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“Never point a weapon at someone unless you intend to kill ’em,”
roared Sergeant Allen. He slapped my M-1 rifle so hard the butt
slammed me in the jaw. Then, with me shouting “I’m a dumb-ass recruit,”
he ran me until I keeled over.
I never forgot that lesson nor, like most recruits who met up with
him, did I ever forget his name. Or the lessons he taught or the
discipline he instilled. His “STAY ALERT, STAY ALIVE” mantra saved my
life dozens of times over the next 25 years. My jaw still tingles
whenever I think of him.
Later, when I became a sergeant, I passed his wisdom on to the men
who served with me in Italy during Round One of the Balkan War and
during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. And I’m sure his savvy saved
many a young grunt’s life during those years, too.
Sergeant Allen was my Basic Training platoon sergeant in the spring
of 1946. When he shaped up 15 year old Recruit Hackworth along with 40
other sad sacks, he gave new meaning to the words stress, yell, and
cajole. He demanded exactness 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If we
were less than perfect, there’d be push ups, squat jumps, midnight
details like cleaning the inside of a toilet bowel with a razor blade or
shining the barracks floor with a small piece of cotton and shoe polish
until your fingertips bled.
Sergeant Allen — 53 years later, I still wouldn’t dare call him
anything but Sergeant — was not a sadistic monster. He’d seen the
elephant and knew what it took to keep men alive. He had just come
back from kill or be-killed environments — Africa, Sicily and Italy —
and had seen too many peach-faced kids turned into purple mush because a
sergeant hadn’t been tough enough.
During my basic training, the only officers I saw were on pay day and
on the firing range. NCOs were gods, and they ran the show.
Now things have changed — not for the better. The officers and
sociologists have taken over, and few have ever led a squad in combat.
These kinder gentler folks have gotten their learning from books and
lectures, and few have a clue about what’s needed to survive. No way
can their “Consideration for others” training help a soldier drive a
bayonet in his opponent’s gut or give him the sharp reaction needed when
a sergeant yells “Knock out that machine gun.”
I regularly talk with dozens of Army drill sergeants, and they tell
me this new, politically correct approach is creating an Army that’s
marshmallow soft. Here’s what they’re saying:
“Road marches are now conducted at 4 kilometers an hour. My
7-year-old hikes faster. No wonder our new privates can’t hump a
twelve-miler when they get to a line unit.”
“A sergeant was marching his platoon and he shouted at them to get in
step. The brigade CO (a full colonel) locked his heels together and
read him the riot act for yelling at the privates.”
“The philosophy here is that the only stress the private should have
is between himself and the task. If we can’t create artificial stress,
we’re setting ourselves up for colossal failure.”
“We have a new Sgt. major and he told the privates if they think the
drill sergeant is being too hard on them to bypass the chain of command,
come see him and he’ll take care of it.”
“Drill sergeants are not allowed to make the privates do pushups, or
run on FILL DAY (first day): a no-stress fill. There’s almost no
training on Saturday so the privates can take it easy.”
“We have to let the trainees go to concerts, a mandatory mall visit
in their 6th week of training, and we have to cancel a day of training
so they can participate in the monthly retirement ceremony. Should I
mention the mandatory museum visit during their 2nd weekend of
training? All of this to reduce ‘stress.’ Yes Sir, we’re training some
warriors over here.”
The new Army chief of staff better talk to his drill sergeants
without any officers around and get the straight skinny. Or invest
heavily in body bags and white flags.