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Military Seeking Recruits, But Can You Survive Basic Training?

Boot camp.

Did you shudder just a little bit as you read those words? Did haunting images -- probably from Hollywood movies -- flash through your mind? Perhaps you pictured drill sergeants bellowing at trembling recruits, or exhausted recruits doing pushups in the mud as the rain pours down.

If you did, you're not alone. Fear of boot camp, officially called basic training, keeps many people away from exploring a career in the military.

But what if much of that fear is misplaced? And what if many people are missing out on potentially rewarding careers as a result?

It's important to remember that basic training is designed to train you -- not to scare you.

"We've got an investment strategy that says we don't quit on soldiers," says Col. Kevin Shwedo. Shwedo is director of operations, plans and training for U.S. Army Accessions Command at Fort Monroe, in Virginia.

There's no question that recruits are in high demand. Each year, the U.S. Department of Defense hires about 300,000 new recruits. Every one of those recruits will go through basic training.

Each branch of the military has its own basic training. The main branches are Army, Air Force, Marine, Navy and Coast Guard. In each branch, basic training differs in terms of duration, location and skills developed. The other branches are Air National Guard, Army National Guard and Reserve.

The length of basic training ranges from seven to 12 weeks -- it's nine weeks for the Army, for example.

The Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force each have only one location for basic training, while the Army has several. Future Marines are trained in one of two locations.

Although there are different branches for basic training, they all share a common goal.

"Basic training's sole purpose is to prepare all enlisted soldiers for any event they may face in Iraq, Afghanistan or any other theater of operations," says Shwedo. He has commanded the largest basic combat training brigade in the Army at Fort Jackson, in South Carolina.

Recruits also gain a lot of side benefits, says Shwedo. These benefits include confidence, a sense of identity and leadership skills.

"The Army has probably the most all-inclusive training program," Shwedo says. "You won't find any other organization in the world that will spend almost $50,000 in training before [the recruits] report to their first duty assignment."

Officers who conduct training are called Drill Instructors (DIs) or Training Instructors (TIs). "Their job is to teach you everything they wish someone had taught them when they were in the same position," says Shwedo.

What's Involved?

If you're not a morning person, this will quickly change -- or you'll just have to endure it. After all, you'll be running several times a week at 5:10 a.m. The rest of the time, your day will start no later than 7:15 a.m.

It's a very good idea to get into shape before basic training. Go for some runs, do some pushups and sit-ups. You'll be glad you did.

"The most important thing you can do is be physically fit when you arrive," says Shwedo. "You'll have an edge that other soldiers don't have."

"Obviously, you want to be as physically fit as you can be before training," agrees Cpt. Holly Brown. She's a military public affairs officer.

When Brown completed basic training, she had the additional challenge of being away from her husband and young daughter. "Being separated from my husband and daughter was difficult," she says. Brown says the military was a "whole new world," and that the learning curve was steep.

Basic training is packed with information you need to absorb. "It's coming at you at the rate of a fire hose," Brown says.

"It's quite a culture shock," admits Naval Lt. Chris Parsons, who works in military recruitment. "You go from being a normal human being ... to here, where you have a bunch of people in uniform speaking a different language."

Prior to basic training, it might be a good idea to review certain basic knowledge, such as military ranks. Your recruiter will likely suggest additional advance reading. The recruiter will also give you a list of items allowed or forbidden (such as tobacco) when you arrive at basic training.

Officers complete a six-week Basic Officer Leadership Course (BOLC). They get almost every task that non-officers get, with one big difference. They also have to plan, execute, critique and then redo the task. "They have to be leaders straight out of training," says Shwedo.

It's during BOLC that an officer candidate's leadership potential is assessed, Shwedo says. They then progress to a pre-commissioning stage that lasts from two to four years, followed by job skill training.

How Hard Is It?

Well, in some ways basic training is pretty rough. The days can be long and arduous. There might be times when you'll hate it.

But there will also be times when you love it -- when you feel the confidence and pride that comes with mastering a new skill, when you start to bond with your fellow recruits, when you gain self-respect and pride for your growing ability to face challenges and tackle them with courage and determination.

The U.S. military describes its approach to training as "Insist and Assist." This means you'll have to follow orders, even when you don't feel like it. But it also means that you'll be given the knowledge, tools and other support that you need to succeed.

"A lot of people would suggest our job is to filter people out, when our job is [actually] to take every soldier that is trainable and has the requisite skills [and] make them succeed," says Shwedo. "You will not graduate unless you meet every standard that the Army has, but we will assist you with training to achieve every standard."

All the basic comforts will be provided. You'll be well clothed and well fed. You'll have a roof over your head (most of the time). You'll have access to high-quality facilities for classroom training, sports and physical fitness.

Shwedo says the Army has greatly revised basic training over the past two or three years to ensure it prepares soldiers for the environments they will find themselves in. In the past, the focus was on specific tasks that had to be mastered for graduation. But now, "we have chosen 39 warrior tasks and nine battle drills," Shwedo says. "We've made the training more relevant."

Taking orders all of the time can be one of the most difficult adjustments for new recruits. If you have trouble with authority, the military might not be for you. Everyone in the military answers to someone, and orders cannot be challenged just because you don't want to do something or don't like the way it was said. Not following an order can result in a serious reprimand or even jail.

Parsons says those who complete basic training learn a wide range of skills.

"They're going to learn to accept each other and work as a team," Parsons says. "It's from being forced to learn from each other that you capitalize on each other's cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

"You get people who might find it difficult adjusting to getting up at 5 in the morning or taking orders directly, but by giving them this indoctrination period....we force them to gel as a team, and that's what carries people through."

Despite the challenges, many recruits successfully complete basic training. If you know what to expect going in, you're more likely to make it through.

"When it comes to basic training, for me it's about their attitude and their desire to succeed more than anything physical," says Parsons. "We have everything here to ensure their success."

Shwedo says some recruits come from very tough upbringings. Some have even been abused, and this has eroded their self-esteem. "They've been looking for structure," he says. They go from an environment where they don't believe in themselves to the military, where "every day is filled with accomplishment."

What's the result of all this accomplishment?

"They get their dignity back," Shwedo says. "When they achieve that ... we have a magnificent soldier for life because we did something that society couldn't."

For Parsons, seeing the change that recruits undergo is a particularly rewarding part of his job. The recruits learn to do things they never thought they could do.

"When you see the transformation -- they come in with no self-confidence and walk out with their head held up -- it's a good feeling."


Surviving U.S. Military Basic Training
More tips on making it

Get Ready for Boot Camp
Advice from the U.S. military

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