Every enlisted Soldier remembers the experience of basic training. The long hours, combined with a lack of sleep and extended time away from loved ones, make for an intense few weeks. While the strain on trainees is well recognized, basic training is especially demanding for drill sergeants, who usually arrive before trainees wake up and don’t leave until after lights out, six days a week for at least 24 months. Further, only a third of drill sergeants volunteer for the assignment, with the other two thirds being ordered to the position. In relation to work schedule, sleep deprivation, and relationship constraints, the drill sergeant role shares many challenges with deployment, while lasting for a longer period of time. Although the impact of deployment on mental health is extensively researched, the impact of performing the drill sergeant role on behavioral health and well-being is largely unstudied.
For these reasons, in late 2018 the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, with support from the Center of Initial Military Training, surveyed over 850 drill sergeants - roughly half of all drill sergeants at that time. Results from the study have been published in two articles, which highlight the challenging conditions of drill sergeants and the impact on safety and well-being.
On average, drill sergeants reported working 14.7 hours per day, 6.4 days per week. This grueling schedule was reflected in the three stressors most commonly identified by them: finding time to exercise, lack of sleep, and long work hours. In total, 75% reported sleeping five or less hours per night, and 27% met criteria for moderate or severe insomnia. Lack of sleep impacts not only the well-being but also the safety of drill sergeants and those around them, as was demonstrated in 2017 when a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, fell asleep while driving behind a formation tragically killing two trainees and injuring six others. In the WRAIR study, 42% of drill sergeants reported falling asleep at the wheel at least once during their time in the role.
Many drill sergeants met behavioral health screening criteria for depression (19%), insomnia (27%), generalized anxiety disorder (14%), high burnout (48%), off-duty aggression (32%), and low morale (25%). Most behavioral health outcomes were associated with time spent as a drill sergeant, with issues peaking between 13-18 months. Poorer outcomes were also associated with fewer hours of sleep and initial unhappiness regarding involuntary assignment. In contrast, better outcomes were associated with higher ratings of general leadership, health-promoting leadership, and drill sergeant camaraderie.
Since the time of this study, efforts have been made to improve the ratio of drill sergeants to trainees. It is hoped that increased staffing levels will improve well-being and safety by allowing individual drill sergeants more time for sleep, self-care, and social support. While this increase is promising, it is important to minimize the number of Soldiers being involuntarily assigned as drill sergeants. Efforts should therefore be made to select Soldiers who are not only qualified but also motivationally matched with the assignment.
For more on the study of drill sergeant well-being, see "Sleep Deprivation and Hazardous Unintended Sleep in U.S. Army Drill Sergeants," published in Sleep Health and "U.S. Army Drill Sergeants: Stressors, Behavioral Health, and Mitigating Factors,” published in Military Medicine.