By Carroll KimJune 25, 2008
FORT MONROE, Va. (June 20, 2008)-Staff Sgt. Herbert Thompson IV of Fort Jackson, S.C. and Sgt. 1st Class Michael Noland of the 95th Reserve Division in Oklahoma City have been named the 2008 Drill Sergeant of the Year in a competition hosted by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.
"It's been a long road of competition. I never thought I would have gotten to where I am today," said Thompson following the competition last week.
"[My] drill sergeant instilled so much pride and dedication in [me] and I'm just proud that I can follow in his footsteps," commented Noland.
The competitors of the 39th Drill Sergeant of the Year competition arrived at Fort Monroe on the Army's 233rd birthday, and the competition began a day later, June 15. Seven candidates, five representing the active-duty posts that have initial entry training programs and two from the Reserve divisions, were competed on Fort Monroe and Fort Eustis for a week-long competition targeting technical, physical, academic and leadership abilities.
Drill Sergeant of the Year 2008 took six months of planning and strategizing. Staff Sgt. Monique Byers was the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Obstacle Course, one of the many tasks involved in DSOY 2008. Along with configuring the setup of the course, safety was a huge concern. "I was making sure it was safe for them, and making sure we had the right staff in place just in case anyone got hurt," she said. "You've got to make sure everyone has fun and no one gets hurt."
Byers smiled as she reflected on her own time as a drill sergeant. "It kind of makes me miss being a drill sergeant, but I'm having a great time cheering them on. This is a big commitment for all of them," she said.
While Sunday was devoted to in-processing and briefings, Monday began with a 4 a.m. wake-up call and the Army Physical Fitness Test at Fort Monroe's Continental Park. Cheered on by former drill sergeants and passers-by, the contenders completed timed push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run. Staff Sgt. Terrance Gassop from Fort Benning, Ga. came in first place, scoring more than 300 points on the APFT.
Throughout the course of the DSOY competition, they faced off in a series of exercises that engaged all aspects of being a drill sergeant. Some of the tasks addressed issues drill sergeants may not encounter often, like a heat casualty or a non-compliant Soldier. "These are things you don't see everyday but should be prepared for," said Staff Sgt. Ronald Barnes from the 98th Reserve Division, N.Y.
One of the tasks was a land-navigation course at Fort Eustis. Given only a map, a protractor and compass, the drill sergeants had to locate seven points in four training areas, on foot, while carrying all of their gear. One caveat of this exercise was that the drill sergeants had to work in day and night-time situations, so the land-navigation competition started at 4 a.m. Tuesday.
At the end of the land-navigation course, Thompson expressed determination through fatigue. "I'm exhausted, but I'm going to roll on," he said. "Drink some water and move on."
The competing drill sergeants were also faced with a surprise task. "When giving a module on teaching someone how to perform a right-face drill and ceremony movement, one of the demonstrators became a heat casualty and we had to respond to that," said Barnes.
With all of the exhaust and strain, the drill sergeants powered through written assignments, urban orienteering, reflexive fire and, lastly, a board review with Command Sgt. Maj. David Bruner of TRADOC, among other tasks. Out of the 1,400 possible points, the competitors stayed close throughout the week, even down to the final board review. Bruner was impressed by each drill sergeant. "I refuse to look at the scores because the competition was so great," he said.
The drill sergeants were able to bond and support each other through the contest. "The best part is the camaraderie that's developed this week. "There are a lot of good Soldiers from different posts, and a lot of good information shared amongst each other," commented Sgt. 1st Class Curtis Siler, III of Fort Knox, Ky.
Each day was concluded with an after-action review. This gave an opportunity for the competing drill sergeants to reflect and provide feedback to the planning team and to 2007 Drill Sergeants of the Year, Sgt. 1st Class Delfin Romani and Sgt. 1st Class James Thompson. "So far, every comment has been good. They've been surprised with every task. It was challenging, but it was possible," said Romani.
The first Active Duty Drill Sergeant of the Year was named in 1969, five years after the rollout of the successful drill sergeant program. Prior to 1972, there was no reward commending the best Reserve drill sergeants until commander of the Continental Army Command, Gen. Ralph E. Haynes created the Reserve competition to recognize the professionalism and prestige of the Reserve units. The competition has since evolved through the years into the week-long event it is now. The biggest change from last year to this year is the number of drill sergeants enrolled in DSOY: from 17 to seven.
2007 Active Duty Drill Sergeant of the Year, Romani attributes the smaller group to the loss of the drill sergeant program in advanced individual training. "Since we took the AIT drill sergeants out, we only [have] five bases: Benning; Knox; Leonard Wood, Mo.; Jackson and Sill, Okla. That small group is representative of 2,400 active duty drill sergeants. And the two Reserve guys represent over 3,000 Reserve drill sergeants."
Drill sergeants are responsible for leading new Soldiers through the IET. This also includes the 10 week basic combat training which lays down the foundation for the Soldier to succeed in their career.
Lt. Gen. David Valcourt, deputy commanding general and TRADOC chief of staff said "Drill sergeants are the masters of the transition from civilian to Soldier life. They teach our youngest Soldiers how to go from receiving to giving and served to serving. Your communities are proud of you and so are we."
The road to DSOY is not an easy one. Each had to win the competitions on their respective posts and units to move on to the final DSOY competition at Fort Monroe and Fort Eustis.
"I'm glad I could have been a part of this, and now I can go back and model some of the training for my Soldiers similar to what we did here this week," said Barnes.
The winning drill sergeants will be stationed at Fort Monroe to work with TRADOC in developing training curricula for the Drill Sergeant School. The active duty winner will work in Bruner's office, while the Reserve winner will work in the U.S. Army Accessions Command under Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis King's leadership.
One key responsibility for the drill sergeants is to go every TRADOC post. "We went on installation visits together. There are 16 installations in the Army that have TRADOC units, so we went to make sure that the training was conducted properly," recalled Romani. The DSOYs ensure that the posts have the resources to conduct training and provide status reports to their commanders.
Drill sergeants play an integral role in policy as well.
"We go to the initial military training and we pretty much speak at the drill sergeant level," Romani explained. "We'd ask, 'How would the policy affect the drill sergeants on the ground'' When the Army drafts policy that could affect them, we step in and provide feedback. It may look good, but it could have a different effect,"
They will also be spokesmen for the Army, which involves fielding questions and attending functions to get the drill sergeant message out to the public. Thompson and Romani represented the Army at events such at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, and the Association of the U.S. Army annual meeting in Washington.
The DSOY competition brought out the competitive spirit in the drill sergeants. Historically, the difference between the first -place and second-place drill sergeants have only been a few points, which shows how well prepared they are coming into the competition.
"This is good for them, not only as a drill sergeant, but for their careers," said Byers. "Anyone in this contest is one of the seven top drill sergeants for the Army, whether or not they come out the winner."
As Drill Sergeant of the Year 2008 came to a close, Bruner provided words of encouragement and pride for the seven drill sergeants. "Drill sergeants, thank you for everything you've done," he said. "You're truly the best of the best, answering the call of duty and selfless service. Each and everybody here is so proud of you, and I can look you in the eye and tell you that you're America's finest."
(Carroll Kim writes for the TRADOC News Service.)