Training through the eyes of a drill sergeant
November 25, 2008
For Sgt. 1st Class Gabriel Lopez, working 15 hours a day is the norm, not the exception. Working six days a week is expected, not suggested. Lopez is an infantryman with vast combat experience, but this may be his toughest assignment. He is a drill sergeant.
The work hours are hard, he admits, but he does not complain.
"You just deal with it and drink coffee," he says while sipping a cup.
It is Nov. 7, the second week of Basic Combat Training for the Soldiers of Company F, 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment. The first two weeks are called the "red phase."
During this phase, drill sergeants teach new Soldiers the fundamentals of being in the Army.
"We make sure they look like a Soldier, make sure they act like a Soldier, make sure they know how to be a Soldier," Lopez explains. "We make sure that they understand the Army values, and not only understand them, but apply them."
To do that, the Soldiers need to learn discipline.
"In the beginning, you're always there nitpicking everything," Lopez says. "But as you go along, they're supposed to become more disciplined, so you don't have to do that very much."
Throughout the day, Lopez corrects Soldiers for every kind of infraction imaginable - from carrying a weapon incorrectly to leaving a footlocker unlocked. Sometimes the correction takes on the form of a reminder, other times a formal reprimand is necessary. However, contrary to the stereotype of a screaming drill sergeant, Lopez seldom raises his voice.
"I don't feel like I have to yell to get my point across," he says.
Throughout red phase, drill sergeants quickly get an understanding of what kind of personalities they are dealing with in the Soldiers entrusted to them. Some stand out because of their exceptional abilities, others because they have difficulties adapting.
"If you know the Soldiers' names by heart, it's either because they've done something good or because they've done something really bad," Lopez says.
On this day, Lopez calls Military Police because one Soldier is out of line with his drill sergeant. The situation does not escalate to a fist fight, but the Soldier will be punished for being disrespectful to his superior. He will be given another chance in a different platoon, but one more incident may send him home.
Drill sergeants also identify Soldiers who are suited to be platoon guides and squad leaders. There are only two, sometimes three, drill sergeants in a platoon of about 60 Soldiers, so leaders who are selected from within the group play a big part in the platoon's success.
"The leaders are going to step up to the plate and want to take charge," Lopez says. "They help us disseminate information and spot check."
In the red phase of basic training, many of the exercises are geared toward building the Soldiers' confidence level.
By the end of the second week, they have already gone through the "Fit to Win" obstacle course, trained in Modern Army Combatives and experienced the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Gas Chamber.
On this day, they learn how to fight close to the enemy by learning how to use bayonets and fighting with pugil sticks, American Gladiator style.
What the Soldiers do not know is that this is Lopez' first time as a drill sergeant conducting bayonet assault training.
"Not every drill sergeant gets to do everything," he explains. During his previous two cycles, he was busy with other duties while the Soldiers were at the Bayonet Assault Course.
Lopez instructs the Soldiers how to use the bayonet and corrects them as they perform the exercises.
"We always have to break the training down for the Soldiers," he says. "These Soldiers don't know anything yet, so there's no base. We actually have to establish a base."
And the time to do that is limited.
"We have to do some training after dinner. That's an hour of valuable time," he says as the sun goes down. "You always feel like you're behind. It's like that every cycle."