stressful and demanding without being abusive, however, has proven to be difficult. After complaints from the fleet a few years ago that new recruits were not measuring up to standards, for instance, Great Lakes recently began focusing more instruction on its core values of courage, honor and commitment. Borrowing from a Marine Corps basic training program called "The Crucible," Navy officials also instituted a grueling final evaluation exercise dubbed "Battle Stations."
As part of the Army's post-Aberdeen review of training, its leaders also voiced concerns about a general lack of rigor and discipline. The service recently added an extra week to its eight-week basic training course, focusing mainly on values education.
Still, many drill instructors are concerned that the pendulum has swung too far from the days when basic training was a jarring introduction to military life.
"I think we're getting off course. When I went through boot camp, people were pushed to their absolute maximum potential, and that's not happening anymore," says Staff Sgt. Richard Baker, a drill instructor at Fort Jackson. "Each year, commanders rewrite the rules and tie the hands of drills a little more. When I tell recruits to drop and give me push-ups today, they look at me like I'm crazy."
"We can't be looking over our shoulders all the time worrying that if we yell at a private it could cost us our careers," says 1st Sgt. Thriso Hamilton, deputy commandant of the Drill Sergeants School at Fort Jackson. "We're training these kids to survive in combat, and there's an old saying among drill sergeants: Let no soldier scream out from the grave, 'Had I been properly trained, I wouldn't be six feet under.' "
To understand the changing dynamic of boot camp, it's important to recognize the changing face of the military.
Ever since the draft was abolished in 1973, the services have struggled to attract the bright young adults needed to run an increasingly high-tech military. Without the nearly inexhaustible pool of manpower the draft brought, they can now less afford rites that, while they may have weeded out the weak, also scared off many potential performers. A demographic dip of young Americans of recruitment age, coupled with a robust economy and record employment levels, have made the services' recruiting task all the more difficult in recent years.
Nor are the young recruits of today mirror images of earlier generations. Rather they reflect American youth at the end of the 20th century: racially and ethnically diverse, often the product of broken homes, computer literate but less physically fit than their predecessors. They represent social strata, in the words of one drill sergeant, that range from "farm kids to former gangbangers." As a result, the basic training centers and service academies have found themselves spending more time and effort teaching core values and ethics they once took for granted.
Perhaps the most noticeable change in the makeup of the U.S. military has been the growing presence of women. With the establishment of the all-volunteer force, the services had to actively recruit women for the first time in order to meet their staffing and quality goals.
In 1970, women served in separate corps and made up only 1.4 percent of the entire active-duty force, accounting for 41,000 positions in a force of more than 3 million. By 1975, that proportion had tripled, to 4.6 percent. Today, the separate women's corps have been abolished, and females comprise 14 percent of the active-duty force, accounting for 193,000 positions in a force of 1.4 million.
Spurred by the growing contribution of women in uniform during the Persian Gulf War (when 8.6 percent of the deployed force was female), and the subsequent embarrassment of the Navy's Tailhook scandal, Clinton administration officials from 1993 to 1994 opened 260,000 combat and combat-support jobs previously closed to women. Since then, women have deployed aboard Navy warships, reported for guard duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and flown fighter aircraft.
Given such changes in the character of the military, it's hardly surprising that the services felt it necessary to adjust their training systems. The question on the minds of some boot camp observers is whether in the process they have lost something essential to their war-fighting spirit.
"Did you see that, recruits?" Sgt. Angela Moore, an Army drill instructor at Fort Jackson, tells her unit as a young woman successfully negotiates a station on the obstacle course. "The female is the only one who got it right so far."
Moore knows the taunt will push the men to try even harder, and motivate the other women to prove that they, too, can excel at the course. It's part of the psychology of gender that is now an integral part of boot camp.
Moore herself is a symbol of that new dynamic. Both the Navy and Army are aggressively trying to increase the number of female drill instructors at boot camp to offer positive role models and send a message that the face of the modern American military has both male and female features.
"If our male and female soldiers come through different training systems, they're not going to have as much confidence in each other's abilities," says Van Alstyne, who notes that male recruits destined for ground combat units still train in all-male boot camp units. "When you think about it, if you have a gender-integrated Army where only 15 percent of the [direct ground combat] positions are closed to women, why in the world would you want to start everyone out training in segregated units?"
A 1994 study by the Army Research Institute for Behavioral and Social Sciences showed that while recruits in all-female units performed somewhat better in the classroom, they performed poorly on the obstacle course.
"There was a different group dynamic at work in all-female units that affected how they approached drills," says an Army researcher who worked on the study. "I watched several all-male platoons go through the obstacle course, for instance, and whenever someone fell off an obstacle, the other soldiers shouted at him to get back up and try again. The drill sergeants were in their face. When an all-female unit came through and someone fell off, the other females would sort of laugh about it. So there wasn't the same level of group encouragement, and the expectations weren't as high."
Army researchers discovered that women in co-ed units showed improved mental toughness and self-confidence. Meanwhile, males in co-ed units passed the physical proficiency tests in numbers equal to or slightly higher than their cohorts in all-male units.
Navy officials at Great Lakes have observed a similar dynamic. "We do find that men and women operate a little differently, says Whitehead. "In battle stations, for instance, women will stop and analyze a problem looking for the best solution, while men will typically gather quickly together as a team and attack it through brute force. When you combine that analytic ability and strength, you can form a brilliant team."
After the Tailhook scandal, with women set to deploy aboard nearly its entire fleet of warships, the Navy was determined to start as early as possible to counter attitudes toward women in some all-male units.
"As a surface warfare officer, I talk with ship commanders all the time, and they are emphatic in telling me they don't want the first time a sailor works with someone of a different gender to be aboard their ship," said Adm. Green. "They want them already used to the idea that the other person is not a sex object but a sailor, and a sailor who may one day be pulling their unconscious body out of a burning compartment in the heat of battle."
Sex and Soldiers
One of the most contentious issues in boot camp and in the military at large, however, is the "gender-norming" of physical fitness tests and standards.
Because of physiological differences, the services norm physical fitness standards according to age and sex. Because males have 50 percent more muscle mass and a longer stride than females, the Army requires that they to do more push-ups (40 push-ups versus 16 for a 25-year-old) and run faster (16 minutes, 36 seconds for two miles, versus 19 minutes, 36 seconds).
Because physical standards offer such a sharp delineation between the sexes, however, they have become a lightning rod in the debate over gender integration. In a survey conducted after the Aberdeen scandal, only 50 percent of the Army's male soldiers said they believe women "pull their own load." Many said the difference in standards was intended to hide the fact that "women will never be in as good physical shape as a man."
"We probably need to toughen the physical fitness tests and make them more challenging for women," says Brig. Gen. Evelyn P. Foote, who was recalled to active duty to serve as co-chairman of the Army's post-Aberdeen Senior Review Panel on Sexual Harassment.
Training center officials argue, however, that changes in the physical regime at boot camp in recent years had far more to do with unacceptable rates of attrition due to injuries than with gender-norming. Great Lakes adjusted its physical routine, for instance, after its attrition rate for recruits who failed to finish boot camp reached 18 percent, far more than the goal of 10 percent to 13 percent.
Given the sexual abuses highlighted in Aberdeen, much of the attention focused on gender-integrated training has centered on sexual relations. Most believe the widespread abuse revealed at Aberdeen-where the chain of command was corrupted up to the level of company commander-was an aberration. "Something must have been wrong with the command climate at Aberdeen so those drills felt comfortable taking advantage," says Sgt. Allison Smith, a Fort Jackson drill instructor. At her installation, she notes, the command adheres to a strict "buddy system," in which both recruits and drills travel only in pairs.
In the final analysis, military leaders say the proof of the revised basic training model lies in the product out in the field. Recent graduates can be found keeping the peace in Bosnia, patrolling the demilitarized zone in South Korea, launching strikes in the Persian Gulf and evacuating Americans from war-torn countries in Africa. Generation X graduates are acquitting themselves as well as any group of U.S. service members in history, they say.
"I'm a little uncomfortable with the term 'Generation X,' but I can tell you that we're demanding more of them in today's high-tech Navy, and giving them more authority and responsibility at a younger age, than was the case in officers and enlisted personnel just a generation ago," says Green. "I'm afraid some of the old guard sometimes mistake their enthusiasm and inquisitiveness for a lack of discipline. If we harness their tremendous enthusiasm, shape it, form it and put it to work for us, then I have no worries about the performance of our graduates in the fleet."