Tougher Sailors From the Start
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
GREAT LAKES NAVAL TRAINING CENTER, Ill., July 1, 1999 To see our complete series of articles on Air Force and Navy basic training, visit our Web special "Tougher Service Members from the Start." To see our earlier series of articles on Army and Marine Corps basic training, see "Rite of Passage."
The recruit had made a knucklehead mistake. He was in-processing for boot camp and started to walk into the women's head instead of the men's.
His recruit division commander, or RDC as they are known, got right in his face. "Do you always do things without thinking, recruit?" he said.
"I'm like totally sorry, dude," said the recruit. But not as sorry as he was going to be when the RDC got through with him.
"We take the young men and women society gives us and make sailors the fleet can use," said Capt. Craig I. Hanson, commanding officer of Recruit Training Command here. The Navy's only boot camp, Great Lakes does that 50,000 times a year and has taken pains in recent times to put a kind of double dare back into basic training.
Critics in the past few years have carped that basic training in all the services save the Marines had gone soft in the all- volunteer era. In publicly announcing his order to the services to restore "tough" to basic, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen in March 1998 told reporters:
"The physical standards have not been demanding enough, and I have been rather surprised to find that I perhaps can do more of the physical activity than some of the recruits -- even at my advanced age. I think that does not bode well for those young people. ..."
Senior Chief Petty Officer Steven C. Shaw is the leading CPO for the Great Lakes physical training division. Though he hadn't heard Cohen's words, he'd agree with some of them. A lot of recruits coming in aren't in shape, he observed.
"Many of them seem to have spent their time in seats playing video games," Shaw said. "They are the classic example of couch potatoes." It seems the only recruits who generally could pass the Navy physical training test the day they arrive are the high school jocks sprinkled in the ranks, he observed.
To change that state of affairs and toughen its nine-week boot camp, the Navy sharply increased physical fitness training. Out went the recruits' ability to call time-out when they felt training was too stressful. In fact, the Navy tightened the screws by adding "Battle Stations" -- 12 straight hours of unrelenting pressure.
To peel those couch potatoes, the Navy evaluates all the recruits when they arrive. They get a "PT-Zero" test that gives the recruit division commanders and the staff a baseline for what needs to be done, Shaw said. To graduate, recruits must score a "good" or better on the Navy PT test of sit-ups, push- ups and a 1.5-mile run. To score "good" in the run, for example, the typical 18-to-19-year-old recruit has to finish in 11 minutes or less.
"The recruits exercise six days a week now," Shaw said. "I noticed a big change in the passing rate when that was started." Recruits used to exercise only three days a week.
In addition to PT-Zero, there is PT-1 in the fourth week of training. PT-2, in the seventh week, is the one that counts. "They can't go on to Battle Stations without passing PT-2," Shaw said. Recruits who fail the PT test, even after recycling and getting special help, do not finish boot camp. About 4 percent of the recruits do not pass PT-2.
Battle Stations is the culminating event for Navy boot camp. It starts at 10 p.m. with a call to general quarters and lasts until 9:30 the next morning. During this time, recruits must overcome 12 highly realistic crisis simulations.
"No food, no sleep, constant stress," said Petty Officer 1st Class Jeff Luce, a Battle Stations facilitator. "But they have to be able to handle these situations in the fleet. The way the world is, there probably will be times when they will be on general quarters and at their battle stations. They will have to deal with this stress and still get their jobs done."
Each event is based on a historical scenario. The Shaft Alley Rescue, for example, is based on the sinking of the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Hundreds of sailors were trapped below deck when the ship capsized and sank. Rescuers had to go in through the upended engine shafts to save survivors.
Recruits in the Shaft Alley scenario had to carry a litter-bound 185-pound dummy through an obstacle course. The dummy played the role of "wounded shipmate."
"What did you learn?" Luce asked the recruits following the event.
"If you don't pay attention to detail, you could cause more damage to your shipmate," said one recruit.
"Great. What else?" Luce asked.
"You should listen to your shipmates for ideas," said another recruit.
"That's right. The leader doesn't have every single answer," Luce said. "Your shipmates will come up with some pretty good ideas if you just listen.
"But you did well," he continued. "You started together, you finished together. Nobody gave up. Are you ready for the next event?"
"AYE, PETTY OFFICER!" the group yelled.
The stress continued through the night. Recruits double-timed between stations. At each, they learned a piece of Navy history and how it affects them today. For each scenario, the facilitators chose a new group leader.
At a station based on the 1967 explosion and fire aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, the recruits had to pass through a "scuttle," a circular hatch, without touching the sides. They also learned how Forrestal sailors manifested "courage," "honor" and "commitment," three Navy watchwords.
"So who is the hero?" asked facilitator Petty Officer 1st Class Anthony Delaney.
"The first one in," said a recruit.
"Any others?" Delaney asked. "How about the last one out?"
The recruits mulled that over.
"The first man in was a hero because he didn't know what he was stepping into," Delaney said. "The last man is in a burning room and turns to a sailor and says, 'You go first.' Doesn't this show courage, honor and commitment?"
Increasing physical fitness standards, increasing the time devoted to physical fitness and Battle Stations have increased the rigor of Navy boot camp, but has that been enough toughening?
"You can't just look at physical aspects," said Petty Officer 1st Class Ray Hampton, a recruit division commander. "The earlier standards were not demanding enough. We made them tougher. Now we hear people saying make them still tougher.
"We're dealing with a lot here. It's not just physical. For some of these recruits, it's the first time they've been away from home. They're scared, homesick and they miss their families. On top of that, here's someone putting stress on them to learn new things, to have some discipline and to motivate them to do well. I think boot camp is tough enough."
Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauriann Brown, another RDC, agreed. "They can make it harder, but then they'd have to give us more time," she said. "I think it's hard enough right now."
Brown said she believes boot camp challenges both men and women. "They go through the same physical training," she said. "But they are held to gender-specific standards."
The recruits agree. "The PT was challenging," said Seaman Recruit Alexander Ronda. "You definitely get a workout. Anyone getting ready to come into the Navy should prepare themselves for it." Ronda's recruiter held a PT class for the recruits in the delayed entry program.
"Some of the recruits had real trouble with physical fitness and passing the PT test, but the biggest problem was the fact that many people showed up with no discipline at all," said Seaman Recruit Geoffrey Hoey. "Having that discipline is important. It helps make the division work together."
The recruits said the worst days were the "P-days," or processing days. Those were the days they arrived at the depot and met their RDCs -- the three individuals who'd represent the Navy during most of their time at Great Lakes.
"You go through clothing issue, you lose your hair, you get medical checks, there's a lot of waiting around," said Seaman Recruit Cesar Garcia. "The RDCs are trying to get you to listen, you're away from home and wondering if this was a good idea."
Capt. Hanson also thinks boot camp is tough enough. The master chief petty officer of the Navy and a panel of command master chiefs examined the Great Lakes operation and agreed.
"[Basic training] is meeting the needs of the fleet," Hanson said. "The [senior enlisted panel] said we could tweak certain aspects, but the overall program is resulting in sailors well- suited to the needs of operational units." He said the credit for toughening the program goes to the RDCs. They were the ones, he said, who saw the need, proposed the changes and found the way to fit the changes into boot camp.
"The way I look at this is, I'm training my replacement," said Chief Petty Officer Richard Kirvan Jr. "I want to do the best job I can so they will be a credit to my Navy."