FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Since American Soldiers have been training to fight, their leader-trainers have gone by a variety of titles. In today's Army, those who train enlisted Soldiers who just enter service are called drill sergeants.
America's changing human landscape and research results have evolved Basic Combat Training standards, leading to the programs of instruction our drill sergeants now follow. For instance, before 1964, there was no such thing as a drill sergeant, nor did the trainers of that day have standardized methods of instruction.
"The Drill Sergeant Program was officially established in 1964," said Gerald Simpson, training specialist for the Drill Sergeant Program at the Drill Sergeant Proponency office. "Drill Sergeant Schools were opened at six Army Training Centers to provide qualified educated trainers to train new Soldiers entering the Army."
There are currently 740 drill sergeants at Fort Jackson, the highest number of any Army Training Center. Of that number an overwhelming majority, 66 percent, are staff sergeants.
The average age among drill sergeants here is 30. They are mostly male, numbering 308, or 41.6 percent white, and 174 or 23.5 percent African Americans. Female drill sergeants comprise 22.4 percent of the total force. Of that number, 3.9 percent are white and 15 percent are African American. The Department of the Army selected 68.2 percent of those who serve here. Of all the statistics, one stands out: Almost 90 percent of all drill sergeants now serving are combat veterans - 45 percent of them have had at least two combat tours.
"The veteran drill sergeant understands the combat environment of today's battlefield and can educate the Soldier on what they are actually going to see," said Command Sgt. Maj. Sean Watson, 165th Infantry Brigade command sergeant major. "However, there are a lot of good NCOs who haven't been overseas. What is being taught is the trend basics that help Soldiers survive on the battlefield -veterans or not."
They come to "the trail" from a variety of Military Occupational Specialties and their overall average time in military service is 9.7 years. Some of the old colloquialisms remain among drill sergeants, but their mission execution has changed drastically in the last 40 years.
"The phrase, 'on the trail,' comes from frontier days when cattle were driven from California to Colorado to be marketed. It was the same type of thing with training back in the old days. Drill sergeants coined this phrase because of the process of moving Soldiers from one place to another with as few problems and loss along the way. But that's not the process you want them to be in. There's been a huge culture change to get them (drill sergeants) to where they are now," Simpson said.
Before there was a Drill Sergeant School, NCOs who were assigned to ATC units and were the instructors merely based on that assignment had no criteria to follow except that they hold leadership ranks.
Because many of them lacked training and motivation, yesterday's trainers, expected to perform a most difficult task with long hours and very little personal or family time, suffered low morale and produced ill-trained new Soldiers.
The low-quality troops had a negative impact on Army readiness. As early as 1962 the Army Secretary directed his assistant, Stephen Ailes, to conduct a survey of recruit training. The survey was comprehensive, including Soldiers and their NCO trainers from several posts, including Fort Jackson. The study also analyzed other branches of service, whose trainers and troops often showed more discipline and esprit de corps than Army trainers and newly-trained Soldiers. According to reports, " ... it was determined that the caliber of noncommissioned officers being assigned to the Army training centers was far below the standards required by other services."
"During this time the of the new Drill Sergeant Program, America was just getting involved in the Vietnam War," Simpson said. "And in 1965 the program was forced to establish a Drill Corporal course and use newly graduated Soldiers to be assistant instructors to help train the large number of new Soldiers needed for the war effort."
Ailes' report concluded with recommendations that a formal program for drill sergeants be established - at Fort Jackson. It was further recommended that NCOs who would be known as drill sergeants, because of the incredible stress inherent in their jobs, receive incentives such as extra pay, a liberal leave policy and increased opportunities for promotion.
The new role of the trainer was to be viewed as a distinctive honor and the report recommended that a special badge be created to distinguish a drill sergeant from other NCOs. Higher standards were to be demanded of the new trainers and only the best NCOs from duty stations around the world would qualify for the program.
In 1964, the first drill sergeants were trained here during a five-week pilot course that stressed the fundamentals of troop handling and basic training skills, according to a historical report Simpson compiled.
Later that year, the Army's first 71 drill sergeants graduated ready to professionally train Soldiers. Most of those graduates stayed at Fort Jackson and some were sent to Fort Gordon, Ga.
The successes of continued drill sergeant pilot programs paved the way for the current, permanent program and the Army's first Drill Sergeant Schools were opened in 1964, including the one here.
"However you look at it, Fort Jackson is the birthplace of the drill sergeant," Simpson said.
By the 1970s, Women's Army Corps NCOs were authorized to become drill sergeants. The first class of six female drill sergeants graduated in 1972.
Since 1969, when the Drill Sergeant of the Year contest was established, there have been 40 active duty winners of the coveted title at the TRADOC level. The U.S. Army Reserve's drill sergeants began competing for the title in 1972.
American demographics have changed since the 1960's, as have the needs of the Army. Throughout the country, the title of drill sergeant is now synonymous with a proud and accomplished leader.
"I love being a drill sergeant," said Staff Sgt. Lisa Swanson, the Fort Jackson NCO of the Year, "I can't think of a better way to serve my Army and my country."