Boot Camp: First Day's Toughest


FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- There is no hiding from the brown-hat drill sergeants.

Within seconds, they give orders to 48 recruits hustling off a shuttle bus under the cover of nightfall.

The drill sergeants repeat orders for those who don't follow the first, simple command: Put your paperwork in your left hand and bags in your right.

Standing in single-file columns, the civilians-turned-recruits step through a door to file into a large reception room ringed by the flags of all 50 states.

The Army trainees sit on benches staring straight ahead. In large black letters on two projection screens, they are instructed on how to respond to an order: "Yes, drill sergeant!"

Male and female and black, white, Hispanic, or Asian, the recruits reflect American society. They've come to join the military in wartime. But they must pass a series of physical and mental tests first that will challenge them emotionally and lead them to work as a team under stress.

"That first day is probably the hardest day," said Drill Sergeant Sean Fluaitt.

Pvt. Quiana Myricks, 27, a former Dayton resident, left a job as a pharmacy technician in Florida to join the Army.

"It's good discipline and they're instilling good values in us," the former Wright State University student said.

The mother of two small children, ages 5 and 2 years old, said her husband, Robert, understands what she faces. Her husband was a former Marine seriously injured in 2004 in Iraq by a mortar round that exploded meters from where he stood. He went through months of rehabilitation, according to Dayton Daily News archives.

"Coming from the Marines, he already knows what I am going through," she said in her first week in an Army uniform. "I'm just praying for Godspeed to get through it effectively, efficiently."

'I have arrived'

Back at the reception room, recruits hear their second order once they sit down: Call home and say three sentences and no more: "I have arrived at Fort Leonard Wood. I am safe. I will call you when I can."

A soldier asks those in civilian garb who will soon wear uniforms if they understand: "Yes, drill sergeant!" they yell in unison.

The flat-brimmed, brown hat worn outside the reception area with a barking drill sergeant underneath drives home the point to recruits.

"Most of them are intimidated just from the look of the hat," said Sgt. 1st Class Deanna Hawk, 46, and a Fort Leonard Wood drill sergeant. "They see the hat and they just freeze up."

For the next nine weeks of basic training, recruits will be immersed in Army culture, customs and training. They'll race over obstacle courses, learn how to shoot weapons, learn about Army customs and protocol, and have relentlessly drilled into them the importance of followership and teamwork.

"In the civilian world, it's all about you, yourself," said Pvt. Daryus Jenkins, 21, of Lawton, Okla., "and once you join the Army it's how you can help the team."

Recruits call a "starship" barracks home. The building houses living quarters and classrooms. In a courtyard surrounded by "starships," they get outside for early morning physical training to stand, roll and jump in a field of shredded black rubber chips. Once they're finished in the pit, they'll sprint on a red running track, then walk, then sprint again, over and over.

"It's not going to make you a superstar athlete but it's going to make sure you're not injured," said Command Sgt. Maj. Darren Oliphant. PT today has fewer boot camp washouts than years past, said Oliphant, who has served in uniform for two dozen years.

At its worst in prior years, injuries would send up to 40 percent of recruits home, he said. "A lot of them were hip injuries we were seeing in the past," he said. Now, he said, that figure is around 18 to 20 percent.

Recruits build up to marching with a 40-pound ruck sack for four to six miles.

Boot camp realism

While sequestration budget cuts have hit military training and operations hard, basic recruit training hadn't been impacted by the end of the 2013 fiscal year in September, according to Maj. Gen. Leslie C. Smith, commanding general of Army Maneuver Support Center of Excellence at Fort Leonard Wood.

The recruits train to prepare for asymmetric threats to the United States. "We don't know what that next mission is going to be," Smith said.

The Army tries as much as possible for realism in training to prepare recruits who could see combat. In a night infiltration exercise, they navigate around obstacles and barbed wire while flares and machine guns in two tower box fire repeatedly in bursts above them. The arcing tracer rounds streak through the sky at measurable intervals while the machine guns are fired "hot."

"This is a confidence builder for the soldiers," said Lt. Col. Larry Glasscock, an Army training officer. "The design and the idea is to make the (soldiers) think critically of what they're doing and why they're doing it."

Recruits graduate once they complete a four-day, three night training exercise, the "capstone" of all their training.

Spec. Toshara Nettles has learned to low crawl, rappel on the side of towers, and watched streaking tracer rounds fly above her and her fellow recruits in a night exercise that tested their soldiering skills while navigating in darkness.

"The toughest challenge to me is just adapting to a different environment," said Nettles, 25, of Pensacola, Fla. "If you just listen to what the drill sergeants tell you, you can keep up."

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