Building Sailors Better

By Rear Admiral Kevin Green, U.S. Navy

So he walked into the hot summer night, asking at the cab stand for someone who could help him get to Great Lakes. He had a few dollars in his pockets, and was carrying everything he owned in one beat-up suitcase. Exhausted, hungry, and broke, he arrived at the front gate at the Naval Training Center several hours later, just after midnight. Three hours later, he awakened to the "worst day of his Navy career"—the first day of boot camp.

We can do better.

Recruit training is a life-changing, life-shaping period of intense mental, emotional, physical, and personal challenge. Young people come to the Navy for a variety of reasons: Many are looking for a continuation of the values they learned at home; but many others are searching for a better way of life. In joining the Navy, all these young people have made a courageous decision which must be respected as such. And every one of them is a volunteer, who has other options in life.

For many, their backgrounds do not reflect the traditional upbringing others have enjoyed; to have any hope of turning them into fully functioning adults, we must recognize their needs. In a symbolic gesture, civilian clothes are mailed back to a home address at the start of boot camp. Unfortunately, many packages are addressed to motels, post office boxes, and general delivery. And many come back to Great Lakes, marked with the sad words: "Addressee Unknown."

America has many faces and the nine weeks of boot camp must take into account this wide range of demographics and life experiences. As a result, the Recruit Training Command today has confronted the challenge of doing business in a way that the traditional style never addressed.

The Navy's traditional entry into boot camp was a period of isolation, intimidation, sleep deprivation, and stress—mental, physical, and emotional. Today, in too many cases, a recruit's reaction to this means of indoctrination is fright and flight. In recent years, attrition was skyrocketing and far too many recruits were resorting to dangerous—often self-destructive—behavior. Too many recruits who later made it to the fleet were not meeting fleet standards, having learned obedience only through intimidation and having never internalized the core values necessary for long-term goal setting and short-term success. Clearly, our recruits must be able to withstand considerable stress; most of them can-and do so. However, many new recruits do not have the self-confidence, coping skills, or internal motivation necessary to recognize within themselves the nascent capability to perform well under pressure. Because many of these young people never have been told "you can do it and we will show you how," a deliberate change has come to the philosophy and processes of boot camp, especially in the critical first few days. From the outset, we must get recruits' attention—then set the standards and prepare them, practically and psychologically, for the rigors of training.

To begin the journey toward pride and professionalism, a recruit's first day at boot camp has been altered and decompressed, to ensure that the first day does not bring the worst memory of Navy life. The Chief of Naval Operations has made it clear that he believes that "a Sailor's first day in the Navy must be a great day, not a day of torture. Everything afterward is colored by the first 24 hours." Toward this end, rather than waiting from mid-afternoon until midnight at the local airport, recruits are met at O'Hare by recruit division commanders. Within 45 minutes the recruit is on the bus headed for Great Lakes, receiving indoctrination on board, and watching a coping skills video entitled "The days will drag . . . but the weeks will fly." The recruit division commanders also use this time to answer questions about the training ahead. New recruits are issued a "blue card." This is a pocket-sized, blue fold-out card, which describes the Navy's concern for their health and well-being. It tells recruits they are expected to feel anxious and uncomfortable, but that in the stress of boot camp they are surrounded by capable, concerned people who can help them succeed. This is neither an excuse to get out of training with a ticket home nor a sanctioned abrogation of personal responsibility. It is a means for recruits who may be contemplating negative behavior to seek assistance through their chain of command and our support organization before they give up or act irrationally.

Upon arrival at Recruit Training Command, recruits immediately begin processing, but are allowed several hours of sleep before the administrative demands begin in earnest the following morning. The new day's early hours bring a revised "moment of truth," introduced with three words: honor, courage, and commitment. Standards for new recruits are spelled out bluntly by the staff: "You are now in our uniform and our professional organization. We work together as a team and we tell the truth here because our lives ultimately depend upon it. We conduct ourselves with dignity because we are proud of who we are." They must adhere to the standards, which include the requirement to be truthful.

The early days of processing are designed to welcome recruits into the Navy while initiating them into the professional standard and core values they will need in order to begin their challenge in earnest. The priorities of the first week provide both the physical and psychological conditioning for what is to come. The first week starts a foundation on which to build a strong, positive, and motivated Sailor. Selected senior recruits in their final weeks of training are assigned as mentors to the new recruit divisions. The mentors spend time discussing coping strategies on Friday and Saturday evenings which historically have proved to be a vulnerable time. These mentors provide peer support, role modeling, and reassurance—but not counseling. Mentors talk to new recruits from the perspective of having been there, surviving and succeeding. The message they give is: "I felt that way too. And if I made it, so can you." This type of positive peer influence provides confidence to new recruits and has the added benefit of providing an early leadership opportunity for some of the more senior recruits.

At the end of their first three weeks, having in almost all cases become confident in their rapidly developing abilities, they turn in their blue cards. The intent is to show them that they can make successful passages through graduated stages of personal and professional growth, and that such a challenge begets success.

Academic remediation has been part of the boot camp process for some time. Recruits who lack verbal, reading, or learning skills, or who struggle because English is a second or third language, are sent to fundamental applied skills training for up to three weeks. A similar program now addresses and corrects behavioral failure. Recruits who show promise and a desire to serve in the Navy, but just seem to lack the skills for success, are directed into a one-week personalized skills training program. This program addresses values, self-esteem, decision making, anger management, and other social skills that recruits might lack. The Recruit Training Command's attrition-reduction effort focuses on systemic roadblocks to success—usually motivation-related factors—but recruits who still cannot or do not demonstrate potential for strong performance in the fleet are then separated.

In January 1997, the boot camp training structure was reorganized, with the object of mirroring life in the fleet more closely. The 15 barracks (called "ships") were renamed after Navy warships currently in commission, including the Grace Hopper , The Sullivans , the Bonhomme Richard , and the Nebraska . These were grouped into operational units: Pacific Fleet, Atlantic Fleet, and an Afloat Training Group, which incorporates the special training units. For the first time, these ships have graduating-group integrity, with a stable staff and regulated training assessment, inspections, and scheduled barracks overhaul time. Competition has been restructured to intensify the focus on fleet survival skills, cooperation, and professional performance, while encouraging greater teamwork and practical application of our service core values.

At Great Lakes today, every process of the recruit training system is being evaluated to determine what value it adds to the formation of a Sailor. It must be clearly stated, however, that none of the new boot camp practices reflects an advocacy for using the military as a laboratory for social engineering or social experimentation. The Recruit Training Command challenge is based on a twofold reality: the facts of our contemporary social climate and the Navy's continued need for high-quality personnel.

The new Navy requires warrior technicians, and our training has been changed to reflect these new realities. The charge for Great Lakes is to begin the process of molding and training our eager volunteers to succeed in the new modes of warfare and the new missions of the unforgiving afloat environment. We are working to build discipline and genuine confidence, rather than perpetuating a climate of intimidation. The old methods of fear-based behavior and obedience may have been right for their time, but they never have worked in the inculcation of values.

Character development—inner discipline and the ability to make decisions—is an important part of our training now. These new Sailors are expected to do the job well because it is important to them and to the Navy. Self-motivation, positive attitude, and moral courage make the difference. Rote learning is stressed less, and decision skills are emphasized. When a crisis comes, a third-class petty officer could be in a position of making a vital decision that could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Everyone has to be—and to feel—part of the organization. We need smart people, and just as important, we need people who have enough trust in the chain of command that they can tell their leaders bad news when it has to be told.

A Sailor's formation is a shared responsibility and an evolutionary process. Each task, each command, each year, and each promotion should help the individual Sailor become a more valuable contributor to the Navy and the country—a more capable technician, a wiser leader, and a better citizen. For this reason, the "A" schools and the fleet are cooperatively redesigning the basic military training continuum to build upon the "Sailorization" process that begins at boot camp. This continuum maps out the necessary militarization processes at every stage of a Sailor's development that later merge into the new leadership continuum. Core values and pride in self, unit, Navy, and nation are a cradle-to-grave foundation for every Sailor who starts out at Great Lakes.

The goal of boot camp is to send men and women to the fleet ready to participate, contribute, learn, help, and grow. The changes taking place at boot camp are designed to facilitate all of that, while reducing attrition and strengthening the foundation for a Sailor's success later in the fleet. While the path to success may have changed, the goal remains the same: To facilitate training by making a Sailor ready-to-train; to instill in some, and reinforce in others, the core values that precede good judgment; and to help mold the young people of today into Sailors who have the inner passion to serve with honor, courage, and commitment.

Rear Admiral Green is the commanding officer of Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois.

 

 
 

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