The Washington Post Magazine

Story by Jackie Spinner
Photos by Pete Souza/
Gamma Liaison

The Washington Post
Sunday, August 24, 1997

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The New Drill Sergeant

A drill sergeant calls a halt during rifle and bayonet training at Fort Benning, the all-male home of the Army infantry.


For the briefest of moments, it is the Army we know. At Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, a sleepy group of young soldiers is stumbling into formation. It is just after 0700 hours. The morning heat feels steamy, wilting, unforgiving-but not nearly as unforgiving as the man in the distinct, wide-brimmed drill instructor's hat who is watching them, Sgt. 1st Class Garvin Gourie, the most powerful person in their lives. He expects their formation to have the precision of a chessboard: pawns evenly spaced, a perfectly stitched seam of camouflage. "ATTEN . . . TION!" He expects a snap. But there is no snap this morning. A couple of soldiers are still scurrying out of the barracks. One is wearing sunglasses. A few are smirking. And this is the moment. We have seen it. It is so familiar from movies, from TV shows, from childhood games, from our own experiences, that we know what comes next: fury.

Because Gourie is furious. He is not a nice drill sergeant. He is not "candy," the term for instructors who try to be too buddy-buddy. Earlier in the morning, on a pre-dawn run, he was the sergeant pushing the soldiers to run harder, faster. He was the one whose breath was the steadiest as he ran alongside the troops, singing cadences, correcting broken strides, yelling at puffing, panting privates who were slowing down the run and ruining the beautiful clip-clop sound of shoes hitting pavement in unison. As runs go, it wasn't the best.

And now this. Unbelievable. Pathetic. It is so clear to Gourie what is wrong here. An Army, he knows, needs to be orderly. Order means there has been subjugation of the individual, which allows for teamwork, which allows for unity, which allows for fighting-machine dominance. Lining up straight is the beginning of this, absolutely necessary for everything that is to follow, like crawling to walking, and if these soldiers, these fatboys, these slackers, these losers, these morons, these sloths, these spoiled crybabies can't even line up straight, then there goes the Army, there goes the nation, there goes democracy, there goes everything, and so the time has come for Gourie to get in their faces and be furious, just as his drill sergeant was to him and drill sergeants have been forever.

Except this is the new Army, an army that no longer allows drill sergeants to be cussing, ranting, abusive beasts. They cannot slap, hit, kick, punch or call privates names anymore. They cannot deny their soldiers meals or water as punishment, make them roll in the mud or assume the infamous roach position, in which a private lies on his back and shakes his legs and arms in the air like a dying cockroach. That would be humiliating. That could mean disciplinary action. That would be Old Hat, so to speak, and Gourie is New Hat.

So this is what he does.

He searches for the proper f-word to use and settles on "fricking." As in, "Have you lost your fricking minds today?"

They still aren't moving fast enough, so he barks at them some more. "Dress this mess up before I really get upset!"

And then he searches deep inside himself for one more thing to say, something that will punctuate his exasperation and emphasize his rage and motivate his soldiers and save the democracy and meanwhile not violate the rules, and it is those words, carefully chosen, intended as fists, that now rain down upon the soldiers.

"Doggone it!" he roars.

Garvin Gourie is a drill sergeant in the kinder Army, the gentler Army, the modern Army.

In the old Army, the prevailing philosophy of basic training was that a recruit had to be completely torn down before he could be built into a good soldier.

In the new Army, Gourie says in all sincerity: "I try to treat soldiers the way I would want to be treated. I keep that in the back of mind at all times. You can enforce the standards without any type of abuse."

In the old Army, what a drill sergeant said was unchallengeable, and what he did was unquestionable.

In the new Army, Staff Sgt. Sean Polwort, drill sergeant of the year at Fort Benning in Georgia, home of the Army infantry, says: "Would you like to be shoved up against a wall and shouted at? I wouldn't. Why would we want to do that to a private? He isn't going to like it, either. It doesn't make sense to push them around like that. We don't do it anymore."

In the old Army, the chain of command was seen as tacitly, if not directly, endorsing such shoving and shouting.

In the new Army, Gen. William W. Hartzog, the head of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, says: "The drill instructors today need to understand the soldiers they deal with. To do that they need to understand the culture and the mores of those soldiers. Our drill instructors today have to be role models. They have to really function in a way that the very impressionable youth hopefully will emulate.

"You treat people with dignity," he says. "You treat people like human beings."

All of which is to say that there is a profound and consequential shift underway in the Army about the meaning of power in a changing society.

Sergeant at Aberdeen
Sgt. 1st Class Garvin Gourie acquaints a soldier with army life at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Though the Army has been examining its training methods for years, much of the current urgency comes from Aberdeen itself, which in the old Army was just another military installation, and in the new Army is a symbol of what can go wrong when one person's power over another is assumed to have no boundaries. Just as the old stereotype of a drill sergeant is familiar, so, now, is Aberdeen: from the first allegations of rape late last year to the acknowledgment by the Army that something had indeed gone terribly wrong. To the filing of criminal charges against 11 sergeants and one captain. To the further acknowledgment that there were problems Army-wide. To the national hot line set up that recorded 1,288 complaints of abuse in its seven months in operation, 353 of which resulted in criminal investigations. To, most of all, the trial this spring of Delmar Simpson, an Aberdeen drill sergeant who was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for raping six female soldiers under his command.

Maybe Simpson is so extreme that nothing would have prevented what he did at Aberdeen. Maybe he is a product neither of Old Hat nor New Hat, but a true aberration, so egregious in behavior that no adjustment of Army regulations would have kept him from forcing sex on women in his office, in the barracks, in his quarters.

But inside the extreme of Simpson are the Army's 2,100 other drill sergeants, all of whom face moments every day in which the potential to create a good soldier can seem in conflict with the potential for abuse. To be a drill sergeant is to be in a position of absolute power over recruits. It is a kind of power that doesn't exist in the civilian world. Drill sergeants tell their soldiers when to sleep, when to eat, what to wear, how to think. They have the power to reward good soldiers and punish bad ones. They can recommend soldiers be promoted or kicked out of the Army. They can make life easy or they can make life hell. At 18, a person can run away from an abusive home without legal ramifications; in the Army, a recruit who runs away from his drill sergeant can end up in jail. That's the kind of power Delmar Simpson had over his soldiers day to day. He marched them to class, marched them home, inspected their barracks, ordered them to chow, passed out their mail, gave them permission to see the doctor, made sure their uniforms were worn properly, checked to see if they were in bed on time, helped them with their class work, made sure their finances were in order, their relationships were in order, their lives were in order.

The Army has long recognized the kind of immense power that is established under those conditions. Only now is it beginning to recognize the deep flaws in the system. There have been several inquiries conducted since Aberdeen-some by the Army, one by an independent congressional review panel-and among the general findings has been the inescapable conclusion that the system needs to be changed. For instance, the Army has never routinely conducted criminal background checks on drill sergeant candidates. Also, only a small percentage of the candidates are subjected to evaluation, by either a psychologist or their direct superiors. It's as if the ability to bark, "Attention!" has somehow been adequate.

It hasn't. That's why it's more than a new Army that is being created. It is a new drill sergeant.

(continued on Page Two)

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