WASHINGTON, Sept. 23, 2010 — Army basic training is where the service takes a young man or woman straight from civilian life and, in 10 weeks, transforms that person into a soldier.
For enlisted personnel, basic training is a rite of passage.
But the rite is not static. In America’s ninth straight year of war, Army basic training has changed again to adapt to the conflicts the country is in and the changing nature of American youth, said Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, chief of initial entry training at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.
Hertling, who spoke about the changes at the Defense Writers’ Group here, yesterday, previously commanded the 1st Armored Division and Multinational Division North in Iraq. More than a year ago, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of Training and Doctrine Command, tasked Hertling to look at what the Army was doing in training to see if the service was keeping up with operations. “He wanted me to take a look at the ‘danger zones’ for what we’re missing and what we’re doing,” the general said.
He also examined what the service is doing to address the training needs of this generation.
The scope of the effort is huge. All soldiers go through some form of initial training, whether it is basic training for enlisted personnel or the basic course for warrant and commissioned officers. Hertling’s playbook includes advanced individual training. All told, the Army trains 160,000 soldiers per year.
“That is about the amount that the Air Force, Navy and Marines train combined,” Hertling said. “The training base covers 37 different installations, and we run the gamut from training an infantryman to training a plumber.”
In training, the Army concentrates on three different areas: skills, values and attributes. The skills piece is everything a soldier needs to do, from “shoot to salute,” the general said. Values training, he said, focuses on everything that makes up the Army culture, and the attributes area refers to recruits’ physical and mental capabilities. “What we’ve seen over eight years of war is a lot of people saying, ‘Train this,’ and there has been a constant deluge of things to train,” he said. “But the time is limited, and there needs to be a determination on what is a common subject that all soldiers must learn, and what is best taught at the unit.”
Soldiers deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan need to concentrate on counterinsurgency, he said, while those going to Europe or the Korean peninsula need to concentrate on combined arms operations. “In either case,” he added, “the unit is the best school.”
When he arrived, Hertling said, the basic training program of instruction listed tasks that took up 785.5 hours. But basic training had only 660 hours available. “So we were trying to shove 780 hours of instruction into a 660-hour block, and it’s just physically impossible,” he said. “So I went around to the drill sergeants and asked, ‘What aren’t you teaching?’
“As I delved into things,” he continued, “I found we weren’t teaching some of the things we should have been, and drill sergeants were taking the lessons they personally learned from the checkpoint in Bagram, or the cordon-and-search in Diyala or the road guard they were doing in Tikrit, and they were saying, ‘This is the most important thing, because this is what I experienced.’ It may not be what the kid experiences when he gets to his first unit of assignment.”
So Hertling and his staff looked at standardizing what the Army included in training and refining the program of instruction. They rammed the revised program through the training command’s bureaucracy in four and a half months – near record time – and today all basic training posts are using the new program.
The study showed some challenges. Physical training of recruits has been made tougher in this generation, just as many elementary and high schools in America have eliminated physical education. Computer games and other sedentary activities have grown in popularity, as youth participation in sports has declined. The question, Hertling said, becomes how the Army trains a recruit who grew up in an environment “where we focus more on playing with their thumbs than playing with a bat, [and] where our nutrition standards are getting worse on a daily basis. How do you train them to hump a rucksack at 9,000 feet in the Hindu Kush?”
Physical training has changed to take into consideration that many of the recruits show up with less-dense bones than those a generation ago, Hertling said. Values training, he added, also has changed. The idea is more participatory and covers honoring the Army values in combat, on post and at home, Hertling said.
Some changes Hertling instituted have been controversial. The general eliminated bayonet training, and firing the .50-caliber machine gun. He said he heard the blowback from retirees and others who charged he did not understand the spirit of the bayonet.
“The last bayonet charge the U.S. Army participated in was 1951,” he said. “Also, in a counterinsurgency environment, you carry an M‑4 carbine strapped around your chest. You can’t do much with a bayonet.
“What’s interesting though, is if bayonet training is that important and it’s the centerpiece of everything we do, why is it the only place it’s taught is at basic training?” he added. “If it’s that important, you’d think all the operational units would have bayonet assault courses.” Hertling noted that in 35 years in the Army, he has never seen a bayonet course except in basic training.
The new program also eliminates convoy live-fire operations. The exercise was pushed into basic training after the early days in Iraq when a supply convoy was ambushed. But defending a convoy is invariably a team project. Teammates need to work together and train together to be successful. Hertling argues that this training is best done by the units. Army leaders understand that today’s generation learns differently, Hertling said, pointing out that young recruits are more dependent on smart phones and work with the Internet almost instinctively. The Army, he said, is responding with applications for their hand-held devices.
An application called “Apps for the Army” lists everything a soldier needs to know. While it can be read, other portions are spoken, and still others have video. “It’s the way this generation learns,” he said. “They are a multi-tasking generation.”
Overall, Hertling said, his mission is to send to units “a soldier who is disciplined, understands the skills and values and has the physical attributes, and we’ve only got 10 weeks to do it.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)