By T. Anthony BellMarch 22, 2018
FORT LEE, Va. (March 22, 2018) -- It could be considered the clothing item incapable of being written out of the Fort Lee history books.
The campaign hat -- the most revered clothing accessory in the Army's inventory -- disappeared from the fashion landscape here a decade ago. It reappeared March 12 when several
noncommissioned officers were seen sporting the headgear around advanced individual training environments.
They are part of the Army's decision to overturn a policy concluding platoon sergeants could fulfill the roles of drill sergeants -- the only Soldiers qualified to wear campaign hats -- at the AIT level (the decision did not affect basic combat training).
In retrospect, it was a policy change that did not generate much enthusiasm.
The Army changed its mind last year and has directed AIT platoon sergeants -- who were distinguished by less-fashionable road safety vests -- to attend a two-week conversion course to become drill sergeants, thereby bringing the headgear nicknamed the Round Brown back to Fort Lee.
Prior to the policy change, AIT platoon sergeants were required to complete a 6-week course taught at the Drill Sergeant Academy located at Fort Jackson, S.C. Roughly 150 Fort Lee AIT platoon sergeants will undergo conversion training there as well.
Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Collier, who graduated from the conversion course March 9, was among the first four Fort Lee NCOs to complete the training. He said the campaign hat, with all of its history and tradition, does not make him feel any different, but its effect on others is unmistakable. He made that conclusion the moment he first appeared before AIT troops with the storied headgear atop his noggin.
"It was weird," recalled the Victor Company, 262nd Quartermaster Battalion, Soldier. "They had not been used to seeing drill sergeants, so when they saw me and (fellow) Drill Sergeant (Russell) Westley coming up, it was kind of like 'shock and awe.' They're kind of leery of us because they don't know what to expect."
'Shock and awe is still BCT's opening salvo and the campaign hat -- in companion to the wearers' persona -- is an important strategic element in achieving the desired effect. Though BCT has been toned down compared to a few decades ago, the campaign hat is central to basic training lore, an enduring symbol of transformative power, respect and strength. Collier said he witnessed it firsthand on his first day back.
"They respected me before I became a drill sergeant," he said, noting he conducts himself no differently than the AIT platoon sergeant he was prior, "but now, they show me this great, great deal of respect. They see me different."
Collier said his chain of command has not indicated he should conduct business any differently as a drill sergeant, noting his duties are essentially the same as an AIT platoon sergeant. He was quick to point out, however, there are pitfalls to taking on the role of a drill sergeant, one being NCOs could easily fall prey to the prestige that comes with it.
"It's a glorified position, and some see that as a position of power," said Collier, who had been an AIT platoon sergeant for 23 months. "You can mix up your authority with power and abuse it. I hope it doesn't change anyone."
Westley, assigned to Juliet Co., 262nd QM Bn., said becoming a drill sergeant has given him an incomparable sense of achievement.
"I do feel different because I accomplished something I wanted for myself," he said. "I also wanted to be that role model for the Soldiers here who are being trained on a daily basis. I want to instill that pride and discipline they yearn."
Like Collier, Westley said he believes the campaign hat holds an enduring legacy.
"It comes with the pride, dignity and reverence of those who wore it before me," he said. "It makes me look up to my own drill sergeants -- Drill Sergeants Elder and Wilson back in basic training -- and makes me conduct myself in a way that doesn't fail them."
Re-establishing drill sergeants in AIT is partly a response to leaders who have expressed concerns about discipline and readiness problems among Soldiers transitioning from AIT to permanent party units.
The effort also is part of a broader plan to tweak initial military training to produce better-trained Soldiers.
All AIT platoon sergeants here are expected to be retrained by September, said local command representatives.