NEWPORT NEWS, VA. — ArmyStaff Sgt. Jeffrey Heilman kneeled down in a wooded section of Fort Eustis and calmly told six soldiers he had never met before to prepare: They might find an improvised explosive device on their way to relieve some other soldiers at a checkpoint.
“If you encounter an IED before it explodes, make sure you don’t make a ruckus. Don’t scream,” Staff Sgt. Heilman said as the young soldiers listened intently. “Remember someone put that thing there. They’re trying to kill you and if you react to it and they know that you reacted to it, they’re going to try their best to get whatever result they can. You might be running away from it but they’re still going to blow it up and try to catch you.”
Less than a foot away, an evaluator from the Army's Training and Doctrine Command stood with a clipboard in hand and listened to every word the staff sergeant said, evaluating whether he had the right leadership and critical thinking skills to be named the Army’s Drill Sergeant of the Year.
Noticeably absent from the test scenarios last week were any of the yelling, screaming and order-barking associated with drill sergeants in popular culture. To be sure, Army drill sergeants can still instill fear in new recruits. But as the Army focuses more on developing the critical thinking skills of its soldiers and less on rote memorization and one-size-fits-all training, some of their top drill sergeants say bellowing is a last resort.
“I really consider myself a new generation of drill instructor. I mean, unless you do something really, really out of place, I don’t think there’s any need to do the whole yelling and screaming,” said Staff Sgt. Danneit R. Disla, who is part of the 98th Reserve Division based in Rochester, N.Y. “I just think if you talk to them like a person, like a man, they will act like a man, like a grown man.”
There are about 2,400 drill sergeants in the active duty ranks and about 3,000 in the Army Reserves. Six drill sergeants spent the past week in a physically and mentally grueling competition to win top honors in their division, writing essays, answering questions and marching for miles with 50-pound rucksacks on their backs, all the while never knowing what’s coming next.
Staff Sgt. Heilman was named the winner Friday. He will spend a year assigned to the Initial Military Training Center of Excellence, part of the Training and Doctrine Command, where they will help shape the future of the Army. The new breed of drill sergeants means a quiet and unassuming soldier - who can still be vocal when he or she needs to be - is just as effective as the classic drill sergeant.
Part of the drill sergeants’ evaluation focused on what they would do if a trainee refused to do as they were told. One drill sergeant tackled the scenario by simply saying “let’s talk” and listening to the recruit and then providing mentoring.
The top drill instructors, who each won competitions at the posts where they’re based, say being a trainer who excels means finding a way to relate to individual soldiers who come from a variety of backgrounds.
Underscoring the importance of being able to relate to soldiers, the drill sergeants were evaluated on the correct actions to take in response to a role-playing soldier who was suspected as suicidal.
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