The Drill Pad
Instructional Resource Library

Training Methodology

By MSgt Lee A. Messina III


"Here, you are all equally worthless!" In the movie Full Metal Jacket, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman used those words to begin the process of breaking down the new recruits. Next came the systematic destruction of the personality traits and value systems they had brought with them. With few exceptions, drill instructors in every branch of service employ this technique. Although few would deny the success of this methodology, breaking down a human being should never occur, and should not be practiced in the basic training environment.

The breakdown method has inherent problems. First, it necessitates the instructor to strip a trainee of all self worth. This is customarily done with a storm of insults and humiliating remarks about a trainee's intelligence, physical attributes, and even gender identity. Second, it relies on external motivation instead of internal motivation. It has been my experience that internal motivation is more enduring than external motivation, which requires repeated reinforcement by the drill instructor. Third, learning is effectual only when an individual is ready to learn. Since learning requires a change in beliefs and behavior, it normally produces anxiety. Attacking a trainee's intellectual competence or physical peculiarities unnecessarily increases that anxiety and can divert the trainee from the task of acclimating to a new environment. Thus, the drill instructor has only managed to preoccupy the trainee with the fact that he or she is too stupid or too ugly, which interferes with the trainee's ability to focus on learning. Lastly, the drill instructor, having impressed on everyone that they are worthless, has closed the door on any trainee coming forward to share his or her talents, experience, or leadership abilities; this results in a missed opportunity for the instructor. Ignoring a trainee's experience could make the instructor's job more arduous and decrease the success rate of the trainee.

Apologists for the breakdown method argue that it is necessary in order to undo eighteen years of bad values, or no values at all. Most drill instructors agree that the behavioral values of trainees today often include the me-first ethic, right of entitlement, evasion of responsibility, and disregard for consequences for malicious behavior.

As part of its "Character Counts" campaign, the Joseph Institute conducts a survey of high school students every two years. The results of the 2012 nationwide survey of 23,000 high school students revealed that fifty-two percent admitted cheating on an exam in the past year and thirty-two percent copied an internet document for a classroom assignment. Seventy-six percent reported having lied to their parents in the past year and fifty-five percent said they had lied to a teacher. More than one in four girls (28%) and nearly half of the boys (45%) believe that "A person has to lie or cheat at least occasionally in order to succeed." Perhaps even more alarmingly, nearly half of the boys (45%) and a third (32%) of the girls (36% overall) said they "used racial slurs or insults" in the previous 12 months. Fifty percent of the boys and thirty-seven percent of the girls (43% overall) admitted hitting someone in the past year because they were angry. Making a case that such qualities are undesirable in a military environment is not difficult, where trust, discipline, and self-control are vital to mission accomplishment.

Politicians and moral pundits continue to search for who, or what, is to blame for this decay in ethics. Some blame the family, specifically the parents, for neglecting to instill traditional values in their children. This degeneration of familial ties has forced adolescents to turn to their peers. Consequently, they adopt the value system of the group to fulfill their need to belong. They have also condemned Pop Culture for the glut of violence in movies, television, and video games. Placing blame, however, is not a concern to the drill instructor and does not alter the goal: taking a self-centered, undisciplined, trainee, and teaching him or her self-discipline, pride, loyalty, and teamwork.

There is a more productive way to mold civilians into model soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. Reshaping and redirecting is an alternative to the break down method. To effect change in the short time the drill instructor has, the trainee must surrender himself to the instructor. This requires trust from the trainee, and cannot occur while the drill instructor launches a constant barrage of insults and degrading remarks. This does not mean an instructor cannot be demanding and uncompromising but, instead, requires it. Stress is a necessary part of the training process. That is the reason for the frenzied, and sometimes thunderous, environment. A vital element of basic training is teaching the trainee self-control and decision-making skills under intense pressure. This can be accomplished without insults and degrading remarks. The instructor must convey to the trainees they are about to embark on a journey where everyone is a neophyte, but again, never tell them they are worthless. Invoking feelings of inferiority sets trainees with low self esteem down the path of failure. In addition, it creates conflict and often causes individuals with a strong sense of self worth to resist training.

At the heart of this process is the introduction of the new value system followed by the firm elucidation of the team concept, accountability, and responsibility. The instructor must make clear the acceptable standard and enforce it, handling infractions swiftly, firmly, and fairly. These practices will enable the trainees to realize that the instructor is not there to harass, but to teach and enlighten, and cause them to respond out of respect rather than fear.

Concurrently, instructors must be on the lookout for trainees with leadership experience. This experience can come in many forms, such as Civil Air Patrol, JROTC, ROTC, and private military academies, and could be a valuable resource that the instructor could tap into when needed. If encouraged, the natural leaders and the experienced trainees will emerge; encouraging them to share their talents with others will not only spark their internal motivation but increase the diversity of the flight's abilities. There is strength in diversity. A varied flight composition never compromises the teamwork concept; instead, it reinforces it. To master this form of training is to master an art form. The success of the drill instructor depends more on special practice than on general doctrines.

The most important thing to keep in mind as an instructor is the result; the goal is to produce competent, functioning soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who will be able to make a mark in the active duty force. It is clear that the traditional "breakdown" method to transfer a civilian to military life is unnecessary. Though it may be considered tried and true, methods exist that allow for the utilization of skills and experiences within a flight or platoon. People want to be led, not managed; trainees are no different. Refraining from stripping a trainee of his or her self worth is not an indication of a weak instructor. On the contrary, it is the strong instructor that can accomplish the mission without humiliating or degrading another human being. It may take time and practice to adjust, but instructors must look to the horizon. The end product is the key.