FORT SILL, Okla. (June 1, 2017) -- They're not even old enough to vote, but they can raise their right hands and swear to obey the orders of the president of the United States as uniformed members of the Army National Guard.
Seventeen-year-olds by the hundreds enter basic combat training throughout the Army every summer, then return to complete their senior year of high school under the Army's Split Option program. Available only to those in the National Guard, the program allows them to follow up with advanced individual training after their senior year.
But with youth often comes immaturity, and the stress of having a drill sergeant in your face and every facet of life dictated by the Army often causes what Sgt. 1st Class Lance Hamilton calls "buyer's remorse."
"Some go through a homesick moment," said Hamilton, one of Fort Sill's National Guard liaisons who work with basic trainees. "It's natural for 17-year-old kids. A lot of them want to go home. We have to find ways of re-motivating these Soldiers to get them back into training, to make them realize there's a higher purpose to them being here. If you can get them past that first two weeks and keep them in training, odds are they'll continue down the path. Keeping them in the training pipeline is one of our biggest jobs."
National Guard liaison Sgt. Maj. Patrick Simmons added, "Our whole purpose here is to help prevent Soldiers from getting discharged." Even trainees who stick it out sometimes find themselves in trouble, and the liaison team is there to help. "My guys do a real good job teaching them larger life lessons," said Simmons. "One of them is that quitting is a habit, and it can become contagious and have adverse effects down the road."
On the second day of training for C Battery, 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery, Hamilton gave a motivational presentation to 230 trainees to nip that propensity in the bud. He first asked to see the raised hands of anyone who was drafted. Nobody raised a hand.
"You all asked to be here," he reminded them. "You signed up for this."
He lightened the mood by telling them that after they raised their right hands and swore the oath of enlistment, that they probably went on social media and posted, "I'm in the Army now!"
"You got 50 billion 'likes' and 'thank you for your service,'" he said of their social media posts. "Then what do you do next? You go out and buy every Army sticker, logo, poster. You got 'high and tight' right out the gate. At some point you probably had a movie night and invited all your friends over. You had 'Lone Survivor' and 'Black Hawk Down' and '24 Hours' and you were telling everybody 'That's gonna be me!'"
Smiles and laughter rippled across the room.
"You were back home getting all that shine, all the credit for what you were posing as, because you were not really Soldiers yet, were you?"
"No, sergeant!," was the unified response.
He said most of them probably had buyer's remorse once they got here. "You saw that drill sergeant for the first time, you said, 'I think I have made a mistake.'"
"That's a normal reaction. I had it when I went through basic training 13 years ago. We're gonna get past that though. You can't go back home and face all those people and tell them you failed."
Hamilton told them the fastest way out of basic training is to graduate.
"All you have to do is listen to the drill sergeants. They tell you what to do, when to do it, how to do it. They even demonstrate it before they expect you to do it. They set you up for success, not failure. These are the most qualified NCOs in the United States Army and they're wearing these drill sergeant hats. You can do this."
He warned them that even the National Guard and Reserve trainees fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and if they mess up it could not only affect their ability to return home to finish schooling, it could mess up their entire careers.
"You can do basic training in 10 weeks or 10 months. It's up to you. You are now accountable for your actions, and it will continue to be a trend throughout your military career."
Hamilton continued, "All the college plans, the Ferrari you're going to buy with that bonus money that you got, unless you graduate basic training and AIT none of that stuff's going to come to pass."
He said the biggest reason for failure in basic is the inability to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test, and that when they are given opportunities to improve they need to apply themselves, otherwise they will be "day 1, week 1 recycles."
Then he welcomed them into the Army and said he'd be back twice more to answer questions and help them through their training.
The Army's Split Option program is also offered to seasonal workers and college students. Parents must sign papers for their 17-year-olds to join, and are often concerned that they won't be back in time to complete school.
Sgt. 1st Class Brad Motz, the Army National Guard liaison who focuses on the initial entry trainees at Vessey Hall during their in-processing week, assures them that as long as they don't get into trouble that would keep them from graduating, they will be back in time.
"The high school counselor puts down their Mandatory Return Date (when they will return to school)," said Motz. "MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) will pick a ship date to come to basic training. Until then you drill at the RSP (Recruit Sustainment Program)."
He said the National Guard is unique from the other branches in that enlistees start working and getting paid one weekend a month.
"They work on getting you physically prepared for basic training. You might get to do land nav, learn a little bit about first aid, maybe take apart an M-4 (rifle), you see a drill sergeant. So once they get here it's not a culture shock."
Because of that, "We usually get the distinguished honor grads (in basic training) because they're one step up."
When they graduate from basic, they return home to finish high school. They're still in the National Guard, they're regular Soldiers, they're just not deployable. They continue their monthly weekend drills until they finish high school, then begin their advanced individual training in the MOS they contracted for.
Hamilton said there are plenty of success stories for the liaison team in keeping these youngsters on track for finishing basic training. Last year 14 newbies on their first day in basic refused to train.
"We did some coaching, mentoring. All of those Soldiers ended up returning to training and graduating," he said.
In the end, "They were super excited, proud of finishing the course," said Hamilton. "Some came up to us at Family Day and introduced us to their parents. Sometimes we've called mom and dad and say 'hey your son or daughter's trying to quit here. How do you feel about that?' Then mom or dad will seek us out on Family Day and say 'thank you for supporting our son or daughter and keeping them in training.' In the end they get to go back home with their heads held high that they didn't quit. It keeps them from developing the habit of taking the easy left versus the hard right."
About 30 percent of the nearly 18,000 basic combat trainees at Fort Sill are in the National Guard, with 54 of them in the Split Option program during the last fiscal year.