In a dramatic overhaul, boot camp goes beyond the old basics, training even those in normally noncombat jobs to fight in a new kind of war.
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.
Pvt. Lynch's rifle wouldn't fire because it was all clogged up with dirt. It's not entirely her fault. She should have been trained to clean her rifle as many times a day as it took to make sure it would fire when called upon to do so. It is unconscionable of the Army to assume support troops will never have to fight.
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.
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.
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 (my emphasis).
This is new? That explains a lot to this old Jarhead. It never once crossed our minds that we might not get called upon to fight. The Corps' motto was, and is, "Every Marine a rifleman", and that was how we were trained. I was a Ground Radio Repairman, but I shot Expert at the rifle range, got to go on all the "camping trips", climbed down (and back up!) a cargo net into a Mike boat, ate "C's" and dug holes, just like a real infantryman. I probably wouldn't have been in the first wave of a "forced entry" (as they call it now), but I wouldn't have been too far behind, either. Also, I think it behooves anyone in a combat zone to know how to defend themselves, and practice it.
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."
No shit. In the old days, I fired (and cleaned) every weapon that was organic to an infantry company, and some that were not. I didn't have to be real good with them, just be able to load 'em and hurl hot metal in the right direction. My philosophy on the M-60 machine gun was "another belt, another barrel". I was a terror with a 3.5-in. rocket launcher, too. Hell, it was fun.
"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.
Yeah, well, don't tell your mom. She'll worry too much anyway.
The Marine Corps had signs , gold on red, at the Infantry Training Regiment (which all Marines attended after recruit training) which read, "Let No Man's Ghost Ever Say We Failed To Do Our Job".
Remember your training, young soldiers. We want you back home. Best of luck.