Army overhauls its basic training

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. —Think "Army Strong" and Jeremy Winn, 22, looks the part: 6 feet 2, roughly 200 pounds, a basketball stud back in high school.

But there he was, teetering through stretching exercises, struggling to balance on one knee and one hand. Left leg raised and pointing west, right arm extending east, back straight, head up — the profile of a dog spotting quail.

What happened to jumping jacks? On Day 5 of basic training, the Army lined up Winn and 120 other newbies before dawn to twist, reach and bend as if they were bracing for ballet.

"I didn't even know I had muscles there," Winn said. "You're using parts of your body you've never used" thumbing PlayStation or even shooting hoops.

The Army's new approach to basic training is about molding the laptop generation into 21st-century warriors.

A greater emphasis on stretching — then toughening core muscles in the torso, back and buttocks —reflects just part of the first overhaul of basic training in three decades.

Bayonets have come off the rifles. Wind sprints have replaced long, boring jogs. Recruits will get 30 more hours of marksmanship with the guns they are most apt to carry in battle.

The broad goal is to fuse the real-world rigors of today's warfare to the current kind of recruit — that restless, Ruffles-munching multitasker who is not so familiar with physical exertion, fistfighting or outdoor living.

No simple challenge. Not far from the field where Winn worked out, a dozen fresh recruits leaned on crutches at the bus stop for sick call.

"For me growing up, it was Honey Buns and soda" in front of a video screen, said Winn, of East Orange, N.J.

"Me? Just candy in general," the private in the row ahead, Allison Sewell, 20, said when the workout ended. "But I was in gymnastics."

And so Sewell — a feathery 5 feet 3 inches and 111 pounds — nailed the morning contortions with Army Strong poise. Behind her, the burly Winn winced and wobbled.

"She's a spark plug," an officer said approvingly as Sewell sprang to a standing position by crossing her feet — no hands, just like the drill sergeant had instructed.

Applies to all recruits

Sewell is training for the National Guard, but at basic, the Army's expectations and 10-week regimen apply equally to the reservist, the military police officer, the engineer or the active-duty grunt bound for Afghanistan.

They stretch, crawl, twist, spring up and sprint for a reason, as demonstrated by Lt. Col. Randall Wickman, 41, of the 2nd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment.

"This is the kind of muscle strength you need," he showed, gripping the back of an open Humvee and bounding 4 feet off the ground to smoothly climb aboard. "Now you do that wearing 65 pounds of gear."

"A lot of this is so intuitive," Wickman told The Kansas City Star. "Nobody jogs for five miles in Iraq. Why should I make you run a long distance at a slow pace? I should be making sure you can race as fast as you can to a place down the street, sprinting like you're terrified.

"We've been training the same way for 30 years and in Iraq or Afghanistan the last eight and a half, but we just did things as we'd always done them. ... Fixed bayonets on rifles? Been teaching that since 1917, and there hasn't been a bayonet charge since Korea."

By July, the revisions to basic training will be fully implemented at Fort Leonard Wood and the four other U.S. Army posts where training takes place.

Army brass called the review process "holistic."

What is needed?

Lt. Gen Mark Hertling, who has a master's degree in exercise physiology, took a lead role in assessing the skills that are most needed on the modern battlefield and matching them to the muscle groups that are most in need of conditioning.

More than 30,000 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan returned a survey identifying the stuff of basic training that wasn't needed — such as mastering a .50-caliber heavy machine gun. Used by only one in every 70 soldiers in the field, the gun now has been dropped from the nearly 200 tasks recruits must complete.

The Army's review resulted in sharp reductions in the number of "warrior tasks" and battle drills wedged into basic training. Supporting Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey's dictum is that soldiers "do a few key tasks well... and then prepare to adapt to the situation."

New to the 10-week training is a course in "What Is Culture?" and instruction on ways to prevent hearing loss.

Just as key as making the training relevant was the recognition that those being trained — the "millennials" — were a different breed from soldiers past.

"We had to take a hard look not just on how to build their bodies, but how to reduce the injuries of individuals coming from a society less attentive to physical training," Hertling said.