Training for war
S.C. is ground zero for combat veterans to get recruits ready to fight
They join up in Detroit and Brooklyn, Phoenix and Seattle, and in hundreds of smaller communities across America.
BY RON MENCHACA || The Post and Courier
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Most were just 11 or 12 when terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, which ignited the chain of events that sent thousands of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. Soon, it will be their turn to fight.
But first they must be cleansed of bad habits, purged of weakness and stripped of selfishness.
No other state serves a more crucial role in turning civilians into warriors than South Carolina. Every day, the Army's Fort Jackson and the Marine Corps' Parris Island transform legions of malleable young men and women into war-ready fighters.
More than half of all new soldiers and Marines, the backbone of U.S. military ground forces, pass through one of these installations. Most will draw a monthly salary of $1,245.90, base pay for a new private.
With the conflict in Afghanistan in its seventh year, the nation's second-longest war after Vietnam, these fundamental fighter factories hum around the clock to fill the military's ranks. The graduates they produce have no illusions; they know combat looms as a virtual guarantee.
The sober stares of the drill instructors, most fresh from war, reveal this truth. They know that in a matter of months these lessons are the only thing that might save these recruits from death. They know what awaits them over there.
Marine Staff Sgt. William C. Foster stands in a brightly lit stairwell outside a Marine Corps barracks on Parris Island.
He takes one last drag of a cigarette and glances at his watch. "It's about that time," he says, pivoting to head back inside.
It's 3:53 a.m. Wake-up in seven minutes.
His eyes adjust to the darkness inside. The outline of bunks emerges, two long rows stretching the length of the bay. Lumps stir under wool blankets. Foster shouts the time, rows of fluorescent lights pop on overhead and 79 bodies leap to the floor.
The next 20 minutes in the "head" are a blur of arms, boots, toothbrushes, shaving cream and razors. Bodies cram into the tight space, heads bob and weave for a glance in the mirror, hands swipe at the sink.
Foster oversees the chaos from afar. "Bunch of girls," he grumbles.
It's day 33 of boot camp — part of grass week. As its name implies, the recruits will spend most of the day lying on the ground practicing different firing positions.
The 12-week training cycle is far enough along that several of the drill instructors have trashed their vocal chords and resorted to a back-up croak they call "frog-voice." This throaty yawlp sounds even more menacing than their normal growls.
The recruits have shed weight and identities. They refer to themselves in the third person — "Sir, this recruit joined the Marine Corps to change his life, sir."
Recruits come from all sides of society: country-bred farm kids who score "expert" their first time out on the firing range to "silver spoons" unaccustomed to being hollered at or pushed beyond their limits.
Marine First Sgt. Johnny Vancil says recruits who enlist straight out of high school tend to be more focused and physically and mentally prepared for the challenge. For most, though, Marine boot camp is a rude awakening.
"Some have culture shock. They are just not prepared for this place," Vancil says. "I asked one, 'What did you do before you got here?' He said, 'Nothing, sir.' "
The new Army
About 150 miles away, on a sprawling expanse of pine and sand at the edge of the capital city, male and female Army recruits file into formation. They sleep in separate barracks but train shoulder to shoulder every day.
Not so long ago, Army drill sergeants went to great lengths to segregate men and women in basic training. When a platoon of female recruits approached, male recruits were ordered to execute an "about-face" and stare at a wall until the women passed.
The recruits lined up in shorts and sweatshirts for physical training this morning also look different than their predecessors from years past.
M-16 rifles hang from their shoulders. Recruits once spent little time with their weapons outside the firing range; now, weapons are issued right away, along with boots and uniforms.
The idea is to familiarize soldiers with their weapons early in the process. It's not an accident that this approach reflects the methods long embraced by the Marine Corps, which considers every recruit a front-line fighter.
Much of the training at Fort Jackson has adapted to the modern Army, says Col. Kevin Shwedo, the post's deputy commander. The co-ed units, the early exposure to weapons and the encouragement of privates to think for themselves all grew from a desire to better prepare soldiers for current conflicts.
"9/11 caused a transformation in how we train soldiers," Shwedo says. "So we got together with deployed folks and combat vets and asked them 'What is relevant? What is it that's getting soldiers killed?' "
On any given day, some 6,000 recruits train here. Most enlisted for support jobs in administration, mechanics and computers. But the Army no longer draws rigid distinctions between infantry and support soldiers, says Army Lt. Col. John Calahan, whose battalion will practice urban warfare this morning.
Insurgent attacks on supply convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan taught Army leaders that these new wars have undefined battle lines and that many support troops were not adequately equipped with combat skills.
"You are a ground combatant first," Calahan says. "Then we will teach you a special skill."
This same philosophy extends to basic life-saving skills. Every trainee now learns how to start an IV and administer other medical aid that used to be the domain of combat medics.
Soldiers who know how to tap a vein and start an IV can buy wounded comrades crucial time until medics arrive.
But this isn't like stitching together a pillow in high school sewing class. Recruits practice on each other with real needles, giving instructors a chance to see who in their platoons are squeamish.
A female recruit extends her arm and shields her eyes as her "battle buddy" takes a stab. The "victim" grimaces and groans as a little blood spurts out. "Don't look," says the recruit wielding the needle.
Then they switch places. Payback time.
Later, during a convoy live-fire exercise, some get a chance to start an IV under field conditions: Rounds snap, sand blows, instructors yell.
Survivors of a roadside bomb attack must know how to keep the wounded alive, particularly in those fragile minutes after the blast, instructor and combat medic Staff Sgt. Drew Becker says. "A lot of times, it's not a medic who is first on scene."
Stomachs full with warm chow, the Marine recruits march toward an expansive, rain-soaked field for physical training. The Marines will exercise in the boggy field wearing sweatshirts, camouflage pants and boots. No padded mats like the ones Army recruits at Fort Jackson tote to their morning workout.
Foster dips the toe of his boot into the Parris Island grass, and it returns a squishy sound. An approving smile spreads across his face.
Another instructor mounts a raised wooden platform to explain the morning's regimen. Behind him, the first hint of morning light glows low on the eastern horizon. He looks like a symphony conductor presiding over a sea of shaved heads.
For the next two hours, a cadre of instructors push and coax a company of recruits through a painful session of bear crawls, hand-to-hand combat and martial arts.
The recruits' clothes are soaking wet, and a few shiver in the biting wind.
The punishing pace pushes some to their limit. One screams out in pain and leaves in an ambulance. Another breaks down and cries, immediately drawing a swarm of drill instructors who seize on the show of emotion. "Cry, cry, cry," mocks one instructor.
Still, the instructors provide context for the verbal assault. They remind the recruits that combat is no picnic, that what now might seem like mindless abuse will make them stronger for the ravages of war.
Tired and cold, a recruit slacks off on a bear crawl, his rear noticeably jutting above his peers. An indignant, froggy voice explodes across the field: "Get your butt out of the air before you get shot!"
The fog of war
At Fort Jackson a squad of armed soldiers maneuvers silently toward a shipping container converted to represent an Iraqi mosque. Burned out cars and broken furniture litter the ground to simulate the urban environment soldiers encounter in Iraq.
The street signs are in Arabic. Someone has spray-painted "No America" on the side of an abandoned bus.
Insurgents have kidnapped a key government official and have him holed up in a safe house, explains Army 1st Sgt. Kenneth Hendrix.
"It's like Fallujah," he says. "We have some of the buildings rigged with explosives."
Hendrix knows how to re-create the guerilla tactics these soldiers are likely to face when most deploy in the next year or so. He just returned from his fourth tour in Iraq, assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division as part of the surge.
Soldiers fire blank rounds as they close in on the insurgent's base. A masked face and an assault rifle appear in a second story window. A firefight erupts. Pop-pop-pop!
Hendrix lobs a couple of smoke bombs into the fight. A purple and yellow fog washes over the simulated city, cloaking the soldiers in near darkness. The soldiers don't see that they are headed into an ambush. BOOM. Someone has tripped an IED, wiping out the entire column.
If this were Iraq, they'd be dead. Instead, it's a freebie, a life-saving lesson. "I'd rather them learn from a mistake here than over there," Hendrix says.
After the exercise, the recruits critique their performance. One thinks he shot a civilian used as a human shield. A drill sergeant interrupts and tells the soldier that taking out the civilian probably saved the lives of some of his buddies.
"That's collateral damage," he says.
A giant banner hangs across a road on Parris Island: "We make Marines."
Nearby, Foster steers his platoon back to the "house."
Street lights silhouette tangled strands of moss eerily draped from massive live oak limbs. Cadence calls echo across the island. Left - right - left - right - left.
The depot's marsh and coastal plain give the appearance of a posh resort. But no one rests here, least of all the men and women who make Marines.
Foster sees little of his wife and two young children during the training cycle. His platoon becomes his family. He grows close to them during the three months they are in his care, and he gets frustrated when they screw up. They must learn. This isn't a video game. When they go off to war, he won't be there to baby-sit.
Some never will cut the cord. Months from now, deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, they will write to Foster, thanking him, seeking his approval. "They are like dogs," Foster says. "They want to please you."
Just down the road, a platoon of recruits wheels in unison around the parade field as if tethered by some invisible rod. They have lived together nonstop for nearly three months, learning to function as a team.
Tomorrow, they begin their final challenge, a legendary rite of passage for those who want to earn the Marine's coveted eagle-globe-and-anchor emblem: "The Crucible" is a hellish three-day ordeal in which recruits eat and sleep little while reviewing all their training.
Drill instructor Sgt. Chad Schwan, who has served three tours in Iraq, says his platoon is beginning to gel. Reaching the cusp of the final phase of training has given them a second wind. "They are seeing light at the end of the tunnel," he says. "I love the Crucible. It completes the transformation process."
The Crucible pulls together weeks of training and helps instill a sense of cohesion and problem-solving that these recruits will rely on when they head to war, Schwan says.
The emblem ceremony that caps the Crucible is so special it's off-limits to everyone: Neither parents nor other Marines can attend.
"The Corps" still is viewed by many young men and women as the toughest branch of the military, and Marine recruiters aren't shy about marketing that distinction to would-be Marines.
Joshua Booker, a 19-year-old from Daytona Beach, Fla., says that's why he chose to become a Marine. "Not everyone can do it."
Brand loyalty is another strong motivator. Recruit Robert Nelson's father was a Marine Cobra pilot in the first Gulf War. There wasn't much discussion in his family about which branch he would enter, Nelson says.
Instructors at Fort Jackson and Parris Island say one of the most important changes in the way America now trains its ground troops has been to place greater emphasis on initiative. Historically, soldiers and Marines learned to follow orders and regurgitate basic skills.
Iraq and Afghanistan taught the military that "standard operating procedure" and flowcharts are worthless when the enemy doesn't fight fair.
So now there are more problem-solving exercises and opportunities for lower ranking members to try leadership roles.
Army recruit Corey Tull of Huntington Beach, Calif., prepped his 19-year-old body for the physical demands of boot camp, but the brain-over-brawn approach took him by surprise. "It's mentally harder than I expected it to be."
Shwedo says the Army hasn't rid itself of yelling in recruits' faces. It's just that drill sergeants now target their ire at actions that would get recruits killed in combat.
"The stress we are going to create has to have a direct relation to the reality of combat," Shwedo says. "If your son or daughter is going to Iraq or Afghanistan, do you want them to learn that lesson at Fort Jackson or on the streets of Fallujah?"
For all its advancements and war prep, one thing about basic training has not changed: Combat-tested drill instructors and a grueling regime accomplish what the parents and teachers of many recruits struggled to do for 18 years.
Their sons and daughters leave South Carolina as different people, forever changed by bonds forged through stress, exhilaration and camaraderie. The routine and structure burrow so deeply in their minds that they'll never walk, eat or sleep the same way again.
And as nearly every one of them heads to war, they'll always carry the memories of this life-changing experience.
Reach Ron Menchaca at email@example.com or 937-5724