Drill sergeant competition sees camaraderie amid challenge
June 30, 2009
FORT MONROE, Va. (June 29, 2009) -- Staff Sgt. Michael Johnston and Staff Sgt. Joshua Marshall's victory drew the week-long Drill Sergeant of the Year competition to a close on Friday at Fort Monroe's Continental Park.
The competition tested the top seven drill sergeants on their ability to perform the tasks they teach to Soldiers over five days.
The drill sergeant role has been to introduce civilian recruits to the Army through instruction and mentoring.
The modern drill sergeant education program began in the 1960s after Assistant Secretary of the Army Stephen Ailes evaluated the quality of training new recruits received. Lack of standards, discouraging attitudes and long hours worked by instructors led Ailes to set up a series of pilot programs that taught a new curriculum and standardized the training program for Army recruit instructors.
The new training model grew into the establishment of Drill Sergeant Schools. The first drill sergeants were graduated in 1964 and the first female drill sergeants graduated seven years later in 1971.
In 1969, Sgt. 1st Class A.G. Carpenter was named the first Drill Sergeant of the Year for the active duty. Three years later in 1972, Sgt. 1st Class D.A. Castern won the title of first Reserve Drill Sergeant of the Year.
The 2009 Drill Sergeant of the Year competition started June 21, at Fort Monroe with a weigh-in and event brief. The competition agenda was kept secret and almost every task was a surprise for the contenders.
"From day one until now, we knew absolutely nothing -- we didn't know when we were going to eat; it's always a mystery," said Johnston from Fort Benning, Ga. "We're supposed to be seasoned noncommissioned officers, so on top of things, the competition really tested that about us."
The first day tested the drill sergeants on physical tasks, mental tasks, and Army knowledge. It started with the Army Physical Fitness Test and ended with an essay.
In between those events were reflexive fire shooting, stress shoots, and combatives. The drill sergeants even had to point out deficiencies on Army uniforms. With surprise tasks issued at unexpected times, the drill sergeants, who are used to planning the day's lessons in advance, were forced to adapt to the challenge of not knowing what was to come next.
"After the physical fitness test, I realized I had to be very reactive to the situations that presented themselves and try to complete the task as much as possible and get to know my peers to the best of my ability," said Staff Sgt. Kevin Wildman from Fort Knox, Ky.
"[Drill sergeants] are very used to having plans and strict guidelines, but not knowing ultimately what was next hinders our preparation, but makes us very driven and very focused," he said.
Between the back-to-back events, the top seven drill sergeants found time to share training advice to help them back at their home posts.
"All the stuff I've learned from being around the other drill sergeants, listening to the way they teach at their posts -- I'm going to take that back with me," said Staff Sgt. James Barrett from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
"Since I'm a reserve drill sergeant, we work in a battalion of reserve drills where we do our routines, train and go home," said Staff Sgt. Shanna McKinnon of the 98th Division. "But what I'm learning is that we need to take time to train ourselves. We can keep training other units and getting them squared away, but if we don't do a couple more field training exercises, we risk losing those skills."
The seven drill sergeants received as little as four hours of sleep on any given night during the competition. Tuesday began with a 3 a.m. wake-up call and a four-point land navigation course.
During the land navigation, the drill sergeants had to find four points on Fort Eustis, Va. using a compass and a map. After the land navigation, the contestants began the urban orienteering portion where they also faced four tasks generally taught to basic combat training students.
"With the road marches, I think I've walked about 15 miles," said Staff Sgt. Arron Barnes from Fort Sill, Okla. "Mixed with the tasks and drills, the challenge is to have a strong mind and push yourself through it."
"Warrior tasks and battle drills are something everyone needs to be proficient at regardless of active duty guard or reserve," said McKinnon. "It's all been difficult, but the constant challenge keeps me going."
Three days of road marches, written tests and physical challenges to become the two to represent the 5,500 drill sergeants in the United States Army was difficult for the seven competitors. But staying motivated throughout the 2009 Drill Sergeant of the Year competition was a different beast.
"You've made it this far, and you think of all your battle buddies you've beat to get here," explained Sgt. 1st Class Michael Cavezza of Fort Jackson, S.C. "If I were to quit, it would be like I'm not really the Fort Jackson Drill Sergeant of the Year. I had to act like it."
"It was easier being around other drill sergeants," said Barrett. "You see your buddy hurting, going through the same thing you are and it keeps you motivated. That, to me, was the easiest thing."
The last day of physical competition, saw the drill sergeants completing an essay, instructing privates stationed at Fort Eustis on warrior tasks and battle drills, and negotiating their way through a 17-piece obstacle course.
"We were prepared for the wide variety of tasks," said Marshall. "We're drill sergeants; that's what we do. We train hard and then we train others."
The active-duty and Reserve drill sergeants of the year will be stationed at TRADOC for a year. Their job is to serve as a liaison between drill sergeants and TRADOC leadership.
"We get the information and we serve as another route of communication that validates what they're hearing from their leaders," said Sgt. 1st Class Herbert Thompson, 2008 active-duty drill sergeant of the year.
Drill sergeants of the year assist in policy-making and visit basic combat training locations to see what can be enhanced.
"One major task we did was update the initial entry training regulation. Gen. Dempsey and Command Sgt. Maj. Bruner used [Reserve drill sergeant of the year] Sgt. 1st Class Michael Noland and me to do some legwork," he said.
However, the job is not without its perks. Drill sergeants of the year attend public events as U.S. Army representatives.
"You are a face for the Army and you get to go around to many different places where people want to hear your story," said Thompson. "Drill Sergeant Noland got to go to two NASCAR events, and I got to throw around a football at the Alamo Stadium with wounded warriors."
During the Friday morning ceremony, Gen. Martin Dempsey, commanding general of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, and Command Sgt. Maj. David Bruner, senior enlisted advisor at TRADOC, expressed gratitude for what all drill sergeants do.
"We make sure we have the right men and women with not only the right skills, but the right character, discipline and military bearing," said Dempsey. "We give them young men and women off the streets of America, we give them ten weeks to turn them into Soldiers, and they do it time in and time out ... We can't recognize that contribution enough, of them and their families."
"They're an icon, one of the most powerful symbols in the Army of what 'right' looks like," said Bruner. "These drill sergeants have proven themselves already just by being here. When we name the 2009 drill sergeants of the year, we're adding another line to an already distinguished rAfAsumAfA of service."
Now that the 2009 Drill Sergeant of the Year competition is over, Johnston and Marshall prepare for the way ahead and look positively at the experience.
"Everyone who was here, deserved to be here," said Marshall of the 95th Division.
"I don't want to be a book drill sergeant and I don't want to be a board drill sergeant, but I want to be a well-rounded drill sergeant," said Johnston. "If I'm doing as good as I can at work and I'm getting the respect of my Soldiers, my peers and my NCOs, then I should be successful out here."