WASHINGTON -- Last Friday, 84 noncommissioned officers graduated from a 10-day course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, that ended with them becoming Army drill sergeants with the right to wear the coveted campaign hat.

The Soldiers were the first to graduate from a 10-day "conversion" course designed to convert NCOs who had previously led advanced individual training platoons into full-fledged drill sergeants.

For the last decade, two types of NCOs have helped move new Soldiers through the Army's "soldierization" process. At basic combat training, there were drill sergeants. And when those new Soldiers moved on to AIT, they fell under the guidance of an AIT platoon sergeant.

But that is no longer the case. The Army made a decision earlier this year to eliminate the positon of AIT platoon sergeant and replace those NCOs with drill sergeants. The move, which is a return to what the Army had done a decade ago, is designed to take advantage of the symbolism of the campaign hat worn by drill sergeants.

"When you see somebody walking around with a drill sergeant hat on, you understand that's the best of the best and you need to go ahead and shape up, because you know he's going to make an on-the-spot correction," said Command Sgt. Maj. Edward W. Mitchell, of the Center for Initial Military Training, at Fort Eustis, Virginia.

Drill sergeants, Mitchell said, are symbols of excellence in initial entry training and are themselves experts in all warrior tasks and battle drills. Those with the campaign hat, he said, live the Army values and exemplify the warrior ethos.

One benefit of having drill sergeants at AIT is that now, for new Soldiers, the campaign hat will serve as an ever-present, easily identifiable symbol of professional excellence from the moment they arrive at basic combat training to the time they depart for their first duty assignment.

Another benefit to the Army, he said, is that instead of two schools and two types of NCOs involved in training new Soldiers, there will now be just one kind: the drill sergeant. And that provides greater flexibility to the Army, Mitchell said.

"If we need to use them, they can be used anywhere across the enterprise," he said of drill sergeants.

Mitchell said that the NCOs who serve now as drill sergeants or as AIT platoon sergeants are "the best the Army has to offer." And those top-notch AIT platoon sergeants, about 600 of them, will all be going to the conversion course to be made into drill sergeants.

The Army expects it will need to run a total of seven cycles of that specialized conversion course before all 600 AIT platoon sergeants are converted. After that, the special course will no longer be needed.

The drill sergeant course at the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant Academy lasts about nine weeks, Mitchell said. And NCOs who in the past trained to be AIT platoon sergeants went through the first six weeks of that school alongside those learning to be drill sergeants.

After that, those destined to be AIT platoon sergeants would split off from drill sergeant school and go learn other things. Part of their specialized AIT platoon sergeant training involves attendance at the master resilience course.

During the 10-day conversion course, those AIT platoon sergeants will pick up on some additional skills that will allow them to become drill sergeants. Some of those skills include rifle marksmanship, drill sergeant duties and responsibilities, drill and ceremony, and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense training.

By the time they are done, the knowledge they learned from when they trained to be AIT platoon sergeants, plus the training they get at the conversion course, will mean they have what it takes to be a drill sergeant. They'll be entitled to the campaign hat and badge, along with the special duty assignment pay that comes with being a drill sergeant, Mitchell said.

Mitchell said it's expected that by October, there will no longer be any AIT platoon sergeants in the Army, only drill sergeants.