Ex-Navy reservists learn Army way in Basic Combat Training

By James Brabenec, Fort SillOctober 13, 2011

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FORT SILL, Okla. -- B Battery, 1st Battalion, 40th Field Artillery Basic Combat trainees are experiencing an extra helping of noncommissioned officers with three prior-service Navy petty officers, including a 57-year-old, embedded in their battery.

Sgts. Michael Woods and Luke Donnelly gave up submarine duty as Naval reservists and transferred to the Army, each with 10 years of service. The third NCO, Staff Sgt. Mark Overstreet is something of an anomaly having served 20 years in the Navy Reserve before transferring to the Army Reserve. Part of what makes him unusual is Overstreet is a bit over the age the Army usually sends to basic training.

Capt. Jack Irby III, B/1st-40th FA commander, said Overstreet's age became apparent during his first brief to the new class. The young captain said he often asks who the oldest person is in the room, escalating up in five-year increments from age 30. When he got to 45 and still hadn't hit the high water mark, Overstreet answered and replied that he was 57.

"We were initially concerned about his susceptibility to injury because of the rigors of basic training, but he has performed in an outstanding manner," said Irby.

Completing 70 push-ups, 75 sit-ups and clocking a 13-minute, 40-second two-mile run all good for 340 points, Overstreet easily breezed through his physical training test. But then this is a man who said he takes care of himself and runs marathons at an age when many Americans would rather drive that far or stay home. He then qualified expert with his rifle, though again not a surprise for a man who competed in inter-service competitions with the Navy Reserve shooting team.

After two decades in the "sailor service," Overstreet found himself in a reserve unit that wasn't doing much training and didn't seem like the type of environment he wanted to remain in. So, he called an Army psychological operations unit near where he lives on the East Coast to inquire about any openings. He said the mission was a good fit with his duties of both jobs he held in the civilian world and military.

"I realized I still felt pretty good and thought maybe I could contribute something and help somebody while helping myself," he said.

Drill Sergeant (Staff Sgt.) Matthew Kaiser said having three NCOs embedded in his unit took some pressure off drill sergeants.

"These NCOs were with the privates 24 hours a day and could answer a lot of their questions," he said. "If there was an issue or a problem, the NCOs could resolve it or bring it to a drill sergeant's attention and give a good account of what the situation was all about."

In addition to the training they had to pass, Kaiser said the NCOs filled what amounted to adviser positions. Although they couldn't conduct training or discipline the aspiring Soldiers, their presence and Kaiser's stern warning reminded the privates that the former Navy petty officers had to be treated and addressed with the same respect a drill sergeant receives.

Woods returned to the military after 12 years out of uniform in the civilian world. He said both he and his wife missed military life, and he chose the Army because the service offered better incentives than the Navy did. Though his specialty will be information technology, Woods said the interaction with younger Soldiers should have a direct bearing on his responsibilities as a sergeant.

"I've had opportunities to talk to many of the basic trainees and some have arrived with some personal problems, but I've seen a lot of growth in them," he said. "These times to listen, coach and mentor younger Soldiers have made me a better NCO should I become a platoon sergeant."

Donnelly could be the answer to what happens to a 10-year Navy veteran who is taken out of the water. He said Army life has taught him to improve his running, rather than swimming, which he excelled at in the Navy. But, his reasons for going green should lead to a better home life. His wife, Camden, has been active duty Army for several years and the two have spent a fair amount of time apart during deployment cycles.

"I transferred and plan to get on the family co-location plan so we can spend more time together," he said.

Going into psychological operations, Donnelly expects to be deployed shortly after completing BCT. He said he knows he'll be in charge of Soldiers, and the interaction with the young basic trainees here was a good way for him to learn the differences in how the Army operates. It also gave him some insight in how he may need to change his leadership styles to accomplish the mission. With only a week left in training, he's much more comfortable with new Army acronyms and the requirements of physical readiness training. Wherever Donnelly hangs his hat next week, it may be home, because his wife is coming for graduation, the first time the couple will be together in four months.

Overstreet opined BCT might not be the best use of his time, but he realized for the Army it was the optimal way to get people through training whether they be young people or transferring service members. He said he's learned to go with the flow and make the best of the situation.

"Everyone benefits from training, even when repeating it on the most basic of subjects. To get good at anything requires repetition so being here has been productive. And, some parts of training such as combat life-saver training is mostly new to me and valuable to learn, because in a combat environment anyone could be called upon to administer this vital care," he said.

For most basic combat trainees, the weeks of training are a time of measuring improvement both internally against themselves and externally against peers most of whom are about their same age.

Irby said B Battery Soldiers didn't have that luxury.

"Actually, it's been pretty easy to motivate them when there's someone out-running and out-shooting them. When some of them are 30 or 40 years younger than that person, the young Soldiers get the idea they don't want to be the one lagging behind," he said.