FORT SILL, Okla. (Aug. 10, 2017) — Editor’s note: Several drill sergeants in C Battery, 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery talked about the art and craft of transforming trainees into Soldiers. They graduated Class No. 44-17, July 28, and are now gearing up for another group of trainees. This is the first of a two-part series.
The role of the drill sergeant is often that of supreme leader, strict parent, confessor and confidant, motivational expert, judge and jury. If they’ve been successful, they earn not just the fear, but the respect, even the affection of those under their tutelage.
How does one learn how to be a drill sergeant? Are they taught effective yelling techniques? Do they practice steely-eyed stares in front of the mirror, or try out different hat positions to see which one inspires the most fear? Read on …
Drill Sgt. (Sgt. 1st Class) David Wells smiles when facetiously asked whether they are taught yelling techniques.
“It usually comes natural, ma’am,” he said. “Most drill sergeants are pretty Type A personalities. We go to the Drill Sergeant Academy (at Fort Jackson, S.C.) to learn how to teach Soldiers exactly from the book, basically doing basic training all over again, and we get treated kind of like basic training Soldiers. We have to take numerous tests. It’s 10 weeks long, you have to do everything the Soldiers do — all over again.”
Learning how to turn the drill sergeant demeanor on and off is a valuable skill.
“If I went home and acted like I did here, I probably wouldn’t have a wife very long.” He grins. “I just tell my wife I need 30 minutes to let some stuff go. If I don’t turn it off, my wife lets me know. It’s pretty simple.”
In-your-face yelling isn’t the main mode of communication, either, despite the popular caricature.
“Your leadership has to adjust to the Soldier and their background,” said Wells. “It’s the leader’s job to figure out the best way to motivate the Soldier to get the best performance. If you can tap into that, and you know your Soldiers, you can get a Soldier to perform no matter what.
“When I yell and scream some Soldiers will just shut down, while other Soldiers will jump to the occasion, get mad, and perform. Getting down on their level and talking to them like normal people works with other Soldiers.”
Advice to new drill sergeants: “Make sure you get some family time in before you report, because you’re not going to have much when you get here.”
This was the first training cycle for Drill Sgt. (Staff Sgt.) Aerial Andrews, who assisted in 3rd Platoon. Her sister, Drill Sgt. (Sgt. 1st Class) Cassandra Kiel serves in E Battery, 1-79th FA, which is trained in the same building. Kiel has four cycles under her hat, and arrived here a year before her sister.
They were asked if they feel bad when they’re meanest to the trainees in Red Phase (the first three weeks). Both immediately shook their heads.
“Not bad at all,” said Andrews. “Only because we’re here to change their lives.”
Kiel said, “For a lot of them that’s their favorite phase, because that’s when we teach them everything. So in Red Phase you’re mom, dad, drill sergeant, teacher, grandparent, financial adviser … ”
Andrews interjected, “… best friend, everything.”
Kiel continued, “A lot of them say they want us to be harder on them in Red Phase, because they say they joined for that experience.”
Andrews said as she gets on a personal level with the trainees, they start to open up, and see her as a confidant. “Some of them respond better if you take your hat off, because they feel like you’re more human.”
Kiel taps her bush hat. “They fear the hat.”
Andrews also said many trainees act differently, even protectively, toward female drill sergeants than they do the men.
“It’s like we’re their sisters or their mothers,” she said. “They ask,’ drill sergeant are you good? Are you thirsty? Do you need some water?'”
Kiel said the trainees are very much attuned to their drill sergeants’ comings and goings.
“They know our whole schedule. They know what kind of cars we drive, they learn our first names …”
Andrews finished her sister’s sentence, “… when we’re on 24-hour duty. They get upset if you’re gone too long. They don’t like it.”
“If we’re in a bad mood when we walk in the door, they know,” said Andrews. “They know everything about you.”
Drill Sgt. (Staff Sgt.) Sarah Lenneman of 1st Platoon just finished her second training cycle, and said she had wanted to become a drill sergeant several years ago when a first sergeant thought she’d be good in the job.
Lenneman said, “You’ve got to know when to yell, when to step back and instruct. There’s no leadership course. It’s learn as you go from prior mentors or prior NCOs. You just take bits and pieces from each individual and mold how you want to be a leader, what you feel benefits your style.”
She said the value to the trainees is visible from Day 1.
“I notice they have more standards and discipline. They started growing as a team.”
When their motivation flagged midway through, she made them write an essay on the Army’s mission statement.
“That gave them more purpose of why they joined the Army, because at first, for a lot of them it was school, citizenship, to support their family, to travel. Then once they wrote that, a lot of them started to realize pride in country, pride in self, and pride in the Army.”
When homesickness struck, she said writing an essay about why they joined also worked wonders, as did reminding them they have a new family now.
“We reinforce the battle buddy and team system to make it feel like the platoon is one family.”
Drill Sgt. (Staff Sgt.) John Michael Deserio IV of 1st Platoon is one of the rare NCOs who volunteered to “wear the hat.” He just completed his third training cycle and has two deployments to Afghanistan to his credit.
He said he decided from his first day in the Army at Fort Benning, Ga., that he wanted to be like his drill sergeants, who terrified him.
“But when I saw the amount of respect that they got, and the amount of motivation that they would provide us, I never witnessed that before,” said Deserio. “I became part of something that was so much bigger than myself. They gave us magic pills, it almost seemed like. They just made us super-motivated to get stuff done. I was 23 when I joined the military, and it changed me as a man, for the better. They taught me life lessons I would have never learned in the civilian world.”
He realized the impact he could have as well by joining their ranks.
Trained as an infantryman, he said his drill sergeants instilled pride, discipline, and constant improvement in him.
“I teach it to the Soldiers now: When I wake up in the morning my plan is to be a better person when I go to sleep. If I strive to be a better person, a better leader, a better drill sergeant, a better human being, everything else in my life will line up. They instilled that in me and I’ve kept that my whole life.”
He let out a little secret that seems apparent to anyone who’s watched TV shows or movies with the drill sergeants barking in the faces of recruits.
“Realistically, this is just an act,” he said of the swagger. “I put this hat on, it’s a costume. When I put it on I do my job, and when I leave I gotta take it off or go crazy. You have to know when to turn it on and turn it off. Otherwise you’re head’s gonna explode.”
As if on cue, he yelled at some privates clomping loudly down the barracks stairs. They looked chagrined.
“I instill massive amounts of fear in the Soldiers,” he said, laughing.
He realizes his leadership style is sometimes over the top.
“I can be real loud and crazy. I’m how do you say? I’m really obnoxious. I can be super flamboyant and extravagant, and then I can kick it down and just talk to them.”
He adds, “There’s two ways you learn. Either they’re gonna learn by doing it multiple times, or they’re gonna learn through corrective training. Some people respond to me telling them. Some people have a harder head and I gotta break them down.”
He says he gives his platoon pep talks before a training event.
“You are the best, you can be the best. If they think that I think they’re the best, then they’re gonna believe that. I told my platoon the first day, ‘If you look in the mirror right now and then right before graduation and you see the same person, you’ve failed yourself. I’m gonna give you every tool you need to be a different person when you leave here. You’re going to be a leader. People are going to look up to you. You could be 17 years old and you’re going to be somebody’s role model because you’re wearing this uniform now.'”
He said when they traded in their patrol caps for their berets during the Rite of Passage, the change in their attitudes and demeanor was palpable.
“The pride that we instill in them, the dedication, the loyalty in the duty, all the Army Values, they believe them. It’s noticeable on their faces that they are proud of who they have become. It’s really awesome for me to be a part of that.”
Deserio offered words of wisdom to future cadre.
“Go to the Drill Sergeant Academy with an open mind,” he said. “They’re some of the best instructors I’ve ever had, and the best noncommissioned officers I’ve ever encountered in my career. They know everything about being a drill sergeant. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Once you get to your first unit, ask questions.
“If you’re thinking about becoming a drill sergeant, find some of the guys that have got the badge in your unit and ask them: What was your time like on the trail? What are some tips that you have? All the basic training posts handle things a little differently.
“Don’t be afraid to fail. My biggest piece of advice is you’re gonna fail as a drill sergeant. Failure is just a way for you to learn how to do things the right way and not make the same mistake again.”
He grins. “Be comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s it as a drill sergeant.”
Drill Sgt. (Staff Sgt.) Joshua Barnum of 4th Platoon said the trademark yelling often serves to motivate a whole platoon, not just one wayward trainee.
“You learn when you have to yell, when you need to talk, when you need to just instruct, to give them clear, concise information so you can make the mission happen.”
Homesickness is common the first week, and he said trainees often want to quit.
“When that happens I normally give them a phone call home. Often the parents help their son or daughter focus on the reason they joined and the benefits of finishing basic training. Typically they’ll snap out of it.”
He said one of his motivational tactics is to get them to all become “fans” of his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys. He says it inspires loyalty to their own team, even if they aren’t really Cowboys fans.
“Every day you learn how to use your own leadership style that you’ve created by observation of other leaders, as well as what they teach you,” said Barnum.
Apparently the trainees appreciated his style, because his platoon voted him the best drill sergeant.
Pictured above: The image of the drill sergeant strikes fear into the hearts of basic combat trainees. Yet by the end of training, drill sergeants often win the affection of their Soldiers.