Saturday, December 11, 1999

Drill sergeants add polish

By Tanya S. Biank
Staff writer
"This is the Army Mr. Jones. No private rooms or telephones. You’ve had your breakfast in bed before, but you won’t have it there anymore..."

Staff photo by Steve Hebert
Staff Sgt. Kathryn Stevens examines the identification card of Pfc. Stacy Bestland during an inspection Tuesday.

When privates fresh out of basic training arrive at Fort Bragg, they are on their backs doing flutter kicks within 20 minutes of stepping off the buses.

"When they arrive here, they think it’s going to be a lot different from basic (training)," said Staff Sgt. Amy Rister. "They find out real quick it’s not that much different."

Rister is one of three drill sergeants at Fort Bragg.

Her job is to finish off what her brethren at basic training started: molding civilian lumps into soldiers.

Fort Bragg’s drill sergeants chisel away for definition. Each year they are responsible for polishing off the "soldierization process" -- as the Army calls it -- at a school called Advanced Individual Training, before sending 450 new troops off to their units.

"By the end of AIT we want them to look, think, and act like a soldier without supervision," said Staff Sgt. Jared Zick, who is the senior drill sergeant.

So what does it take?

More than you might think.

It’s about knowing when to demand perfection and when to accept a best effort.

It’s knowing when a steely stare is more effective than a verbal reprimand. It’s about breaking bad habits without breaking spirits.

It’s about keeping your cool when you want to explode.

It’s the power in knowing your smile can bring relief and your stare, tremors.

It’s about 15-hour days on eight-hour pay. It’s breakin’ ’em down and buildin’ ’em up. And being faster, tougher and stronger than kids 10 or more years your junior.

It’s about following hunches: knowing when to check the ceiling tiles for candy and when to check a study group for poker players.

Staff photo by Steve Hebert
Staff Sgt. Jared Zick shouts instructions to a private navigating an obstacle course at Camp Mackall.

It’s about getting privates to chow on time and checking in on them on the weekends.

And it’s about always, always wearing your game face.

"There are 200 eyes out there and they pick up on everything," Zick said. "When we come and go, what cars we drive. They see everything."

A case in point: 18-year-old Pfc. Steven Mudd’s reaction on seeing his drill sergeants at the barracks one weekend -- "They wear civilian clothes?"

Fort Bragg’s chosen three are hand-selected for two-year assignments and they are expected to be walking, talking camouflaged models of Army perfection.

Most folks on Fort Bragg don’t even realize they are here.

When soldiers spot Staff Sgt. Kathryn Stevens’ trademark hat, she inevitably hears: Where are you visiting from?’’

Her canned reply: "I’m not. I’m stationed here."

They are assigned to Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group, which runs Fort Bragg’s 2½-month Advanced Individual Training for soldiers in civil affairs and psychological operations specialties. At AIT, instructors teach soldiers about their new career fields and drill sergeants do what they do best:

"Doggone it!" shouts Rister. "You’re dragging your knees on the ground. Get your knees up!"

It’s 6 a.m. on a chilly dark morning in a field brightened with flood lights. Rookie privates are enduring the Army’s version of aerobics: grass drills, a dizzy array of jumping jacks, flutter kicks, push-ups and sit-ups.

"The side straddle hop!" shouts Stevens, who is standing before 97 soldiers in gray PT sweats.

"The side straddle hop, drill sergeaaaaaant!!"

That’s military speak for jumping jacks.

As the sky grows lighter, a cloud of dust is suspended above their heads. Gray suits are now brown.

There’s wheezing in the ranks.

Stevens is just warming up.

"The mountain climber!"

"The mountain climber, drill sergeaaaaaant!"

And on and on it goes for 45 minutes.

As Stevens shouts out commands, Rister and Zick check for sagging push-ups and limp leg lifts.

"Straighten your legs out and get them lower!" Rister’s voice cuts through the dust.

Stevens then pushes the fast-forward button.

"Front!" "Back!" "Up!"

Stevens’ own push-ups are perfect. Her flutter kicks a textbook six inches off the ground. While soldiers pant, Stevens’ voice doesn’t even crack: "Get your feet up!"

Drill sergeants are pretty much a timeless breed.

But words like "doggone" and "daggone it," have replaced more colorful language of past years.

And no punching, hitting or any other type of abuse is allowed.

But professionalism shouldn’t be confused with friendliness.

"We are not their friends and we are not loved," said Sgt. 1st Class Courtney Mabus, who recently finished his two years as a drill sergeant. "But they are not mistreated."

Punishments, or "corrective training," as the Army likes to call it, comes in the form of essays, push-ups and ripped-up passes. If you leave a penny on your desk or dust on top of your wall locker, you had better like flutter kicks.

Many privates appear to actually enjoy some of the reprimands.

"A lot of them come here and they are looking for organization, discipline and maturity in their lives," Mabus said. "Besides college money, that’s the primary reason they joined the service."

Drill sergeants are known for their creativity when meting out punishments.

When Pfc. Mudd and Pvt. Donald Smith got caught talking in formation they carried their rifles around with them for a week.

Do they still talk in formation?

"No ma’am, definitely not."

After leaving her drawer unlocked for the third time, 18-year-old Pvt. Andria Gibson is carrying her back pack everywhere she goes for three days.

Drill sergeants say there is a purpose behind every punishment.

Gibson’s forgetfulness represents a security violation. What happens if she forgets to lock a drawer holding classified documents or expensive equipment?

So off she goes to chow with a 40-pound reminder on her back.

Looking on the bright side: "It’s helped improve my ruck march," she said.

Before breakfast soldiers have already shined latrine drains and wiped down shower stall walls in the cleanest barracks on Fort Bragg. They have aligned their mattress covers with the fifth spring from their headboards and they have dusted the dirt off the soles of their boots and have done about a million flutter kicks.

As she munches on her pancakes, 18-year-old Pvt. Shannon Machmiller is glowing.

"Knowing it’s going to end is how I get through," she says.

The soldiers will graduate this month.

Have the drill sergeants done their job?

Judge for yourself.

"I want to go home," Mudd says. He then adds: "And be proud when I go home."