JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, VA --- In February 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic took over the globe, vastly changing the way society functioned daily. Despite the challenges, U.S. Army drill sergeants have continued executing their mission of transforming civilians into competent and confident Soldiers.
The U.S. Army Drill Sergeant Academy, located at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and drill sergeants at training bases throughout the Army have completely changed the way things are done when it comes to educating, training, and creating connections with one another.
Throughout the pandemic, drill sergeants have continued to provide support to trainees, while taking into account how to protect the health and safety of the force.
Basic training has continued, but with mitigation techniques heavily enforced - like drill sergeants keeping trainees six feet apart during trainings and formations, explained 2020 U.S. Army Drill Sergeant of the Year Erik A. Rostamo, currently assigned to the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training.
Once masks started being issued as part of the Army uniform, one of the biggest changes was the beginning structure of basic training, he said.
“We began using the first 14 days of training to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by taking this time to do classroom-type teaching,” he said. “We really focused on inculcating trainees into the Army Values, explaining how to treat others, the Army’s sexual harassment/assault response and prevention program, equal opportunity program, and character mentorship opportunities.”
This new phase of training was done at the platoon level to minimize contact between platoons during the first 14 days of basic combat training, while also starting to build the team and the foundational elements required of Soldiers.
When needed, “we even outsourced more drill sergeants from other troops to lead training or send trainees to other troops to make up missed training,” said Staff Sgt. Brian M. Jones, 194th Armored Brigade Drill Sergeant of the Year, Fort Benning, Georgia.
Shaping the newest members of the Army wasn’t the only training changed by the pandemic. Instructors at the USADSA had to adjust how they train new drill sergeants.
Like much other essential Army training, a majority of drill sergeant candidates’ lessons transferred to an online platform, which challenged both the students and instructors.
“We hinge on mentorship at the academy to maintain our mission and COVID-19 hindered us. We transitioned to online lecture-style training that didn’t provide us with a great deal of facilitation or back-and-forth conversation, which is what drill sergeant candidates enjoy most,” said Sgt. 1st Class Mark K. Mehaffie, chief of training at USADSA.
Academy instructors rely heavily on in-person connection to show students what it means to be a drill sergeant, Mehaffie explained.
“COVID-19 did inhibit the ability to connect,” he said. “Having to conduct the first two weeks of training virtually, to losing access for field trip site visits, as well as reduced ability to really show students what right looks like contributed to minimized engagements.”
Instructors developed new ways to teach and connect with drill sergeant candidates in an online format.
“The biggest thing was to make yourself available,” he said. “That meant allowing candidates to ask questions via email and create virtual conference rooms to have discussions. Students reported their most valuable moments of school was when they simply got to ask questions.”
Through USADSA, the Army aims to create the best drill sergeants to lead, train, and make connections with Soldiers, continually demonstrating they can overcome any obstacle.
“Substandard leaders are not tolerated as drill sergeants,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Scott A. Beeson, the CIMT Command Sergeant Major. “They have to be the epitome of what a non-commissioned officer is. Their job is to transform civilians into Soldiers. Drill sergeants cannot do that if they are not the top 10 percent of the NCO Corps.”
“The USADSA expects to return to normal operations soon, pending the ongoing pandemic,” Mehaffie said, “This includes the full nine-week residency program.”