The New Phase of the AIT Platoon Sergeant Course
September 30, 2011
After drill sergeants take care of the early work of turning civilians into Army Soldiers, Advanced Individual Training platoon sergeants step in, take the reins and help Soldiers become successful in the operational Army.
Staff Sgt. Demond Thomas has been serving as an Advanced Individual Training platoon sergeant at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., helping 88M (motor transport operator) Soldiers in AIT since January 2011. He originally took the AIT Platoon Sergeant Course in October 2010 at Fort Jackson, S.C. As an AIT platoon sergeant with D Company, 58th Transportation Battalion, he said the job has the ability to affect Soldiers' lives.
"I like being a positive influence on Soldiers, on the privates who we deal with, because we're the last in our field who they see until they get to their unit station," Thomas said. "We play a major part in their development as far as who they expect an NCO to be, to look like, to act."
After six deployments to Iraq, Bosnia and Egypt, Thomas said he is able to bring the tools necessary to train new Soldiers so they'll be ready once they report to a Forces Command unit.
"That knowledge allows them to know what to expect when they go to that FORSCOM unit," Thomas said.
Platoon sergeants like Thomas began appearing in AIT installations around 2007. In 2006, drill sergeant hats started to disappear at AIT as drill sergeants were authorized only at Basic Combat Training.
Training and Doctrine Command, the higher command behind the change, made the decision to put platoon sergeants in AIT to help Soldiers adjust faster to the structure of the operational Army.
In addition, since AIT instructors teaching at AIT-specific schoolhouses were already a separate group from drill sergeants, by replacing drill sergeants there with AIT platoon sergeants, the Army went to a culture that reflected the one Soldiers would see at their first FORSCOM unit.
Staff Sgt. Luis Duran, the 2009 U.S. Army AIT Platoon Sergeant of the Year and an instructor at the AIT Platoon Sergeant Course at Fort Jackson, said the changes were made to help prepare new Soldiers for their first unit of assignment.
"They were finding out that Soldiers were arriving to their units and when they didn't see that 'brown round,' Soldiers weren't adapting quick enough to the leadership," Duran said. "They didn't understand the command structure. By removing the drill sergeant, the platoon sergeant is replicating [what's in the] operational Army."
In 2006, five AIT installations conducted a pilot test to the effects removing drill sergeants had on discipline, physical fitness, training, standards and military occupational skills proficiency.
The five installations reported that standards weren't lowered because NCOs continued to hold Soldiers accountable for their actions.
Jacqueline Ortiz, deputy director of the Leader Development Division of the Training Support and Schools Directorate at Fort Jackson (formerly Victory University), which oversees the AIT Platoon Sergeant Course, said the transition from drill sergeants to platoon sergeants in August 2006 was a big culture change but was necessary to help new Soldiers adapt to the operational Army.
"The drill sergeant in basic training is transforming that civilian into a Soldier. So the initial-level training that has to occur is learning how the Army works and understanding that culture. That's the total-control concept that the drill sergeant has," Ortiz said. "In AIT now, that platoon sergeant wants to emulate what the operational Army is. We've got to teach the Soldiers that their actions have consequences. We're preparing them, so that when they go to that first unit of assignment, they're ready to deploy with that first unit of assignment."
In June 2007, the AIT Platoon Sergeant Course started at Fort Jackson. Originally designed as a three-week course, it has gone through multiple revisions and is now two weeks and includes about 100 hours of instructional time as well as a three-day field training exercise.
"Our goal here is, when a person is selected to become an AIT platoon sergeant, to provide them the entire curriculum prior to their arrival," Ortiz said.
To that end, students are being issued iPads this summer to use as training tools while at the schoolhouse.
Changes to the course come from a critical-task site selection board, which recruits leaders from each of the 27 AIT sites. The board asks AIT brigade command teams, battalion command teams, company command teams and the AIT platoon sergeants for input on how AIT platoon sergeants are enhancing the AIT culture and what more they need to be trained on before being sent to the AIT installation. Their comments are taken into consideration for updating the course, and the course continues to incorporate the board's findings, Ortiz said.
While the board critiques what is taught at the course, the course focuses on the critical tasks needed to be future AIT platoon sergeants, said Staff Sgt. Aaron Price, an instructor at the AIT Platoon Sergeant Course.
"In two weeks, we can't teach them how to be an NCO," Price said. "That's not what we're here for; we're here to teach them the skills they need to be successful as an AIT platoon sergeant. A lot of NCOs come here and have never had Soldiers under them. They come here thinking we're going to teach them how to be that, and that's not what we do. We're here to give them all the tools they need to be successful in the AIT environment."
While the qualifications for attending the AIT Platoon Sergeant course are similar to those required to attend the U.S. Army Drill Sergeants School, also at Fort Jackson, the classroom atmosphere is very different, Price said. The instructors work to create a dialogue with students with modules that prior drill instructors and AIT platoon sergeants teach. The instructors then open the floor for a classroom discussion. In addition, while the AIT platoon sergeant course is two weeks, drill sergeants undergo 10 weeks of instruction.
"We treat the AIT platoon sergeants the same way we treat the Soldiers, whether we're doing [Physical Readiness Training] or drill and ceremony," Price said. "We want to treat them the same way that they should treat those Soldiers in training. They can't be hard on the Soldiers continuously. They have to care. Caring is part of being an NCO. If they don't care, then they don't need to be in the job."
The difference in the instruction between AIT Platoon Sergeant Course and Drill Sergeant School carries over to the different role AIT platoon sergeants play versus their drill sergeant counterparts. While drill sergeants are an integral part of training and instructing new recruits, AIT platoon sergeants monitor and manage AIT instructors and act as operational platoon sergeants, taking care of Soldier issues. Price, a former basic training drill sergeant, said it's important Soldiers in training learn to recognize the authority of NCOs rather than the drill sergeant hat.
Placing platoon sergeants in AIT "allows that Soldier to recognize the rank, not that drill sergeant hat," Price said. "Discipline is the backbone of the Army, and NCOs are supposed to instill discipline and lead by example -- not by screaming or yelling, but by teaching, coaching, mentoring," Price said.
Sgt. 1st Class Paul Gahl, an AIT platoon sergeant at the Fires Center of Excellence at Fort Sill, Okla., said his prior experience working in a battalion headquarters provided him with the skills he needed to be an AIT platoon sergeant.
Knowing the battalion staff structure, Gahl knows who to visit to help him take care of the administrative issues of his AIT Soldiers. Even though Gahl helps new Soldiers with personal issues, he said the Army encourages Soldiers to learn how to self-regulate.
"Now we're encouraging self-discipline in the Soldier," Gahl said, "We allow people to make mistakes and use positive reinforcement. We give them the ability to take care of their own issues."
Sgt. 1st Class Johnny Akins, an instructor at Fort Jackson with the AIT Platoon Sergeant Course, said drill sergeants and AIT platoon sergeants are held to the same standards. Indeed, sometimes AIT platoon sergeants are held to higher ones. Both AIT platoon sergeants and drill sergeants must pass a background check, have no record of disciplinary action, not be flagged, have no speech impediment, and meet height and weight standards.
AIT platoon sergeants, though, must be at least the rank of a staff sergeant and the majority are sergeants first class. Both careers are tracked by the same Human Resource Command branch manager, who works hard to place AIT platoon sergeants in their MOS or career field.
There are 27 AIT locations where an AIT platoon sergeant could be potentially placed. HRC can't guarantee that AIT platoon sergeants will be placed at the schoolhouse of their MOS, but the command will try to place them at the installation where the platoon sergeants' branches are, Akins said.
"MOS is immaterial. Being a platoon sergeant, your main job, your main function, is to take care of Soldiers," Akins said. "You handle all of their problems so that when they get to school, they won't be thinking about anything but class."
In the two-week instructional period, the AIT Platoon Sergeant Course covers advanced rifle marksmanship, the role of the platoon sergeant in AIT, families in AIT, Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills trained in AIT, health issues, nutrition, injury prevention, PRT, prohibited practices, foot marching and suicide prevention.
"One of the most positive things about this job is that you are affecting every new Soldier," Duran said. "They get to know you, you meet them, you motivate them, you mold them. You're investing in the welfare of these Soldiers. You'll run back into them in the operational Army."
Staff Sgt. Keric Foster, an instructor at the AIT Platoon Sergeant Course, said being an AIT platoon sergeant is one of those challenging assignments with long hours but huge dividends.
"It's an awesome experience," Foster said. "The Army's small, and you're going to put your thumbprint on these Soldiers. You're going to see them again, and they're going to remember you."
When fully staffed, the Army will have 700 AIT platoon sergeants within TRADOC. Though they will continue to train various MOSs, drill sergeants will continue to fill One-Station Unit Training slots, including those that train new infantry, armor, combat engineer and military police Soldiers, Foster said.
"I totally understand the fear factor of that drill sergeant hat. But as platoon sergeants, you have to instill that discipline from day one," Foster said. "The hat or badge doesn't make you a leader. When you put those chevrons on, that makes you a leader."
The AIT Platoon Sergeant Course typically trains 32 NCOs each cycle. Currently, the course has roughly five or six Soldiers per course volunteering for AIT platoon sergeant duty; the others are Department of the Army selected for AIT duty. The two-week course is offered at least once a month, Foster said.
AIT platoon sergeants bring a unique perspective to the AIT environment, Foster said.
"[AIT platoon sergeants] bring the experience of having deployed. They can tie in that experience when Soldiers ask those questions," Foster said.
It's important to bring that experience to the AIT environment by having AIT platoon sergeants who are able to help turn basic combat trainees into operational Army Soldiers, Duran said.
"If you want to run into those squared-away Soldiers in the future, you've got to produce those squared-away Soldiers now," Duran said.
The average AIT platoon can consist of anywhere from 60 to 125 Soldiers in training. But one of the biggest challenges is when those Soldiers haven't yet started their schoolhouse training.
Akins said with those Soldiers, it's important for them to do training that reinforces Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills to maximize face-to-face time with the instructor.
"It just comes down to, how badly do you want to train your Soldiers and how much time are you willing to spend with your Soldiers?" Akins said.
After AIT platoon sergeants complete the course they move on to take the Master Resilience Trainer course across the street.
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