The soldiers from Echo Company sit in a noisy chow hall, tired but on the brink of a milestone. In two days, they will complete basic training as grueling as the Army has ever dished out. And in a matter of weeks, many of them will be on the ground in Iraq.
“My wife said, ‘Don’t join the infantry,’ and I promised her I wouldn’t,” said Army Spc. Jonathan Hernandez, 29, a former history teacher from Niceville, Fla. “Now I realize it doesn’t matter. The enemy doesn’t care if they are firing at a financial specialist or somebody in the infantry.”
Today’s casualty lists are riddled with cooks, mechanics, mail clerks -- all theoretically noncombat jobs. But yesterday’s boot camp did not prepare soldiers for the cities and deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq, where the theater of battle is all around.
As a result, combat training is undergoing its most dramatic overhaul since Vietnam. And as the war in Iraq forces America’s military to change, the storied rigors of boot camp have become ever more rigorous.
“Whenever you go into a combat environment, there are going to be challenges you didn’t foresee,” said Col. William J. Gallagher, commander of the Basic Combat Training Brigade at Ft. Benning. “We are fighting a smart, adaptive enemy. They have technology and they have money and they are going to come up with ways to get us that we didn’t expect.”
But as a downsized, undersupplied force strains to fight a stubborn insurgency, it does not have the luxury of time. The Army finds itself with much more to teach its combat-bound recruits, and the same 63 basic training days to teach it.
So today’s new soldier averages five hours of sleep a night instead of seven. The day still begins at dawn and lasts past dinner, but core training pushes further into the night, eating into time once used for review and reinforcement of the day’s lessons. Sundays, once set aside for worship, laundry and phone calls home, are no longer guaranteed “light.”
“If I said I wasn’t tired, I’d be lying,” said Hernandez, who was so determined to serve he lost 110 pounds to qualify for enlistment.
The March 2003 ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company from Ft. Bliss, Texas, was a wake-up call for American armed forces. Eleven combat-support soldiers were killed and six more captured -- including Pvt. Jessica Lynch -- lending urgency to the need to train every volunteer as a warrior.
After the 507th ambush, a task force spent a year brainstorming ways to avoid another such catastrophe. The members came up with a set of new tasks and battle drills considered essential for survival, and suggested adding an extra three weeks of training to teach them. But each day of added training meant a decline in the number of soldiers available for combat. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker ordered the command to find a way to fit the new curriculum into the existing nine weeks.
Instructors prioritized. The traditional marching competition was dropped, and protocol lessons were shortened. Standard courses were made more relevant to today’s war. Basic radio communications now includes ways the enemy uses cellphones to detonate bombs.
Gallagher believes instructors have struck a balance, maximizing every available moment without stressing soldiers to a point of diminished returns.
For the recruits, it wasn’t exactly what they expected when a bus deposited them at the gate nine weeks ago. The plan for many had been to learn an Army trade, to make an important contribution and still keep a safe distance from enemy lines. Instead, before they knew it, they were learning to avoid landmines, survive an ambush and spot roadside bombs disguised as cans of Coke.
“They go from being a high school kid to a soldier on the ground in Iraq, and if they get ambushed, they have to know hand-to-hand combat,” said retired Army Gen. Randall L. Rigby, a former deputy commandant in charge of training. “The old chestnut that only the infantry takes the blows is gone.”
Many of the thousands of new recruits who file into Ft. Benning every year are as young as 17 or as old as 35. Some of them are still fighting acne, others middle-aged paunches. But they all are presented with the same stark odds: Half will deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan as soon as 30 days after completing initial training. The rest can expect to go sometime during their first enlistment.
The infantry soldiers -- those who specialize in combat -- complete their course in 14 weeks. The combat-support troops train for nine weeks before learning a specific job. But under the Army’s new philosophy, they all must be warriors first.
“When you land in Baghdad International Airport and get in a convoy to go someplace, you are in your first potential combat right then and there,” Gallagher told a group of about 200 fresh volunteers, so new their hair was shorn to the scalp and their running shoes were still white.
The road signs into Ft. Benning caution motorists to limit their speed to 15 mph to protect soldiers up and out before dawn. At 5:30 one recent morning, Charlie Company was setting off on a three-mile run and Bravo was on the ground, doing sit-ups in the dark.
If the volunteers have little in common when they enter, they share a good deal by the time they leave. Reflexively, their eyes dart across the landscape, looking for anything out of order -- a truck parked askew, a lump under a blanket. They can fight hand-to-hand combat, move under live fire, clear a house on a mock Iraqi street.
To get them there, instructors are encouraged to be creative. They plant mock explosives along running trails and under rucksacks. One brought in his 7-year-old son -- innocent one moment, cradling a dummy grenade the next -- for a field exercise illustrating when to shoot and when to hold fire.
The total time in the field -- spent in the woods that spill into Alabama -- has been expanded from three days to 14. It is there that the trainees face their biggest challenges. They confront simulated ambushes. Sleep is interrupted. Food is not always available. (In one scenario, the dinner truck is blown up by a suicide bomber, and no one eats that night.)
They become proficient with their M-16s, carrying them everywhere except the chapel and the clinic. But -- in another new feature of basic training -- now they are also taught to load, clear and shoot just about any weapon their unit might carry.
“If the machine-gunner is hurt or killed, they can lay down fire against an enemy,” said Col. Kevin A. Shwedo of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command in Virginia. “You don’t have to be real good at it to have one hell of an effect.”
The training regimen is constantly responding to lessons learned on the ground. When insurgents began to ambush convoys, the Army beefed up convoy instruction, teaching soldiers, among other things, to sit facing the street, rather than with their backs to it.
Information about roadside bombs, once a mere mention, is now a formal course. First-aid training is more extensive. Soldiers practice with tourniquets in an attempt to minimize the wounds that have sent thousands home as amputees.
The greatest challenge for Army trainers is not figuring out what to teach, but what to leave out. “It’s a constant effort to prioritize,” Gallagher said. “I can always think of 10 new things to do.”
Resources remain a problem. The Army decrees that today’s new soldier wear body armor, shoot while using night-vision goggles and handle a machine gun. But all the available equipment is needed overseas, leaving little or nothing for hands-on training.
“It’s a process,” Gallagher said. “We are on a glide path to being fully resourced on everything we need. The Army hasn’t stiffed us.”
But some training instructors and military experts say there ought to be enough to go around.
“When you have a nation at war, you might want to take a look at your priorities,” said Rigby, a retired three-star general.
The average cost of nine-week basic training averages $14,500 per soldier, but is expected to rise significantly as more training and equipment is added.
A formal study is planned early next year to measure the effectiveness of the training. Meanwhile, reports from commanders in the field suggest soldiers are hitting the ground well-prepared, officers said.
“They seem more motivated, more confident,” said Sgt. 1st Class Darrell Smith, a drill instructor here. “Soldiers are different now.”
The new training has been more than many soldiers expected, but not more than they could manage. Sitting in the chow hall over trays of today’s Army fare -- meat patties swimming in a Spanish sauce -- several Echo Company soldiers talked about the likelihood of going to Iraq. Some were eager to take their skills to war, others resigned to the fact they might have to. But all said they felt prepared.
“Pay attention to details; focus on your surroundings. I am very alert,” said Pfc. Donyval Coley, 22, a former massage therapist who enlisted because of the Sept. 11 attacks. Reciting lessons learned in training, he said it would be “just a matter of time” before he was asked to use them.
Derek Gonzales, 18, who graduated in June from Tipton High School in Missouri, grew up in the little town of Syracuse, population 172, and joined the Army in part because his father thought it would be good for him. Gonzales didn’t figure on actually landing in Iraq when he enlisted, but he is resigned to the possibility.
“I’ll do this because it’s my duty that I have to serve the country and everything, but ... " He stopped without finishing the thought.
The cars began to file through the gate at 8 a.m. for Family Day, a pregraduation ritual held to hand out awards of excellence and give soldiers their first free day in weeks.
Parents and spouses mingled outside, waiting for Echo Company to arrive. The Army has made it clear that these new soldiers will go to Iraq and fight this war. But the message does not seem to have registered beyond the boundaries of the base.
Andrea Denoncour, 23, found even the relatively brief separation from her husband, Jacob, 22, harder than she expected. He joined the Army to pay off his college loans and to use the $6,000 signing bonus to furnish their apartment. But that plan seemed pointless to her now, and the idea of him going to war too painful to fathom.
“Now I don’t even remember why we decided he should do this,” she said, picking up their 2-year-old daughter, Lillian, and trying not to cry.
Her father-in-law moved to comfort her. “He’s regular Army, not infantry. I don’t worry about him going to Iraq as much,” Joe Denoncour, 50, a postal worker from Epping, N.H., tried to assure her.
The chant of cadence rose in the distance, growing to a thunder as the new soldiers marched in. The slumped posture and undisciplined gazes of nine weeks ago had yielded to straight backs and eyes front. They donned their black berets for the first time, then fell out, into the arms of teary mothers and anxious wives.
Retired Lt. Col. Sion Harrington II of Erwin, N.C., had come to see his son-in-law graduate. He stood and observed the scene, remembering his own deployments.
“I can’t help wondering how many parents understand what their son is getting into,” he said.
A few yards away in the parking lot, Becky Price, 49, of Willow River, Minn., held her boy in her arms and cried. He must have looked very different -- the hair, the gleaming shoes, the starched green shirt.
“I have faith he’ll be fine,” she said, certain that wherever he ended up, he would remain safely “on base.”
But Pvt. Troy Price, 19 years old, knew better.