As the sunrise peaked over the mountainous horizon, 36 cadet cadre members from the Cadet Basic Training I detail stood in formation awaiting the orders of senior drill sergeants sent from 2-19th Infantry Battalion, 198th Infantry Training Brigade One Station Unit Training (OSUT), Fort Benning, Georgia, to prepare the cadet cadre to execute “The Long Gray Line Starts Here” on R-Day to incoming new cadets June 18 at West Point.
The drill sergeants’ presence at the academy also reflected a change of course in U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. For decades, during Army basic training, drill sergeants used the ‘shark attack’ approach to bring a trainee into compliance with Army doctrines. Historically, the Army developed the ‘shark attack’ approach during a time when draftees made up a majority of the force. Learning to overcome the stresses of being an infantry Soldier was a significant aspect of the ‘shark attack,’ but last year, COVID-19 dramatically changed the atmosphere of that traditional training environment.
Drill sergeants no longer welcomed new recruits with unabated shouting. Instead, the 198th Infantry Training Brigade OSUT created a new program to use in place of the ‘shark attack’ known as the “First 100 Yards.”
The command sergeant major for the 2-19th Infantry Battalion, Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph McAuliffe, stood before the cadet cadre and welcomed them to the “First 100 Yards” demonstration and quoted a line from the First 100-Yards principle, which refers to the efforts of World War I Soldiers to underscore the importance of overcoming adversity to complete an objective.
“To the first professional U.S. Army Infantry Soldiers, the trench meant safety … a brief respite from the horror of war,” McAuliffe said. “Leaving the trench … meant the opposite. Those who bravely clawed and climbed out of the illusion of security provided by the trench demonstrated character and commitment that demands respect.”
The cadet cadre would start their arduous trek of the “First 100 Yards,” where the south end of the north dock and the steep, inclined hill of Pitcher Road meet. However, before they ascended Pitcher Road, McAuliffe and his senior drill sergeants helped cadets internalize the meaning of the three words, ‘over the top.’
Senior drill sergeants out of Bravo Company 2-19th Infantry Battalion explained to the cadets that Soldiers during World War I would use the expression going ‘over the top’ as a reference when exiting the trenches to attack the enemy.
“Leaving the trench … meant mustering the courage to cross the first 100 yards of ‘No Man’s Land’… under withering machine-gun fire … and almost certain death,” Senior Drill Sergeant Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Hoyt said as he and the rest of drill sergeants from 2-19th Infantry Battalion quoted the “First 100 Yards” principle. “Leaving the trench meant you believed in yourself … you believed you would make it. More importantly, leaving the trench … meant you believed in your teammates. When the chips were down, you would not fail your fellow Soldiers … and they would not fail you.
“Leaving the trench … also meant you had faith in your leaders. You believed they had the wisdom to make the call, they would lead you through the unknown obstacles ahead, and they had the experience needed to guarantee victory. They lived our motto, ‘Follow Me.’
“Leaving the trench … and the courage required to step off into the unknown … the first 100 yards … is something you will never forget,” the drill sergeants continued.
“Lastly, leaving the trench was only the beginning. The work of the Infantry was not complete until we closed with and destroyed the enemy.
“Embarking on the ‘First 100 yards’ takes personal courage. Completing the mission by closing with and destroying the enemy in the last 100 yards yields victory … and charts our legacy as the Infantry. Life in the Infantry, the foot Soldier, is one of both hardship and pride. This journey starts with going ‘over the top’ and the ‘First 100 Yards,’” they concluded.
And with the command, ‘follow me,’ Hoyt and the senior drill sergeants took off leading the way as the cadet cadre ran up Pitcher Road to carry a full pallet’s worth of supplies to the first checkpoint. Some cadets mounted Meal, Ready-to-Eat boxes on their shoulders. Others would carry water jugs, rifles, ammunition boxes and the pallet itself.
The cadet cadre moved upward along the designated route, making it to the first checkpoint. Upon arrival at the checkpoint, drill sergeants maintained accountability by timing the cadets as they were ordered to drop their equipment, get into formation and count off to identify that all cadets were present.
The drill sergeants shouted jarringly at the confused cadets as they attempted to complete the task. In their frenzied execution, the cadets failed to meet the time hack and drill sergeants took corrective action, ordering them to perform a series of strenuous exercises. The corrective action was meant to instill discipline and reinforce the importance of working jointly as a team, Hoyt said.
“During World War I, when heavy trench fighting took place, Soldiers worked as a team risking so much of themselves to get from Point A to Point B,” Hoyt said. “The possibility of death was a constant stressor, but the Soldiers knew the cost that they would have to pay and they still traversed ‘No Man’s Land’ anyway and that’s what we’re trying to teach these young cadets, that’s the mentality we’re trying build in them. It may be tough, but it can be done with effective teamwork. All you have to do is get out of the trench and keep moving.”
Once the cadets completed their tasks at the first checkpoint, the drill sergeants instructed them to secure the equipment and move to the second checkpoint.
The cadets continued onward on the route and stopped outside Gillis Field House, their second checkpoint. They dropped their equipment and quickly got into formation for accountability. Despite failing to complete the task on time, the drill sergeants noticed the cadets were working more seamlessly. Their movements were more concise. As they called out their numbers for accountability, they shouted with more vigor and determination.
Corrective action was delivered once again and drill sergeants dropped down with the cadets and performed more exercises.
Afterward, the cadets secured their gear and advanced to the third and final checkpoint at Shea Stadium.
At Shea Stadium, the cadets were tasked to stage all the equipment on top of the pallet, within 30 seconds, in the same way they had found it at the start of the demonstration. As they assembled their equipment on the pallet, drill sergeants shouted orders throughout the time they were allotted, teaching the cadets how to operate under a stressful environment. The cadets were given three attempts to stage equipment properly.
Each failed attempt showcased a sense of progression in their unit cohesion skills. The cadets were learning to filter out the disarray the drill sergeants created. The MRE’s, Ammo boxes, rifles and water jugs were neatly coming together on top of the pallet, and on the third attempt, the cadets finally met the standard.
“They weren’t working as a team in the beginning of the demonstration, but by the time they got to (Shea Stadium), they started figuring it out. They understood what we were trying to instill in them and there was more spirit in their actions and responses to our orders,” Hoyt said. “It’s no different than a basic training environment. You want to instill the idea of effective teamwork, so by using the ‘First 100 Yards,’ we show them what they can achieve as individuals and as a team and it also shows them how detrimental their actions are to mission readiness and success.”
After the cadets completed the task, they created a formation encircling McAuliffe as he provided wisdom.
“Like I said in the beginning, winning matters. You made it to the objective, but the mission isn’t done yet. You need the energy and will to continue the fight. So this is what we’re going to do: the first out of the four squads to reach 219 iterations of the exercise I call out will be the victor. The other squads will pay for their failures,” McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe ordered the cadets to perform 219 push-ups. Reaching 219 would be a collaborative effort among cadets. Each cadet squad would combine the number of push-ups they performed to reach their goal. Drill sergeants were charged with overseeing each squad and the number of iterations performed.
First squad came away with the victory, performing 219 push-ups the fastest. McAuliffe took corrective action against second, third and fourth squads and ordered them to conduct more exercises. Despite their victory, first squad readied themselves to perform the additional exercises alongside the rest of the squads, but McAuliffe ordered them to stop and watch and shouted, “don’t forget, winning matters!”
The ‘mountain climber’ was the next exercise and through a motivating drive to win, fourth squad managed to pull out a victory.
The “First 100 Yards” demonstration finally culminated with the cadets placing all of their equipment in the back of a Humvee and resting at the bleachers as McAuliffe and his drill sergeants imparted words of wisdom.
“When it comes to the enlisted trainee or the cadet, the end-goal is the same: to effectively execute the mission,” Hoyt said. “This whole process was about instilling that team building mindset that’s needed execute the mission. The enlisted trainee and cadet may be taking different routes in their Army career, but they all want to be part of the Army and the first 100 yards is the new standard that gets them to where they want to be in today’s Army.”