More female drill sergeants help change cadence at Fort Leonard Wood

Staff Sgt. Zandra Santana 1st Battalion, 389th Regiment, 98th Infantry Division, Army Reservist from Puerto Rico, packs her gear at the Central Issue Facility. Santana is a mobilized drill sergeant on Fort Leonard Wood for six months as part of a program to place more female drill sergeants into training units.


By JESSE BOGAN | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 25, 2015

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — The platoon of 70 greenhorn soldiers rested on the barracks tile floor during a recent evening of Army basic combat training, while their drill sergeant, Megan Slone, gave a final lesson for the day about how to sight a rifle.

Half of the soldiers had never shot a gun before, which was fine with Slone. That meant fewer bad habits to fix before qualification time.

“If you are scared to fire a weapon, that’s OK,” said Slone, 27, assuring the kick isn’t bad and ample practice time at the range. “You are going to shoot three rounds, five rounds, and then you are going to be OK. I promise. You will be fine.”

Later she said physical training exercise the following morning would be held inside because of cold weather.

The mild tempo defies the “Full Metal Jacket” image of a profane drill instructor barking out orders to terrified privates. It’s exactly the kind of new relationship today’s military wants to see between drill instructors and trainees.

For starters, in a military whose leadership has historically been dominated by men, Slone is a woman. She is among nearly 500 female drill sergeants nationwide — twice as many as in 2007 — who are part of a push to not only integrate military leadership, but to ensure that men in the ranks respect the authority of women.

In a wider sense, Slone’s ability to show a gentler approach is consistent with a transformation of basic training. It’s a shift designed to forge a new skill set as the nation transitions from lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, the Army is training new soldiers to be “apprentice thinkers.” Their first assignment likely won’t be in battle.

“The drill sergeant is more of a mentor and an instructor than an individual yelling at you,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Woods, senior enlisted adviser for the Center for Initial Military Training at Fort Eustis, Va., which oversees Army basic training and drill sergeant school.

That’s not to say female drill sergeants are being sought out of a stereotypical view that women are softer.

Army leaders say a drill sergeant is a drill sergeant, regardless of gender. Other than the distinctive headgear — men march under “Smokey Bear” hats, women wear Australian bush hats — they dress in the same uniform.

Soldiers in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood — where 128 of 416 drill sergeants are female — can attest to that uniformity.

“They are equally paired,” said Jacob Massey, 24, who grew up around Tower Grove Park and worked at Imo’s before joining the Missouri Army National Guard. “Sometimes (the female drill sergeants) are a little stricter, other times it’s the other way around.”

Slone can be both at once — which she showed as her trainees gathered before her on the tile floor.

Right when it seemed like she was more of a summer camp counselor than a rigid enforcer of Army standards, she was quick to demand a group of trainees in a nearby room to shut up. Then, an 18-year old female soldier from Newport News, Va., had a burning question before the day’s training was over.

Drill Sergeant, she asked, what do you do when it’s a fellow trainee’s birthday?

That’s still a wrong question to ask, one that Slone quickly seized on for a team-building exercise. Instead of cake and ice cream for the birthday soldier, Slone gave him a stern command: “Push.”

As the platoon sang “Happy Birthday,” the soldier sounded off the count of each pushup, with Slone providing the cadence call. Pushups led to leg lifts, mountain climbers, then back to more pushups.

Then, with her nudging, they all joined in. Soon the collective answer to the drill sergeant’s commands for each pushup reverberated through the barracks building. As the soldiers yelled louder, so did Slone, who was clearly in charge.

And it was nearly time for her to go home for the night, to her husband and 4-month-old baby boy.

Of 1.3 million active duty service members in all branches of the military, 15 percent are women, a rate that hasn’t moved much since the 1990s. But the range of military jobs open to women has climbed. Today, all but 10 percent of positions can be filled by both men and women.

The pace seemed to pick up in 2013, when old restrictions that kept women out of direct ground combat positions were lifted. The military is now conducting a policy review of the change, which should be completed by Jan. 1, 2016.

“In life, as we all know, there are no guarantees of success,” former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in 2013. “Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance.”

Infantry, combat engineering, cannon artillery and tank units and specialties such as Navy SEALs and Army Rangers are among those that remain male.

At Fort Leonard Wood, combat engineering is expected to open up to women within the next two years. Earlier in January, at Fort Benning, Ga., a pre-Ranger course started accepting women.

As more roles open to women, the Army wants to boost the number of female drill sergeants from a fourth of the total to a third. Female drill sergeants also are expected to be among the top 10 percent of noncommissioned officers, which are considered the backbone of the Army.

“The increasing role of women in the military parallels the same trend in other professions throughout the nation,” former Lt. Gen. Anthony R. Jones wrote in the forward of an in-depth 2008 report on integrating basic training. “The Army is, however, a mission-driven organization, not a catalyst for social change.”

Getting integration levels to where they are now has been a rocky road.

A mixed-gender basic training program was abandoned in 1982 after four years, according to the 2008 report. Debate continued on the topic when gender-integrated units that deployed to Panama in 1989 “revealed confusion in the field.” But the success of female soldiers in Operation Desert Shield in the early ’90s reversed many concerns. And the report said the terrorist attacks in 2001 “tended to turn attention away from training programs for women recruits.”

“At this writing,” the report author wrote, “the large number of female soldiers serving in mixed-gender units in Iraq and the changing faces of modern warfare seems certain to bring to the fore, once again, the question of gender-integrated training of men and women in basic combat skills during initial-entry training.”

Fort Leonard Wood, in south-central Missouri, is at the forefront of the transition. The base is one of just three in the country that does gender-integrated basic training in the Army.

As the number of female drill sergeants at the base has risen, the standards to qualify have remained the same.

Apart from the minimum number of pushups and maximum time allowed for the two-mile run, drill sergeant candidates have the same training requirements to meet. They go through the same extensive screening process.

But some trainees — including those under Slone’s command — say the gender differences are sometimes apparent.

Joy Morgan, 19, of Winston-Salem, N.C., noticed a different rapport.

“The female drill sergeants are easier to talk to sometimes,” she said.

But she said it was Drill Sgt. Caleb Hawkins who helped talk her out of quitting when she was homesick after a relative died. Hawkins, 29, said it’s beneficial to work with drill sergeants with different backgrounds, particularly with disciplinary issues.

“I can deal with two guys going at each other,” he said. “Females take it to a whole other level.”

The shift to more female leadership at Fort Leonard Wood has occurred against a backdrop of a sexual harassment and abuse scandal that has rocked the base in recent months.

In September, Drill Sgt. Angel Sanchez, was found guilty of a long list of egregious claims against him, such as forcing sexual favors from young trainees. A subsequent report found numerous lapses in protocol and reporting up and down the chain of command that contributed to Sanchez being able to prey on trainees.

Having more women fill positions as drill sergeants, military officials say, won’t by itself improve the culture around sexual misconduct. Research, for example, suggests that many of the problems stem from incidents involving male peers.

But Army leaders are hopeful that having more women in positions of command will make a difference.

Many jobs in the military come with sacrifice. Though being a drill sergeant commands respect, it can be particularly grueling work. Some would prefer to be deployed overseas because of the commitment.

For two years, they work seven days a week during each 10-week class cycle. They get a break after each graduation to prepare for the next class.

Teaching somebody how to comb their hair and open a bank account can be as routine as marksmanship. So are 16- to 18-hour days.

Responsibilities often fall on extended families, as drill sergeants are expected to be prime examples for the new soldiers to emulate.

“You have to be pumped,” said Drill Sgt. Michelle Tyson, 33, who grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio. “You have to be on your best form.”

She has three children.

“I consider my husband my battle buddy, my Army best friend, so to speak,” she said. “You don’t want to bring work home, but I have to let it out.”

Yesenia Rivera, 32, was recently finishing a two-year stint as a drill sergeant. Her husband has the same job. Their two children have been living with grandparents in California.

“You do what you have to do to make it work,” said Rivera.

A little over 5 feet tall, she was twice selected by her peers as the best drill sergeant in her unit. Her leadership style was recently on display, as her class was two weeks shy of graduation.

Rivera quizzed random soldiers as they waited in the chow line. She’d motion to the back if they missed a name in the chain of command, a topic she repeated during a barracks inspection.

She asked one young man to recite the soldier’s creed:

I am an American Soldier.

I am a warrior and a member of a team.

I serve the people of the United States, and live the Army values.

I always place the mission first...

Rivera didn’t believe him.

“He knows the words,” she said. “He doesn’t know the meaning just yet.”

Drill Sgt. Slone was a waitress at a small restaurant in Maine before she joined the Army at 19. She chose the Army because they’d take her the fastest. She didn’t want time to change her mind.

Slone played basketball in high school but was a bit shy. She’d never fired a gun until she went through basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in 2006. She couldn’t even do many situps.

Experience changed all that. Within a year of finishing basic, she landed in Iraq, where she was a driver and gunner for risky convoy escort missions. Roadside bombs destroyed four Humvees she was in. Three colleagues in her brigade were killed in other blasts.

The next deployment to Iraq, she commanded the vehicle. Then, in Afghanistan, she was in charge of the whole convoy.

She was eventually promoted to be a noncommissioned officer and ended up in the prestigious Audie Murphy club. She earned an online college degree in psychology in three-and-a-half years.

Her trainees don’t know these stories.

“I don’t think I need to prove myself to soldiers, because my actions will speak louder than words,” she said. “If I don’t help them, then it doesn’t matter what I used to do. It matters what I am doing right now.”

She yells sparingly.

“They used to be mean, but they realized it didn’t work,” she said of the old approach. “They used to hit a soldier.”

Even though the hours are demanding, she said being a drill sergeant is better than being deployed again.

Every three or four hours, she retreats to a bathroom to pump breast milk for her 4-month-old. Working on minimal sleep, she only allows herself one cup of coffee a day because it’s best for the baby.

If there is some down time during the day, she might get a quick visit in at the baby sitters, and if not, she said: “I get to go home every night to see my baby. Even if it’s only for 30 minutes, I still get to do it.”

©2015 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC