FORT BENNING, GA. -- Not all the young men who come here for infantry training turn out to be the gung-ho teen-agers of a recruiting sergeant's dreams. Several would-be soldiers in almost every training battalion find military life so intolerable they attempt suicide to get out of it.
Psychologists at this infantry training center said that the recent experience of Delta Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 54th Regiment here was typical of the experience with today's volunteers.
Delta started out in July with 209 trainees, most white 18-year-olds with high school diplomas. Col. Richard S. Siegfried, who runs recruit training here, said that the new waves of infantry volunteers "are under-black and under-minority" compared with those of the past.
He said blacks and other minorities, instead of volunteering for the infantry, appear to be choosing Army billets that give them skills that will help them in civilian life, such as clerical and hospital specialties. In 1984, 15.4 percent of the 25,888 trainees were black. This year's percentage of blacks is projected to be 12.1, Siegfried said.
Of the 209 who started seven weeks of basic and six weeks of advanced infantry training in July with Delta Company, 179, or 86 percent, made it through. They were graduated in a colorful ceremony that, included passing in review before a grandstand filled with parents, many of whom were crying pridefully. Of 66 graduates queried by The Post, just five said they would now leave the Army if given the chance. All the others said they were still glad they had joined.
Of the 30 who failed to graduate, four made what the Army called "suicide gestures" in the first week of basic training when drill sergeants yell at recruits and often order them to do punitive exercises, such as push-ups, during training days that run from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. Two recruits gulped down bottles of pain-killing pills and two swallowed glass-cleaning fluid in what they said after they had recovered were desperation attempts to get out of the Army. The Army sent three home; the fourth graduated, and said later he no longer wants to leave the service.
Maj. B.R. Deal, head of Benning's mental health service, said he sees up to 400 soldiers a week who cannot tolerate military life. He said Delta's 2 percent rate of suicide gestures is about half the usual percentage for a company of trainees at this home of the infantry.
"They tell us they want out, and this is the only way they know how to get out," Capt. Edna Canino, a counselor at the mental health center, said. Deal and Canino said they hospitalize recruits they think are serious about killing themselves and usually send the others who made what the counselors call "attention-getting gestures," back to their units. However, the counselor said they usually recommend that recruits who make suicide gestures be sent home because of the likelihood they will continue to disrupt their units.
"You have young men who in some cases are very immature and emotionally fragile and then you put them in an environment that is totally authoritative with a lot of yelling," Deal said, "plus the added component of fear. There is a fine line between abuse and forcing a kid to train." Deal went through basic training twice, first in 1958 and again in 1967, as an enlisted man before he took specialized schooling and took up counseling soldiers with emotional problems.
"I'm not sure" that drill sergeants yelling at recruits "adds much to the training environment," Deal said. "If you could get through to them by yelling, their parents would have been more successful, because the majority of these folks have been yelled and screamed at all their lives and this has not been successful in changing their behavior."
Although Army rules forbid drill sergeants from ganging up and yelling at a recruit or placing their hands on him, the yelling still occurs, according to recruits and outside observers. Deal and Canino said drill sergeants feel compelled to live up to the Hollywood image of a D.I. (drill instructor) as portrayed in such movies as "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Full Metal Jacket."
"A D.I. who tends to be understanding and cares about the trainees and does not fit the norm is sometimes ostracized himself because he doesn't fit the mold," Deal said. "And there is a mold. And there is an image of a D.I. You are Lou Gossett. If you don't fit that mold, you tend to become an outcast."
Siegfried and other commanders at Fort Benning said that they are trying to change the D.I. from a yelling disciplinarian to a caring teacher under an Army emphasis called "mentoring." This effort, one officer said, has confronted the D.I.s with "an identity crisis."
While a few recruits in Delta Company found their drill sergeants intolerable, most of the graduates told a reporter who watched them train that they regarded them highly and understood the need to impose discipline.