Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. – As a drill sergeant here with a dozen years in the Army, Staff Sgt. Tamarisk Witherspoon wants to help Soldiers start off right once training's done and they get to their new units.
Witherspoon, 31, knows that good advice, given early, can go a long way. She's with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment, 194th Armored Brigade, which is part of Fort Benning's U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence.
The Army trained her well in basic Soldiering – how to march, salute, fire weapons, throw a grenade, she said. But there was no informal advice in the way of do's and don'ts about how to handle life once you're out of training and starting off with your new unit.
"It would have been nice had I known certain things when I first came into the military, before I even got to my first duty station," said Witherspoon.
So in early 2019, she decided to draw up a classroom session that she'd give her trainees when they were just about to graduate. She'd include tips she thought would be the most help to them, make some projection slides, then talk through them one by one, offering advice, taking questions.
She refers to it informally as the "Graduation Briefing," since it's for trainees about to graduate.
It's after training that some young Soldiers, with a steady Army paycheck and no longer under the restrictions imposed on trainees, are mainly on their own in a whole new situation. And free to buy a car, or get married, to use time and money wisely or not.
She's made it part of her mission as a leader to pass on what she knows to young Soldiers early in the game.
Witherspoon joined the Army in 2008, at age 18, was 19 when she finished training, and it took a while to get things figured out, with a few costly mistakes along the way, she said.
Something like a briefing would have helped.
"It could have prevented me from making poor decisions with certain things, learning those lessons the hard way," she said.
So her briefing goes into things like not rushing to buy that shiny new car without first asking those in the know about which dealerships you can trust. Or that it's wise to start a savings account and let it grow. Or the value of signing up for college courses. Or asking your supervisor at your new unit for the benefit of his or her advice on certain things.
She was trained as a wheeled vehicle mechanic, became a drill sergeant in July 2018, and a month later was assigned to Fort Benning. For more than two years she was with 1st Battalion's Charlie Company, whose trainees are slated for service as mechanics for either the Abrams tank or the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. But in January she moved next door to the battalion's Alpha Company, whose trainees are scheduled to graduate Feb. 11 as newly-minted armament repairers.
The briefing's core theme is captured in the heading of one of the slides: "Off to Your 1st Duty Station"
It runs a half hour to 45 minutes or so, depending on the number of questions she gets, with maybe 20 to 40 trainees in their seats. Her trainees are mostly age 18 and 19, but some are in the 20-27 range.
The briefing covers: setting up a retirement account through the Thrift Savings Plan, or TSP; the potential advantages of using banks and lending institutions that cater to military customers; buying a car; military training courses needed to advance to the NCO ranks; taking college courses; COOL, or Credentialing Opportunities On-Line, which helps Soldiers know how the job field the Army's trained them for might match up with the certification and license requirements of the civilian work force; and marriage and family.
Witherspoon knows when she gives the briefing that the trainees are used to her in the classic drill sergeant role, which often calls for a stern demeanor as one works to mold trainees into Soldiers. And she knows the iconic emblem of the drill sergeant's authority is what is known as the drill sergeant's hat.
"I take off my hat," she said. "I take off my hat to try to make the environment just a little bit more relaxed. You know they're used to me being Drill Sergeant Witherspoon – which I am."
She's given about five briefings to graduating trainees in the past two years, the most recent on Feb. 3.
Buying a car is one of the hottest topics, she said.
"I get that question so much," said Witherspoon. "Like, 'Drill Sergeant, what should I do when I get to my unit and I wanna buy a car?' And I'm like, 'First things first. It's not to try to discredit you or treat you like a child. But you need to talk to your supervisor. Think about it, they've already been here, so they can probably tell you a good place to go that'll give you a good deal. And tell you the certain places that you should probably stay away from.'"
She learned that one the hard way, she said.
"The biggest thing would have been to get help before purchasing my first vehicle," said Witherspoon, who when she was 19 bought a 2007 black Chevy Malibu SS with a black interior.
"That was a big thing," she said. "I went out there. A couple of my friends had purchased a vehicle from a car dealership that was not too far from the base. I wound up purchasing my car from the same place. Honestly, I was just in over my head. I mean my interest rate was like 17 percent.
"My savings account slowly started deteriorating just trying to continue to pay for it," she said.
"So that's like one of the biggest things," she said. "Honestly, if I didn't talk to the Soldiers about it," as part of the briefing, "they would actually ask me about it."
That Soldiers should make a point of saving money is another tip she offers.
"A lot of the trainees, they come in, and they're constantly sending money back home to help with their parents, help with the bills, help with younger siblings, whatever the case may be," said Witherspoon. "And we see that so much.
"And I just try to tell them about saving," she said. "Having a savings account. Making sure you're saving. And, you just don't touch it and let it build up and let that be emergency funds," she said. "Having that rainy day fund."
And she advocates further education.
"I do like to talk about college and make sure they're still developing themselves," she said. "Just letting 'em know that it's important, whether you're getting out after your first enlistment, or whether you stay in and retire, college is still important."
The trainees listen intently and many take written notes.
Among trainees in the Feb. 3 briefing was Pvt. Douglas Fulmer, 19, of Visalia, California, who graduates next week as a tank crewman and will move to Fort Riley, Kansas.
"Probably the biggest thing I took away from it was that there's all these systems in place to help new Soldiers who are coming into duty stations for the first time," Fulmer said of the briefing.
"There's a lot of assistance from military-friendly banks," he said he learned from the briefing. "There's a lot of assistance from people at our units who kind of show us where everything is, and can help us in buying cars, or finding housing if we're married Soldiers. Or just things like that. And getting used to the barracks. There's all these systems in place.
"It was definitely a big help," said Fulmer, "because there's really no other way for me to find out about all of this. And we got all this information and it kind of helped me relax a little bit and realize okay, I'm not gonna not know what's going on. We're not just going to the unknown. Definitely gonna be helpful in the future."
Getting to help mold and guide Soldiers was a big reason why Witherspoon became a drill sergeant, she said.
"The biggest thing for me is not forgetting that I was a young Soldier at one point," she said. "Not forgetting that I didn't know certain little things about how to survive in life. Not forgetting that I made some silly decisions when I was a young Soldier too.
"To help be a part of something that's bigger than me, to help give back to Soldiers," she said. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I feel like I was already doing that, just as an NCO, having Soldiers under me.
"But to make that my main job," said Witherspoon, "that just meant a lot to me, to where my main job is taking care of Soldiers, and giving back to Soldiers, and teaching young Soldiers."