Leadership: September 13, 2003

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The story of PFC Jessica Lynch in Iraq has revived the long dormant custom of training non-combat troops to effectively defend themselves in a combat zone.  This was because, for the first time in many years, American army non-combat troops found themselves under fire during the Iraq campaign. Over the last twenty years, combat training for non-combat army troops has declined. Since 1978, U.S. Army basic training for men and women has been combined. This has led to a steady lowering of basic training standards so that the women can keep up. When basic training was all-male, it was pretty rugged, the idea being to make sure everyone that wore a uniform had some preparation for combat. But for the last two decades, the tough combat training was only given to the men who went on to combat arms training. Here there was another eight weeks of AIT (Advanced Individual Training) that emphasized the stress and strain of effective infantry training. 

Not only were non-combat troops not getting a memorable rough experience in basic, but they were not learning some really fundamental combat skills. The most important one was the need to keep their rifles clean, and under what conditions they were to use them, and how to use them. Some non-combat unit commanders, on their own initiative, made sure their troops kept their weapons clean. In some cases, these commanders would conduct tactical training appropriate for their troops. This included drills based on situations their troops were likely to encounter (how to react to an ambush, and how to quickly deploy and clear a road block.) Many non-combat units have NCOs who began their military service in the infantry, then had to transfer to a less strenuous job after getting injured. The army is generally willing to retrain an a career infantry soldier for another job if he was injured, but not crippled, and no longer up to the rigors of ground combat. 

Non-combat troops usually did know how to set up defensive positions when they were out in the field (digging fox holes around the area their vehicles were in and standing guard at night.) But these troops were most at risk, as was demonstrated in Iraq, when on the road. A new training program, including additional "tactical training" for officers, will lead to more combat training for all troops. The army is deliberately borrowing from the marines, who have always made it plain to their non-combat troops that, "every marine is a rifleman." The marines back this up with regular training, and constantly remind the non-combat marines of the many times in the past when "everyone who had a weapon" was thrown into the fight.

But this kind of training has a tendency to fade over time. Non-combat troops have, by definition, non combat jobs. There is always the temptation to slight the "tactical training" so that the more immediate chores can be attended to. Over time, only strong leadership will keep the non-combat troops capable of surviving combat.

 


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