Rite of Passage: Making Basic Training Tougher
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
PARRIS ISLAND, S.C., Jan. 12, 1999 Note to visitors: This is part of a three-story series. Here's the full Web version, or visit the DoD home page, www.defenselink.mil.
Make basic training tougher. This is the challenge given to the military services by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.
But what does "tough" mean? Is it just physical toughness or does mental toughness also come into play? What about military skills and the ability to operate in a tough, unforgiving combat environment? At what point in basic training do recruits finally prove they are tough, that they are ready, that they belong?
All the services struggle with these questions. The answers they have come up with in their basic training programs reflect their service-unique roles and missions. All, however, agree that basic training is more than a physical challenge: It is a journey that young civilian men and women take to become soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. It is a rite of passage.
For the Army and Marines, the essence of this passage from one world to another comes into razor-sharp focus in a final gut-check field exercise that each of their recruits must face and overcome. The Marines call this last challenge the "Crucible; for the Army, it is "Victory Forge." In military terms, these trials of toughness are simply referred to as culminating events.
To see these culminating events, the Press Service visited the Marines at Parris Island and the Army at Fort Jackson, S.C. The installations are little more than 100 miles apart -- Fort Jackson in the upcountry scrub pine, Parris Island on the coast -- but each service brings its distinct mission and ethos to these rites of passage. These service distinctions are overshadowed, however, by what the "Crucible" and "Victory Forge" have in common. They are tough. Real tough.
"We have two missions in the Marine Corps -- to win battles and make Marines," said Col. Bob Hayes, assistant deputy chief of staff for operations and training at the recruit depot here. "The Crucible is one piece of that effort."
The Crucible emphasizes trainee teamwork under stress. "Recruits get eight hours of sleep during the entire 54-hour exercise," said Sgt. Roger Summers, a Delta Company drill instructor in the 1st Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island. "They get two-and-a- half MREs and they are responsible for rationing out the food to themselves. Then we put them through tough physical activities like road marches and night infiltration courses. They march about 40 miles in those 54 hours."
It isn't long before the recruits are tired and hungry, Summers said, but as they keep going they realize they can call on reserves they never knew they had.
"Some of these recruits do things they never thought they could do," he said. "Some of them come from middle-class homes where everything has been handed to them. Others come from poorer homes where nothing was ever expected of them. If they finish the Crucible, they have accomplished something."
One recruit put it best. "I am going to finish this," he said. "And when I do, it will be the most positive thing I have done in my life." Delta Company begins the Crucible at 3 a.m. with a six- mile road march from their barracks to Page Airfield, the Crucible site.
Once there, recruits -- and that's the only thing the drill instructors call the trainees -- place their gear in huts and prepare for the first of four four-hour events.
Each event has a number of "warrior stations" that the team of recruits must work together to overcome or solve. Each station is named for a Marine hero and the drill instructor has a recruit read a brief explanation of how the hero's actions exemplify the Corps and its values.
"I choose a different leader for each station. That way, all the recruits understand what it's like to be the leader and what they have to do to be a follower," Summers said. "For some of them, they want to run everything. They can't admit that a recruit who may not have been the sharpest in previous training has a good idea. Sometimes it's the quiet one who has the idea and no one will listen.
"You see the team learn as they go along," he continued. "At the beginning, they just charge ahead without a plan and without asking if anyone has an idea. By the end of the Crucible you see them working together better, getting advice from all team members and solving more of the problems."
One warrior station, for example, is built around an enemy-mined rope bridge that the recruits must cross with their gear and ammunition boxes. They have only a couple of short ropes and their personal gear to solve the problem. At another event, recruits run into firing positions and engage pop-up targets with 10 rounds in two magazines. Recruit teams battle each other with pugil sticks in yet another event.
The recruits grab food and water when they can. After the first two events comes a five-mile night march. "The night march was the toughest thing we've done here," said 18-year-old Pfc. Josh Lunceford of Charleston, W.Va. "The whole company went on it and whoever led it set a real fast pace. You couldn't see very well and people were tripping over stuff, and everyone was tired."
The recruits hit the rack for four hours of sleep, then begin another day and finish the final two events. "On the second day they are tired and hungry and it really starts to show," said Capt. John H. Rochford, Delta Company commander. "They start getting short with one another, but they realize after the first day they have to work together to finish. No one gets through the Crucible alone."
At the end of the second day, the recruits go through a night infiltration course and then hit the rack for another four hours. When they get up, they face a nine-mile march and the end of the Crucible.
The march begins at 4 a.m. and, at first, is done quietly. Recruits limp along, because no one wants to drop out this close to the end, Summers said.
As the sun rises, the recruits cross DI Bridge. Once across, the drill instructors start Jody calls and the recruits join in. As they get closer to the main base, the Jody calls get louder until they reach the Parade Deck. The recruits form up around a half- size replica of the Marine Corps Memorial -- also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial. There, a significant transformation takes place.
"We're not just giving them basic training, we're turning them into Marines," Rochford said. "There's more to being a Marine than knowing how to fire a weapon. There's a whole tradition behind it, and we want these recruits to measure up to the men and women who went before them."
A color guard raises the flag on the memorial. The chaplain reads a prayer specifically written for the finish of the Crucible, and the company first sergeant addresses the recruits. Then the drill instructors present each of their recruits with the Marine Corps insignia -- the eagle, globe and anchor. He shakes their hands and calls them "Marine" for the first time. Many accept the honor with tears streaming down their faces.
The Army took the Crucible and changed it in ways to suit their needs. At Fort Jackson, Victory Forge was the result. "All Army basic training sites have a culminating event like Victory Forge," said Army Maj. Gen. John A. Van Alstyne, commander of Fort Jackson.
Basic at Jackson once climaxed with a classic field training exercise. "I got here in July 1997 and I took a look at the FTX. It became clear to me we needed to do a lot of work," he said. "The recruits were bused out to a point, there was a short road march and then they went into an area and established positions. Drill sergeants referred to it as a 'Dig-X.' In other words, they did more digging than anything else."
Van Alstyne and his planners visited Parris Island's Crucible. He said they changed it to fit their situation. Victory Forge starts with a 10-kilometer march out and lasts 72 hours in a tactical environment. Though Marine recruits carry weapons during the Crucible, their environment is one of training.
The general gathered his brigade and battalion commanders and drill sergeants and charged them: Implement Victory Forge and make it the high point of basic combat training. The result is a combination of team-building events and tactical lanes. "We wanted to finish with a night infiltration course and a long road march on the way home," Van Alstyne said. The final march started at 12 kilometers, but now averages 15.
"Soldiers now feel like they are pushed both physically and mentally, and they are proud of what they have done," he said. Training companies, he added, routinely come out of Victory Forge looking like rifle platoons that just finished two days of combat operations.
Victory Forge ends at night, and the soldiers gather around a forge. Flames spew from the top as the battalion commander puts the soldiers' experiences into perspective. He holds up a rod of iron and likens it to them when they arrived at Fort Jackson -- metal with a lot of potential but unshaped. But then, he says, they went through the fires of Victory Forge. And as he speaks, he reaches into the forge and pulls out a sword.
Then the drill sergeants go down the line and congratulate the soldiers. "When the drill sergeants walk down the line and tell [the soldiers] they've 'done good,' many of them break down," Van Alstyne said. "They are being told this by someone they really respect. It means a lot to them."