A Resilient Soldier
Army Basic Combat Training is the Army’s way of washing out those not fit to serve. Through the “boot camp” method of training, the Army sends aspiring soldiers to hell and back forcing them to question every decision they have ever made. Little sleep and little food topped with constant punishment all provide the conditions required to weed out those who don’t belong and to push those who do belong to their absolute limit. This is done by getting the recruit to find an inner drive and motivation to build the resiliency skills required to last in the military. Those who are negative about the experience and are unable to find the resilience to push through simply will not make.
The boot camp method of training is unique to the military and is a very intriguing process. As soon as we took our first step onto the training ground, it seemed as though everyone around us had been zapped of all happiness. The journey begins at reception, considered by us to be hell on earth, consisting of very little sleep, hours upon hours of waiting in line, and a countless vaccines. Uniforms are distributed and haircuts are given, all with almost no words being exchanged. The buildings are rundown, all signs of life seem to removed and replaced with white stones and concrete. With reception not even being the start of training, the Army was quick to leave a negative first impression from the very beginning.
Tired and delusional as a result of hours of standing in line and being prodded with needles, we had no idea how much worse it could get. The reality set in quickly though, when our training company’s drill sergeants stormed the bus we were on. With an introduction of screaming and knife hands, nothing but chaos ensued. We were placed into a formation and managed to screw up everything asked of us, of course, resulting in pushups for what seemed like days. From there, we all ran with all of our newly–issued gear over our heads to find a suitable area for an “inventory.” The reality was a chaotic dump of all of our gear leading to a mix up of just about everything. Everyone was missing at least one piece of equipment and none of us had our proper size. This, of course, led to more punishment. We did not realize it yet, but this was crucial in bringing us together because we had no choice but to spend the little free time we had trading with each other, trying to find our proper size. Those who were selfish here never built a relationship with any of us and would go on to eventually fail.
The training continued with new tasks being assigned to us everyday being followed by an unsurprising failure each time. We soon realized that it wasn’t actually possible to successfully complete these tasks which led some to give up. It began to hurt. Our bodies began to react to the extensive amount of immunizations given directly before training along with the unclean living conditions that come with living in proximity of nearly 240 people. Before long we all had the “bootcamp plague” and with that, an exhausted body. With a maximum of 10 minutes to eat an entire meal, we all felt starved and way too weak to be conducting hours of physical activity.
The boot camp effect started to take its toll on me and I had a very difficult time asking myself anything other than “is it worth it?” Although I did not know it at the time, that was the sole purpose of basic training. According to Joanna Hayden, the author of “Introduction to Health Behavior Theory,” self-efficacy is “the belief in one’s own ability to successfully accomplish something.” The Army was looking for self-efficacious soldiers who believed that no task could stop them! What better way to have the most lethal organization in the world than to have one who thinks it can take on the world. According to Hayden, those with strong sense of efficacy will take on the most difficult of tasks, ones that others would not consider doing.
What separates those who graduate from those who don’t is their internal motivation and resilience skills. While we all serve to work towards the goal set by the drill sergeants to graduate as effective soldiers, our determination to reach our own personal goal is what gives us the motivation to do so. While all of us share the same common goal, very few share the same personal goal. My goal was to prove to my family and my girlfriend that I had what is required to serve. When I doubted myself, I thought about my goal and how great it will feel to accomplish it. Those who are sifted out lose their direction along with their inner drive to accomplish their personal goal. When that drive is lost, the Army gets rid of them. The military has no time for those who do not have the drive to accomplish the most difficult of tasks. What the military wants is for its soldiers to have that drive to accomplish their given tasks; it does not care where that drive comes from. So it places its recruits through a rigorous process that gives them no choice but to tap into that inner drive or to fail.
While unknown to those outside of the military community, the defeat and belittlement that we faced in boot camp built up a positive mindset within us. While this sounds counterintuitive, some sense may be made of this. From the outside, it would seem as though repetitive belittlement and defeat would initiate a coping mechanism of shutting down and losing touch with our inner emotions. After experiencing the world of basic training, I discovered that just the opposite is true. Those of us who made it through basic training built a strong set of resiliency skills that took us out of the present. Instead of harping on how horrible our lives were, we thought about how great it would be to graduate. We thought about how proud our significant others, parents, and siblings would be when they first saw us in uniform. These thoughts caused an influx of positive emotions that got us through the worst of our situations. A survey I conducted proved that I was not alone with this claim. Out of the 28 soldiers survey, 93% of them agreed that they implicated a method of deep thought to think about a more positive time.
Sometimes described as a world of hate, there was no escaping harsh criticism and mass punishment while in basic training. 86% of the soldiers surveyed said they thought about quitting due to being punished for someone else’s mistake. This total lack of control and constant failure caused each of us to “dig deep” in a quest to find resiliency skills from within
Very often, we found inner strength by thinking about times in the past that made us happy, or by thinking about seeing family for the first time while in uniform. By thinking these thoughts, we were able to escape the harsh reality we were suffering. These thoughts motivated us and gave us a positive approach in dealing with the now, to be rewarded later. On the contrary, if someone was unable to build or find the resiliency skills required, they would begin to blame others for the tough situation and consistently make excuses. With the military being about getting the job done, it wanted nothing to do with those filled with doubt and excuses. Clearly, two very different approaches result from the very basics of the training environment, yet this is just the beginning.
It may seem strange that it was crucial for us to maintain a positive mindset for the “boot camp” method of training to be successful but Thomas Davis brought some clarity as to why. According to Davis, author of “Effects of Stress, Coping Style, and Confidence on Basic Combat Training,” recruits who were able to positively cope with the situation were less likely to drop out of the training. Along with that, those who had a positive mood were able to respond to different situations faster than those who were negative. I experienced this first hand when I was paired up with a soon to be drop out for the confidence course. The confidence course is all about combining team work with confidence to navigate through some tough and dangerous obstacles. My partner had been negative about his current situation throughout the entirety of training and when it came time for him to perform tasks, he was not mentally there. Being the guy that had to raise me over an 8 foot wall, he failed to find a method of completing the task because instead of problem solving, he was complaining. This was common throughout training but the Army made sure it had no part of it. We are now seeing that this method is not only revealing those who spend their day complaining and doubting, but also those who cannot perform tasks under pressure.
Even with the given evidence, some argue that basic training is successful because it helps the recruit separate themselves from their emotions but with that logic, they would lose their greatest advantage to completing basic training. As stated above, we looked to past memories and future experiences to get through our training. When I was having a tough time, I did not try to cut off my bad feeling because that is near impossible, especially in the basic training environment. Instead, I thought about seeing my girlfriend for the first time in three months, and how proud she would be. These thoughts gave me an adrenaline rush and pushed me through the tough times. A friend of mine in basic had a father who was currently serving in the Army and wanted nothing more than to prove to his dad that he had what it takes. By reaching this emotion, he would wake up with enthusiasm every morning and did whatever required to become a successful soldier.
According to John Bornmann, Author of “Becoming Soldiers:Army Basic Training and the Negotiation of Identity,” boot camp is the first time that many recruits are challenged. These challenges provide the recruits with confidence and pride once they are accomplished. John went on to say that basic training created a sense of social acceptance since everyone was going through the same experience. All of these things I’ve listed are emotions of some type. Finally, while we all have a unique reason for joining the military, we all shared something in common. An incomparable love for the country that we were aiming to serve. This feeling of pride and aspiration is one that guides nearly all of us within the United States Army. So to say that the military’s hostile environment is in place to separate us from our emotions just does not work.
Throughout training, we went to hell and back to earn the coveted title of a United States Soldier. It is a grueling yet rewarding process in which only those who are cut out to be a soldier survive. The military has been successful in producing effective soldiers for years yet little is known about why, yet through my experiences in basic training, the “boot camp” method caused us to find or create strong resiliency skills. This caused us to either find motivation causing us to take on a positive approach, or to find a negative approach to the entire situation. Those of us with a positive mindset found the tools and motivation to get through some of the toughest experiences of our lives.
To graduate basic combat training, we must be in great physical shape, be able to cope with tough conditions, and most importantly, be resilient when it gets tough. Anyone who cannot meet those standards washes out. It is argued that by using these strict standards to wash people out, the Army is doing itself a disservice while also being unfair to those who may have a unique talent to bring to the military. This is a compelling argument, yet it makes the assumption that the given soldiers talent in one subject outweighs the importance of being a well rounded soldier.
I trained with several recruits who where going on to be “wheeled vehicle mechanics” in the Army after they completed training. Several of them joined with prior experience as either a car or truck mechanic and looked at basic training as a minor road block in the way of a successful career. It did not take long for this mindset to take its toll on the recruits resulting in 11 out of the 18 mechanics in my unit being removed from training by the end of the cycle. I was dumbfounded when I found out that the Army would actually ditch 11 experienced mechanics because they did not have what it would take to “be a soldier” when these soldiers were not even going to be combat oriented. Just as the argument above, I assumed the Army did itself a disservice by removing 11 mechanics with prior experience.
About half way through the training cycle, a close friend of mine told me that he was dropping from the training. When I asked him why, he could not provide any reason other than that he was not cut out to be a soldier. The explanation made absolutely no sense to me because he had an awesome sense of humor, he was in better shape than most, and was a much better shot than anyone. If anyone was cut out to be a soldier, it was him. What I did not know at the time, was that he lacked the resiliency skills required to be a soldier. He could not cope with a tough time and if he couldn’t cope with being in training, how would he cope with being in a firefight in Iraq.
My answer to why the Army wanted its mechanics to be top tier soldiers and to why training was so difficult that even those who seemed to be the best would drop out was not found until my graduation. My battalion commander gave a speech explaining that we were all officially lethal assets to the United States Army who’s number one mission is to perform our duties as a soldier through our designated career field. He explained that we are all rifleman first, capable of taking the fight to the enemy at any time. Even as mechanics, cooks, aviators, and armorers, we could find ourselves operating in environments that only the strongest could get through. Those words struck a chord with me and allowed me to see the unique purpose of basic training.
The truth of the matter is, every job in the military can see combat and get thrown in the thick of it. Mechanics sometimes go out on convoys to fix vehicles and to provide support for the infantrymen during a firefight. Intel guys go out into the field to collect intelligence. Aviators fly in and out of hostile zones to provide support for the ground troops. Cooks are often attached to an infantry unit and sent to a small forward operating base to keep the soldiers there fed. In all of these circumstances, soldiers who are not infantrymen need to have the skills of an infantrymen while having the confidence of acting accordingly. If the standards were lowered just so they could have experienced mechanics, the soldiers would not have known how to handle the situation endangering themselves and those around them. Along with that, even those who are a great shot could put the whole mission in jeopardy if they suddenly loose the heart to continue on. Once you are in the middle of a combat zone, there is no turning back.
While the argument that the Army is missing out and being unfair by having tough training demands has some substance, it’s just not feasible. The Army is not loosing anything when it drops someone because they potentially just saved that recruits life along with the lives of those they would have served with. The Army can teach anyone to be a mechanic and because of that, they do not care what background the recruit has. When it comes to the Army being unfair, I can say pretty bluntly that the military does not give a damn. For the same reason as why those who are blind are not allowed to be bus drivers, you cannot put people at risk to make some recruits feel better. It’s a tough organization but it’s the most lethal for a reason. The military knows what its doing and it needs to make the best of its all volunteer force.
The military is not alone in its search for resiliency. Those aspiring to be doctors not only have to be the top of the class in terms of academics, they must possess a unique set of resiliency skills to push them through long days filled with life and death decisions. Sound familiar? Medical school is so difficult because it only can use the best. In an interview with a Rowan students pushing to get into medical school, Daniel Hill, I asked him if he was angered by how difficult it is to get into and through medical school. He responded saying that “Medical school needs to be tough. In a career with life or death decisions made on a regular basis, there is no room for error. By being so selective, they limit the chances of someone who cannot handle the job making a poor decision.” Hearing that only solidifies by two claims. A strong sense of resiliency is required to be successful in such an important profession, and those who do not contain those skills have no place serving the country. Without being able to pull themselves out of the situation and find the inner motivation to complete the training, those recruits become a liability to the success of the organization as a whole.
Bornmann, J. W. (2009). Becoming soldiers: Army basic training and the negotiation of identity (Order No. 3349632). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304880565). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.rowan.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/304880565?accountid=13605
Davis, T. W. (2006). Effects of stress, coping style, and confidence on basic combat training performance, discipline, and attrition (Order No. 3207963). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304960885). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.rowan.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/304960885?accountid=13605
Hayden, Joanna. “Self-Efficacy Theory.” Introduction to Health Behavior Theory. Second ed. Burlington: Jones and Bartlett Learning, 2014. 14-21. Print.
Survey (will officially publish on “Counterintuitive” soon)
That’s a terrific read, BlackHawk. There’s just enough source material to make it credible that the Army is consciously adopting carefully crafted psychological methods. That you supplement that material with your own original research and soldier survey is most impressive. I’ve enjoyed watching this essay take shape, and even more observing your growth as a writer.
I really appreciate all of the lessons learned throughout the semester. I am much more confident in my writing and look forward to expanding on the lessons I’ve learned throughout this class. Thank you again for the awesome opportunity!