- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

FORT KNOX, Ky. (AP) — The first batch of recruits with prior military service are going through the Army’s new warfighter refresher course, taught at Fort Knox.

After four weeks here, and for some, additional training in their specialty, half of the initial 26 will likely join Army units in Afghanistan or Iraq.

“It is actually my duty since I came in, to go to combat, and I like that challenge, to go over and defend our freedom,” said Spc. Michael Bonnett, 25, who never fired a weapon during his four years in the Navy and spent the past three years in retail.

Their backgrounds are diverse, and they come from each military branch. They vary in age from 25 to 39. Two are women. Four came straight from the Air Force or Navy.

The four straight from the Air Force or Navy are participants in a special program called “Operation Blue to Green,” which went into effect last month to allow the qualifying 8,000 sailors and 16,000 airmen downsized from those branches to smoothly transfer to the Army, if they so choose, without losing rank.

With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military is looking for more soldiers to sign up. Before this course, those from the Air Force and Navy, or those out of the Marine Corps or Army more than three years, all had to attend full basic training if they joined the Army.

The course will be taught to 3,200 people with prior service in the next year — including all those participating in Operation Blue to Green. The course includes training in Army doctrine, weapons handling and combat skills such as thwarting convoy attacks.

One difference in the training has been learning how to handle Army weapons. Half had never spent a night sleeping in the backwoods during an exercise — a mainstay in Army life — before coming to Fort Knox.

Capt. Tom Oakley, 26, said he is reminded of another difference each time he says, “At ease” to the soldiers.

“In the Army it means relax, but listen,” Capt. Oakley said. “In the Navy, it means go do what you were doing. So, you say, ‘At ease,’ and half the people walk away.”

Many of the participants from the Air Force and Navy say the Army’s daily physical- fitness requirements are tougher than what they had experienced. But that doesn’t mean those without Army experience are not up to par: Two former airmen had the highest scores after the second day that the new recruits were out on the range.

Although this class is taught by the same drill sergeants at Fort Knox who instruct traditional new recruits in Army basic training, these participants are treated as accepted professionals and get privileges, such as Sundays off.

“There’s no in-the-face drill sergeant yelling at the soldiers,” said Lt. Col. Jim Larsen, 42, commander of the 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment, which oversees the training.

Many of the soldiers said the hardest part was convincing their families that enlisting was a good idea.

“When I first let them know I was going to do this, they were like, ‘Why are you doing this? Don’t you know there’s a war going on?’ Of course, I’m aware of it,” said Pfc. Tracy Gates, 33, a police officer in Mississippi who left the Navy in 1992.

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