Infantry: Cashing All The Reality Checks


February 8, 2011; The U.S. Army has radically changed their basic training in the past decade, partly in reaction to wartime conditions, but also in light of research on stress, and how best to handle it in the military. The biggest changes have been on preparing everyone (not just the 15 percent of troops headed for combat jobs), to deal with encounters with enemy fire. But a more subtle change has to do with preparing troops, especially the combat troops, for a war against an enemy that does not wear a uniform, and often uses civilians as human shields. In effect, troops are being taught police skills, trying to equip them with "street smarts". This sort of thing is meant to instill observation skills, so that troops know when to shoot, and who to shoot at. For recruits headed for combat jobs, there is a lot more training in this area after basic. But for the many support troops who may find themselves in a vehicle moving through a city or village, the ability to sense danger can be a lifesaver. 

Another little known change in basic began in 2003, as basic training centers changed their procedures, and devoted more time and effort to keeping recruits (who would otherwise be discharged as "unsuitable for military service") who did not appear able to handle the physical, mental and psychological stresses of military life. The first experiments managed to reduce the losses during the first six months of service from 18 percent, to 11 percent.

The theory behind all this was that by easing up on the "stress test" aspects of basic (sergeants constantly shouting at you to do things, or else), the recruits will get acclimated to military life, and stress, gradually. This results in fewer recruits dropping out (for physical, psychological or performance reasons). But it was not certain how well the "basic lite" recruits were prepared to deal with the stresses of operating in a combat zone. As it turned out, the new approach did work, because eventually the recruits learned how to cope with the stress, and those unable to handle it, were sent away. Everyone just got the more stressful aspect of their training later, rather than sooner.

The army has taken advantage of the fact that there is a war on. Troops are all volunteers, and come to basic knowing that they could be in a combat zone within the year. The drill sergeants know they have the attention of the recruits, and give them their combat equipment (including rifles) within days of arrival, provide more combat oriented training, and keep them out in the field a lot more than before the war. In basic, troops now operate pretty much like they are in a combat zone, from the very beginning of their training. Since most of the training staff have been "in the sandbox" (Iraq), the recruits know they are getting the real deal.

The main problem, as always, is still with the combat support troops. That's nearly 90 percent of the troops, and they appreciate getting Iraq-specific training, even in basic. So far, the graduates of "basic lite" have gone off to Iraq and Afghanistan, performed well, and come back no worse the wear than anyone else (especially those who went through the old style basic). Now that all army basic is conducted using the new methods, the first-six-month losses are under seven percent.





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