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Dignity and Respect: An exclusive look at how the Army is training drill sergeants for a new era

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Last month, Sandboxx News was given unprecedented access to the U.S. Army’s Drill Sergeant Academy in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Over the span of a week, I observed as the Army trained its latest crop of drill sergeants to mold civilians into professional warfighters using a new and controversial approach that’s been called “soft, woke, and undisciplined” by critics… but that’s referred to by insiders simply as Dignity and Respect.

As a Marine veteran turned journalist, taking stock of my own biases is an essential exercise when covering changes to America’s military. And I’ll acknowledge right up front that, like many veterans, I winced when the Army announced it was doing away with the longstanding (and sometimes abusive) training methodology we’ve come to refer to as the “shark attack” — a name derived from the way drill sergeants would swarm around fresh trainees, overwhelming them with verbal attacks.

Drill sergeants with 2nd Battalion, 48th Infantry Regiment, welcome a new Soldier to Fort Leonard Wood on training day zero. (U.S. Army photo)

In fact, it was that very bias that led to my decision to write this story in the first person.

The fact of the matter is, I’m not an outsider at all. Since I first stepped foot on the yellow footprints of Parris Island in 2006 — some 16 years ago now — I’ve lived and breathed America’s military in a variety of capacities: from recruit to Marine; from Marine to veteran; from veteran to defense contractor; from defense contractor to journalist.

It’s because of my experiences, both in uniform and out, that I arrived at Fort Jackson believing the Army’s shift in training methodology might be more about managing Gen Z’s negative perceptions of service than truly about training recruits to become the most capable warfighters. But it’s similarly because of those experiences that my time in Fort Jackson, and subsequent research, have convinced me otherwise.

I’m now certain that Dignity and Respect isn’t just the right approach to training for the future… It’s the right approach to training, period.

The ‘shark attack’ was a product of a draft-based military

(Department of Defense)

SSG Devante McLean, the Drill Sergeant Academy’s 2022 Drill Sergeant of the Year, managed to recontextualize my entire perception of basic training and the “shark attack” early in my visit.

“We have to understand where the Army was before, and why the shark attack actually happened,” McLean said.

The “shark attack” approach that’s come to define common perceptions of Army drill sergeants was born out of the Vietnam War at a time when America’s Army was not only reliant on draft, but also on a controversial program called “Project 100,000.”

(The basic premise of this program was to bolster the military’s numbers by enlisting 100,000 men who did not meet the basic criteria for service for a variety of physical, medical, or academic reasons. Despite its name, the total number of men drafted under this program was actually north of 300,000, all of whom entered service alongside 2.2 million other draftees throughout the conflict)

The plain truth of the matter was that many of the new recruits arriving at basic training in this era simply didn’t want to be there. There are even stories of some who conspired to attack drill sergeants upon their arrival.

(U.S. Army Photo)

The draft created an inherently antagonistic relationship between trainer and trainee, as drill sergeants sought to prepare recruits for combat, but those recruits saw their new drill sergeants as the embodiment of the system that drafted them. To maintain order and accomplish the mission, drill sergeants learned that they needed to quickly establish dominance and — in a real way — break the will of neighborhood tough guys who didn’t want to be there and had no qualms about punching their way out of a bad situation.

This was what McLean called the “pivot point” that brought the shark attack into common use.

“The drill sergeants came together and said, we’re going to essentially break them down, we’re going to verbally abuse them, we’re going to physically abuse them, and make them submit,” McLean explained to me.

“Once they submit, then we can teach them the Army’s way of doing things and send them out to be a Soldier.”

Brig. Gen. Patrick R. Michaelis, U.S. Army Training Center and Fort Jackson commanding general, places the Sergeant Audie Murphy medallion on the club’s newest inductee, Staff Sgt. Devante McLean on March 15, 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Alexandra Shea)

Thus, the shark attack was born. With an unpopular war raging and creating a pressing need for warfighters, it was an approach based on painful pragmatism: abuse may not be the most effective training method, but when you need to instill the means to fight and survive within a limited amount of time, it seemed to be the quickest and most effective approach available.

But today, some 49 years since the U.S. shifted to an all-volunteer force, that painful pragmatism has long since subsided, replaced instead — one could argue — with the sheer force of cultural inertia.

“That particular tactic they used — the shark attack — continued,” McLean said. “Although the Army changed and adapted to times, that continued.”

Drill sergeants were not setting an example Soldiers could emulate

SSG Brandon Hickey, a drill sergeant leader at the U.S. Army’s Drill Sergeant Academy, leads a period of instruction. (Photo by Alex Hollings)

America’s service members are professional warfighters and they’re expected to carry themselves as such. That means working together in teams, showing respect to others, policing their own, and behaving in a manner that brings honor to themselves and their service.

But under the shark attack model of training, the very first exposure new Soldiers get to NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) leadership came in the form of drill sergeants behaving in a way that would result in disciplinary action in any other military environment.

According to McLean, some of the Army’s modern woes can be attributed to the fact that Soldiers were immediately thrust into a situation that’s predicated on toxic leadership.

“I know that if I go to basic training, I’m going to get yelled at, do a billion push-ups, and I know I’m going to be belittled,” McLean said.

“And that, over time, breaks trust. Over time, it erodes relationships between leaders and the led.”

Drill sergeant leaders at the Drill Sergeant Academy in Fort Jackson. (Photo by Alex Hollings)

Once you leave basic training, expectations remain high and corrections remain prevalent, but verbal abuse is usually considered unacceptable. Military leaders do yell, but they also must foster a sense of trust with their subordinates through their actions. During my own time as a platoon sergeant leading Marines, my role was more like a mentor than a drill instructor, and that wasn’t unique to me or my command.

The only real reason verbal abuse is still championed within the confines of basic training is because being yelled at can be stressful, and stress is — genuinely — an essential part of preparing for military service.

So, what does that mean for Dignity and Respect?

Does verbal abuse prepare Soldiers for combat?

(U.S. Army photo by Patrick A. Albright)

The most common argument in favor of the shark attack’s continued use in basic training — i.e. its value as a way to prepare troops for the stresses of combat — could be academically described as either a form of exposure therapy or stress inoculation.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), exposure therapy might be described as the practice of confronting a person with things that inspire fear or anxiety, thus lessening the severity of the reaction over time. The method was developed in the early 1990s for the U.S. Navy’s combat teams.

Stress inoculation training (SIT) is a similar concept based on the idea of building resistance to stress through skill training and, again, exposure to stressful situations.

To the casual observer, these forms of treatment could be a sound argument in favor of bringing the shark attack back, but the truth is, that assertion doesn’t survive enemy contact.

Based on the findings of studies conducted by military branches and academics alike, it seems evident that the shark attack approach to training has actually been counter-productive. Rather than training troops to manage stress, it simply identified those who already could, with those who struggled to manage the stresses of training simply washing out rather than learning how to cope.

(U.S. Army photo)

In fact, according to a piece penned by Carrie Madormo, a registered nurse with a Master’s in Public Health, that was reviewed by board-certified Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine Laura Lynn Obit, yelling and other forms of verbal abuse has been shown to increase levels of anxiety, depression, and stress in subjects over time — not reduce it.

The U.S. military has been working for years to find ways to curb mental health issues within the services and among veterans, but despite the evidence that the shark attack may be detrimental to the well-being of America’s troops, its supporters have continued to contend that it is necessary.

According to Sgt. Maj. Melissa Solomon, the Drill Sergeant Academy’s deputy commandant and a former Army Reserve Drill Sergeant of the Year herself, the value of the shark attack has long been overstated.

“When we think about what the drill sergeant does, and the infamous speech that ‘it’s the drill sergeant’s voice that the Soldier hears when all the chaos is going on,’ it’s not him or her cursing you out,” explained Solomon to Sandboxx News.

“It’s him or her demanding perfection from you. Practicing until you’re perfect,” she added.

How do you actually prepare Soldiers for the stresses of combat?

(U.S. Army photo)

To prepare Soldiers to manage the stresses of combat, you must first provide instruction and guidance on how to deal with the stresses before introducing realistic stressors to train under. That’s not just an assertion the Army made up to justify this shift in training: it’s a conclusion drawn by numerous studies aimed at improving decision-making skills for troops in combat.

This was outlined succinctly in a 2015 paper penned by Dr. Jay Brimstin for the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence in Fort Benning, Georgia, citing a previous Navy study as well as numerous other psychologists and researchers:

“These authors assert that training under extreme conditions alone does not harden the warfighter to combat stressors and does not necessarily improve resilience and performance. Warfighters must first receive information about the stressors they will experience, and be trained in techniques and methods for managing them.”

Stress Exposure Training for the Dismounted Squad: The Human Dimension,” 2015, by Dr. Jay Brimstin for the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of ExcellenceA 2014 study conducted by the RAND Corporation for the U.S. Air Force delves into the same topic as part of that branch’s efforts to enhance service member performance under combat stress. While the study does substantiate the idea that exposure to stress is a valuable part of training, it also suggests that the shark-attack approach misses the mark by a wide margin.

According to their findings, exposure to stressors must be coupled with stress management training to work. And to build the confidence needed to manage stress again in the future, the stressors themselves shouldn’t be overwhelming.

Spec Ops units don’t need the shark attack to train America’s most elite warfighters

(U.S. Army photo)

The science seems clear: Simply shouting at new trainees does not prepare them for combat. Without the teaching element, those without existing ways to manage their stress just wash out which costs them a promising future and the Army a sorely-needed Soldier.

But before you argue that weeding out the weak is the primary function of training, you should know that even America’s most elite warfighting units, like the Army’s own Special Forces, place a heavy emphasis on training to manage stress, going so far as to bring in psychologists to observe and provide feedback.

To better understand how the Army identifies and trains Soldiers to become operators, I reached out to retired Special Forces Warrant Officer and Sandboxx News contributor Steve Balestrieri. During his time in uniform, Balestrieri served as a Special Forces instructor tasked with evaluating candidates as they worked toward the honor of donning the coveted Green Beret.

“Being in Special Forces is a very stressful occupation. Operators in every pay grade may have to deal with making life-or-death decisions and executing critical and dangerous missions. That’s why Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) is so difficult, they place candidates in an extremely stressful environment,” Balestrieri explained.

Green Berets during a training exercise. (U.S. Army photo)

The Special Forces’ selection process is a grueling one, ripe with physical and mental challenges designed to wear a Soldier down.

“They are physically beatdown, tired by lack of sleep, hungry and are forced to think on their feet. They have to make critical decisions on mission accomplishment, pool their talents, and project a calm, cool demeanor,” Balestrieri explained.

But the stress of the Special Forces training isn’t a product of abusive instructors; instead, as in actual combat, it’s a product of the circumstances and the mission.

“There is no harassment or yelling by the SFAS cadre. The candidates are simply told, ‘Do the best you can,’” said Balestrieri.

Further, the idea that removing verbal abuse from basic training will also remove the stress, as some argue, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, Solomon told me. The stresses of training, like the stresses of combat, aren’t mean words and loud voices — they’re based on trying to accomplish difficult goals in even more difficult situations.

“Just because we’re no longer approaching it with an overly aggressive attitude or mindset, doesn’t mean that we’ve lessened the standards,” she explained. “We’re not lowering the standards; we’re changing our approach.”

The Army isn’t claiming to have it all figured out

(Photo by Alex Hollings)

One thing I found genuinely surprising during my time at the Army’s Drill Sergeant Academy was the level of transparency I was met with. I was allowed to walk the halls of the Academy without a chaperone and meet with people ranging from the newest arrivals to the highest echelons of command.

But all of that freedom wasn’t the result of the Academy staff being certain that their approach was without any flaws. Instead, I came to realize, I was given so much access because the school’s commandant, Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Rickey Jackson, not only acknowledges that they still have work to do on their training philosophy, but also made it abundantly clear that he, and his staff, are open to constructive criticism.

On my second day in Fort Jackson, the towering man, who joined the Army to pay for college but fell in love with the service after getting to play for the All-Army basketball team, escorted me into an unassuming conference room, where he and Sgt. Maj. Solomon spent the better part of two hours walking me through every aspect of Academy operations.

dignity respect
I’m a pretty big guy… but CSM Jackson is bigger. (Photo by Kris Broadus)

Jackson, who called his appointment as the Academy’s commandant his “dream job,” explained that they’ve made it about 70% of the way to establishing and operationalizing their new training philosophy, and they’re continuously adapting based on feedback along the way.

Beyond both the commandant and deputy commandant maintaining an open-door policy, After-Action Reports, or assessments of recent activities, are put together every month to look for friction points in the training curriculum and to discuss potential solutions. Jackson and Solomon were clear that they want feedback on how training is going to inform how their philosophy matures.

“Things have changed here. Our views are different, and we’re really looking at being innovative and creative thinkers as leaders at the Drill Sergeant Academy,” Jackson explained to Sandboxx News.

Jackson passionately believes in the Army and in the changes he’s helping to take root within it. As he explained, the crux of those changes comes down to re-establishing trust, not just between leaders and Soldiers, but between the service itself and the families of aspiring service members.

“We all have sons and daughters, family members that we love and that we want to take care of. We want to trust that the Army will take care of them. That key word is trust,” Jackson said. “Being a drill sergeant here at this academy, and what we do to teach our drill sergeants, will build the trust back into our community — that we’re going to take care of our people.”

What do the drill sergeants think?

dignity respect
(Photo by Alex Hollings)

I spoke to several drill sergeant leaders (which is what instructors are called in the Academy) about the changes that have been enacted since Jackson took over last year. I even spoke to some with the promise of anonymity to ensure they felt they could speak freely.

While it seems clear that there remains some degree of internal friction over the shift toward emphasizing Dignity and Respect, the overwhelming consensus is that things are moving in the right direction.

“We’re coaching, mentoring, and teaching them so they’re leaving with a better understanding of what it means to be a Soldier. They’re not scared to ask questions anymore,” explained Sergeant First Class Jenny Welsh, a senior drill sergeant leader at the Academy.

“When you scream and belittle people, they’re not going to ask questions. They’re just going to pretend that they know when in reality they don’t know.”

Welsh clarified that trainees do still get yelled at, but yelling isn’t considered a “primary tool” anymore, which has opened the door for trainees to ask questions, receive remedial training, and more thoroughly understand what’s required of them.

dignity respect
SFC Paris Bledsoe, a Drill Sergeant Leader, observes as new Soldiers graduate Basic Training at Fort Jackson. (Photo by Alex Hollings)

“Serving here now, and as a drill sergeant for over 40 months, [I can say that this method] does not translate to weaker or softer Soldiers,” Welsh said.

First Sergeant Alexander Rivera fits the stereotypical vision most might have of a tough-guy drill sergeant. He joined the Army as an infantryman, and now, nearly two decades later, finds himself in the position of helping to oversee the Army’s training shift toward Dignity and Respect.

“Fortunately, I was able to see both sides of the [training] spectrum,” Rivera, who later also served as a Basic Combat Training First Sergeant told Sandboxx News.

“I graduated here in 2015 and was a senior drill sergeant down in Fort Benning, Georgia, and every cycle, as soon as they got off the bus, it was shark attack, shark attack, shark attack.”

Rivera was honest about some of the push-back he’s heard about the training changes but, contrary to what you might expect from an infantry leader, he also champions the changes the Drill Sergeant Academy has enacted.

“This is how you need to act as a drill sergeant nowadays, and this is the why: Because you’re going to get a better Soldier,” he said.

That shift is also reflected in the way drill sergeants are trained. While drill sergeant school was once seen as akin to going through boot camp all over again, with the academic emphasis placed on screaming and memorization, it’s now more like attending a professional program that focuses on understanding the content and being able to teach it effectively to others.

‘Dignity and Respect’ isn’t about being weak. It’s about learning to be strong.

dignity respect
(Photo by Alex Hollings)

In our polarized digital world, the Army’s shift away from the shark attack and toward Dignity and Respect has been characterized by some as a symptom of America’s increasingly “woke” military, one that seems to emphasize feelings rather than combat efficacy.

But is that criticism based on an objective assessment of outcomes, or — as in my case — on our biases born out of our own experiences?

“Every generation has that, ‘oh, the Army was better when I was in it’ type of mentality. It’s hard to break those mindsets,” SSG Brandon Hickey, a drill sergeant leader at the Academy, told me. “There’s no statistical evidence to show that this generation is any weaker than anybody else.”

My experiences at the Army’s Drill Sergeant Academy talking with those charged with training the next generation of Soldiers, as well as my subsequent research, have clearly demonstrated that the Army isn’t going soft… it’s acknowledging decades’ worth of scientific studies that all point to the same conclusion: that abuse alone doesn’t build successful Soldiers.

The Army’s clearly stated goals aren’t to weed out those who arrive at basic training without the pre-existing skills needed for service. Instead, the Army’s goals are to train incoming civilians to become more than they once were — warfighters capable of managing the stresses of their role within the defense apparatus.

The Army’s clearly stated goals aren’t to weed out those who arrive at basic training without the pre-existing skills needed for service. Instead, the Army’s goals are to train incoming civilians to become more than they once were — warfighters capable of managing the stresses of their role within the defense apparatus. 

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(Photo by Alex Hollings)

As the Academy’s commandant pointed out while I was there, the real power of a drill sergeant isn’t in their ability to yell, scream, or shout. The real power is in their ability to touch the lives of the Soldiers they train, to provide an example worthy of emulation, and to equip them for the rigors of combat.

After decades of doing things the way they’ve always been done, the United States now finds itself in a new era, facing new challenges. And as a salty Marine veteran who arrived in Fort Jackson with biases in hand, I can honestly say that I now understand the value Dignity and Respect can bring to the training environment.

Maybe just as importantly — I’m also a dad who sees the importance of the trust CSM Jackson, SSG McLean, and so many others spoke of during my time in Fort Jackson; trust in the Army to take care of its own, trust in its drill sergeants to prepare Soldiers for war; and trust between America’s oldest military branch and the communities that it serves.

Change, like basic training, is never easy. But we get through because it’s worth it.

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Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran.