At 0700 the Grinder was covered with hundreds of panting Navy recruits struggling through push-ups on the cold, damp concrete. Amid the swarm of sweating bodies, three recruits stood idle, breathing heavily.
"What's going on here?" bellowed an impatient drill instructor, glaring at the three who refused to keep up with other classmates.
"It's that new Navy, sir," snapped their frustrated company commander.
That new Navy, confronted with dwindling dollars and soaring attrition rates among a new generation of youth more at home on the couch than the exercise field, is changing one of its most symbolic rites of passage--boot camp.
Recruits are no longer required to wear heavy, steel-toed chukka boots in their first weeks of training; they keep their jogging shoes because too many youths were suffering muscle strains and other injuries. The mandatory swimming requirement--long a staple of the sea service--has been eliminated. And instead of a snarling drill instructor, a soft-spoken chaplain greets the future sailors and airmen when they step off the bus at the Orlando Naval Training Center here.
"We don't have the luxury of dumping recruits that don't measure up as quickly as we'd like," said Capt. Tom Holme Jr., who heads the center's recruit-training program. "We don't destroy a kid to build a sailor out of a quivering mass of jelly left on the deck. We don't baby them, but we don't terrorize them."
In recent years, the Navy has been losing one-third of its new enlistees between the day they entered boot camp and the time they were eligible to re-enlist at the end of their first tour. Many of those recruits, according to Navy officials, never made it past the initial ego-wrenching, body-aching days of boot camp.
"If we keep throwing away about one-third, given the tough recruiting market and lessening numbers of enlistment-eligible people in this country, we are fighting a losing battle unless we do something to stop the exodus," Vice Adm. J.M. Boorda, the Navy's personnel chief, wrote in a memorandum distributed to service commanders last year.
As a result, Boorda ordered major changes at the Navy's three basic training centers, in Orlando; Great Lakes, Ill., and San Diego, where 95,000 fresh enlistees get their first taste of Navy life each year.
Initial figures indicate that boot-camp dropout rates at the Orlando training center have been reduced from 10.5% to about 8% since the program began last summer.
According to center records, the number of men and women who are ousted for "non-adaptability to military life" is one-fifth the level it was the year before the new initiatives began. And attrition blamed on attitude problems is one-third the previous level.
The percentage of recruits dismissed for other reasons, however, such as failed drug tests, homosexuality and personality disorders, has increased.
Training officials caution that the new training program is too new to draw definitive conclusions from the statistics. "Are we just delaying attrition to a future school or the fleet?" Holme asked. "We don't know."
And some Navy officials are grousing that the rush to cut attrition may soften boot camp too much and force the Navy to accept enlistees who should not remain in service.
"Attrition is not necessarily bad," Holme said. "We want to identify some people who ought not be in the Navy." Holme said statistics have not proved that allowing recruits to wear soft-soled shoes instead of Navy-issue boots for the first three weeks of training is cutting down on foot and leg problems.
And he has another concern. "It's really not all that military-looking when you have people wearing blue and green and purple shoes," he said. As for eliminating swimming skills as a requirement to graduate from boot camp, "It's my personal opinion that anybody who wants to join the sea service ought to know how to swim."
The Navy and other military services are inheriting even more troubling societal problems from the civilian world than youngsters with flabby muscles. Even though the young men and women enlisting in the armed forces today score better on entrance tests and have higher levels of education than any recruits in the history of the volunteer forces, officials here estimate that as many as 25% of their recruits--most with high school diplomas and many with some college education--read at eighth-grade levels or below.
"We've got college grads in nuke (nuclear training) school that can't read," said Rear Adm. Louise C. Wilmot, commander of the Orlando center.
Large segments of training time are devoted to remedial reading programs to help give the future sailors and air force personnel the skills they will need to use the technical manuals of today's sophisticated weaponry and equipment.
Remedial reading classes here are jammed to capacity. And instructors say far more than the current 165 students per week need the services.
"We're maxed out. We don't have enough desks for all the students," instructor Jill Harvey said. "If we had the classrooms and the teachers we could take 250 a week."
And there are still other problems. Training officials criticize what they say is the Navy's inadequate medical screening program that sent them 146 pregnant recruits last year. Orlando is the only training facility for women enlistees.
Most new recruits are oblivious to all those naval concerns before they arrive for their mandatory nine weeks of boot camp.
For most of his daylong airplane flight from Portland, Ore., to Orlando, Shawn Karns, 20, had been expecting the worst when he stepped off the bus in front of the cinder-block recruit-receiving center here.
"I thought there would be a lot of screaming and yelling--'Get in line and shut up!' " he mimicked.
Instead, the busload of nervous enlistees was greeted by soft-spoken Lt. Cmdr. Ed Newhouse, base chaplain.
He began in his most reassuring Sunday-morning voice, "You're going to think this is impossible. But you're going to make it and you're going to talk and laugh about this place the rest of your life. We're here to help you get through boot camp."
That is not to say, however, that young recruits have an easy time of it.
"The first night I didn't sleep," said Elizabeth (Jenny) Dryson, 19, of Minneapolis. "The second day I was so sick, I threw up, the transition from civilian life to basic training was so drastic. When I wrote letters home, I told my family to pray for me."
George Torres, 20, of Chicago, was jolted out of his bed on his first morning at boot camp by a company commander who heaved a garbage can across the barracks. "We were out of the rack before it hit the floor," Torres said.
"We have to break civilian attitudes and build military attitudes," said Lt. Zena Maxies, 28, a company commander.
That means no "gedunk" (candy, soda, comic books), no getting chatty with recruits of the opposite sex when you pull galley duty and, for the men, no hair. Some customs die hard.
Before dawn each morning, the newest batch of arrivals lines up outside the base barber shop. Inside, Lee Roy Deese and Bob Choser stand behind their chairs, electric razors in hand. Less than two minutes after a curly-haired recruit slides into the chair, his locks lie in a heap on the floor.
"We are part of the training," said Choser, who has been shaving Navy heads nine years. "You can't get too friendly with these young men. They're just faces and heads."
Back on the Grinder, the Navy's term of endearment for its exercise grounds, the recruits are ready for another morning of PT (physical training).
"Good morning, company," a loudspeaker voice blares.
"Good morning, tape recorder," the recruits shout.
One senior noncommissioned officer surveying a group of new green recruits, sloppy in their formation and slow on their feet, gave his assessment of the new generation he is to train: "They've been eating moon pies and drinking RC Cola, laying around watching the Jeffersons and the Flintstones before they get here. They haven't run. It's hard on them."