For everyone who has experienced Basic Combat Training, your flashbacks may be dominated by the belting command sounds of men and women wearing olive drab round hats. While those memories may leave some with a lingering, perspiring dread, a drill sergeant’s main function is to assist each individual in his or her efforts to become a highly-motivated, well-disciplined, physically and mentally fit Soldier, capable of defeating any enemy on today’s modern battlefield. Fundamentally, there is a method to their madness of stripping down a civilian’s shortcomings into a Soldier who fits seamlessly into an Army unit after BCT and Advanced Individual Training.
This summer, conversely, seven reserve drill sergeants from 2nd Brigade, 104th Training Division based out of Fort Lewis, Washington, were sent to the U.S. Military Academy to augment the Brigade Tactical Department’s tactical noncommissioned officers to help with the cadet cadre during Cadet Basic Training.
“The drill sergeants’ primary focus was to instill discipline in the cadet cadre,” said Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Vargas, 4th Regiment Company E tactical NCO. “They assisted the TAC NCOs by bringing a second set of eyes and focusing on the attention to detail. The expectation was for them to assist in meeting the priorities set by the commandant — standards and discipline, inspections, drill and ceremony and customs and courtesies.”
Vargas said they used the drill sergeants’ expertise during Physical Readiness Training every morning, marching units and skill level one tasks that were taught using the Soldier’s manual for common tasks.
“During the training of the cadre, (the drill sergeants) presence was crucial, and their expertise was utilized daily,” Vargas said. “They reinforced the importance of having attention to detail and being an expert in your field. Once the new cadets arrived, we shifted them into more of a mentorship role and allowed them to provide feedback to the cadre while the cadre focused on teaching and training new cadets.”
“Put the hammer back down”
From a drill sergeant’s perspective, coming to West Point would not be the first thought in terms of doing the expected job. Two of the drill sergeants at West Point this summer, Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Ousley and Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Niemiec, have served at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for BCT. They have also served Cadet Summer Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, for ROTC cadets from colleges throughout the country and prepared other drill sergeant reservists who were scheduled to attend the Drill Sergeants Academy.
“I would train the drill sergeant candidates preparing for (the DSA) with training such as the top three modules of the position of attention, rest position while at the halt and the hand salute, and PRT, etc.,” Ousley, who is from Memphis, Tennessee, said.
But overall, throughout those experiences, West Point was never at the forefront of their minds. Nonetheless, they do have an appreciation for what the cadets at West Point represent.
“I didn’t know much about West Point prior to coming here … but I have a great deal of respect for the cadets here,” Ousley, who is a part of Company F, 1st Battalion, 398th Training Battalion as a 92-A automated logistical specialist, said. “The hard work and effort they put in is amazing. Hopefully, I was somewhat effective toward at least one cadet.”
Niemiec, the lead drill sergeant with 12 years DS involvement, grew up in Massachusetts but didn’t know much about West Point. However, he considered it “an eye-opening experience.”
“The buildings are amazing,” Niemiec, who is from Christiansburg, Virginia, said. “The statues and grounds are great. It’s been a pretty cool experience for me.”
But the experience wasn’t only about taking in the atmosphere. It was about imparting wisdom and experience as drill sergeants to the cadet cadre so they could effectively train the new cadets this summer.
“I think the cadet cadre stepped up, and whether they meant to or not, they learned a lot from us,” Niemiec, who is a part of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 317th Infantry Regiment as a 91 X-ray maintenance supervisor, said. “At least a couple of them said they were appreciative that we were here to let them know what they were doing either right or wrong. I’m sure their TACs will be telling them that too, but having an outsider come in and tell them, ‘hey, you’re doing a good job on that or you need to work on this,’ I think they appreciated that.”
The drill sergeants were at West Point from June 25 through Aug. 11, but the train-up of the cadet cadre led to the big moment of Reception Day, which was three days, July 12-14, this summer due to COVID-19 safety procedures.
“My main focus was to help the cadet cadre properly train the new cadets for ‘Beast’ and provide them with an NCO type training environment,” Ousley said. “My objective was also to give them a different type of inspiration and motivation as future leaders.”
From R-Day onward during CBT, Niemiec was impressed from what he saw from the cadet cadre, especially from the female cadets.
“I never experienced an R-Day, so it was interesting to watch the cadet cadre function the way they did and then take our suggestions,” Niemiec said. “I was out there all three R-Days and I would get in their ear and go, ‘hey, you need to bump it up a little bit and put them under stress,’ and they did OK. Watching them perform and seeing some of the strong female cadets perform above and beyond some of their male counterparts was amazing.”
However, as with most things, complacency can creep in, especially toward the end of the mission, and that is where Niemiec came in to give the cadet cadre an extra nudge toward getting the job done.
“We were there to give them pointers throughout the summer … and sometimes you need to back off a little bit,” Niemiec said. “Although, yesterday (Aug. 5), we told them they needed to, ‘put the hammer back down,’ because the cadets were starting to know they were almost done. They were starting to get soft on (the new cadets), but you have got to keep the hammer down on them the entire time.”
“I’m a teddy bear at heart.”
As Niemiec explained, the time spent training the cadet cadre and giving them pointers throughout CBT differs greatly from the experience of training new Soldiers in a BCT environment.
“It is definitely night and day,” Niemiec said. “We know these cadets will be future officers and we have to treat them with more respect and dignity — and I know this sounds bad — than we typically show a new private. But with a new private, you’re trying to break them down to rebuild them, and that’s what we were trying to get the cadet cadre to do with the new cadets. And, some of them were like us, they were pretty sharp.”
However, as Ousley said he enjoys when trainees learn what he is teaching and it gives him a, “good feeling,” Niemiec enjoys the slow simmer of watching the molding of a civilian coming off the street to a cadet/Soldier with a four-to-10 week period in the CBT and BCT environments.
“I like watching the slow progression of they don’t know what is going on, then they learn a little bit and it keeps growing until they are pretty much on autopilot,” Niemiec said. “I like that they go from knowing nothing and then by the end of four weeks here and 10 weeks at Basic Combat Training, in the BCT blue phase, they are on autopilot — and we’re just there to make sure what they keep on doing is right.”
Both Niemiec and Ousley said to the cadet cadre that going forward one of the most important things is to listen to your NCOs and learn from everybody they encounter, both the good and bad.
“Take the good stuff from the good (NCOs) and leave the bad stuff (to the side),” Niemiec said. “Although, even the bad ones may have some good traits that you can add to your toolbox.”
Now that summer training is complete, Ousley will head to the Advanced Leadership Course while Niemiec, who deployed and returned from Kuwait prior to the West Point assignment, will head home for some downtime with family before results from his E-8 Board come into focus. Nevertheless, as their careers progress, they may soon leave the round brown hats behind for other career ventures, but they want to clarify that there are misnomers to what people may think about drill sergeants and what the reality is to them.
“(The) biggest misnomer is that drill sergeants know everything,” Ousley said. “Drill sergeants are learning new training and skills every day as well.”
Niemiec was a little more direct, but with a purpose, because it is a standard thought that all drill sergeants are, “all mean.”
“I’m a teddy bear at heart, we all are,” Niemiec said. “We like to joke around and have a good time like everybody else, but business is business. I wear my sunglasses all the time so they can’t see my eyes or where I’m looking — a little mystery behind the glasses.”