How mean are drill sergeants in real life?

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Sept. 22 2009 6:21 PM

How Mean Are Drill Sergeants?

Sir! Not that mean, sir!

R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket.
Full Metal Jacket'sMarine Gunnery Sgt. Hartman

Teresa L. King took command of the Army's drill sergeant school on Tuesday—the first woman ever to do so. The New York Times article on King notes that she's "ever vigilant for busted rules"—which seems in keeping with the fear-inspiring, speak-up-you-maggot taskmasters of the popular imagination, such as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, who gently explains to his recruits, "You are pukes. You're the lowest form of life on earth." Are drill sergeants really that mean?

Not anymore. Drill sergeants of yesteryear did take a rough, discipline-and-punishment approach to preparing new Army recruits for combat. The disciplinarian tack seemed to make sense up through the Vietnam War, at least, because drafted soldiers were sometimes unwilling to get into line. But the drill sergeants of today are gentler. In the period after 9/11, the Army was losing about 10 percent of its volunteer recruits during boot camp, a number that was way too high, especially given the Army's trouble meeting recruitment quotas and the growing demand for troops first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. To help keep people in basic training, drill sergeants reined in the verbal abuse and began providing more mentorship. (This wasn't a precipitous change. Drill sergeants have been mellowing out for the last 15 years or so.)

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That's not to say that instructors have gone soft. Drill sergeants still shout to enforce discipline, and they may force young soldiers to do push-ups—but they're not supposed to hurl personal insults. (They'd never call them "pukes," for example.) If a recruit asks why he has to run through an obstacle course, the drill sergeant isn't supposed to punish him immediately with an extra run. Instead, the sergeant should explain the Army's rationale for the exercise. Modern drill sergeants also engage in a good deal of counseling. If a recruit is acting petulant, the drill sergeant may ask him what's wrong—or ask his friends. He'll give tips for how to get along with peers in close quarters, how to get by on an Army paycheck, and how to handle homesickness.

Whatever her method, a drill sergeant is charged with getting new recruits into shape. In Army lingo, while "on the trail" (at training camp), a drill sergeant makes sure her soldiers are "squared away" (physically fit with a neat uniform), "on point" (in complete control of themselves and the situation), and "hoppin' and poppin' " (moving quickly and with purpose). More specifically, she teaches them how to march in step, use their M16A2 rifles and throw grenades, speak up, stand at attention, obey orders, and treat fellow soldiers respectfully.

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Explainer thanks Harvey Perritt, spokesman for Army training and doctrine command, and Julia Simpkins of Fort Jackson.

Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.