As Recruiting Suffers, Military Reins In Abuses at Boot Camp
By ERIK ECKHOLM
Published: July 26, 2005
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FORT KNOX, Ky. - Staff Sgt. Michael G. Rhoades, until recently a driller of
Army recruits at Fort Knox, says he was only doing his job, hammering
civilians into soldiers who would not crack under the pressures of war.
Sergeant Rhoades's methods, investigators said, included punching a recruit
in the stomach and hitting him repeatedly in the chest, and throwing another
to the floor and calling him a "fat nasty."
Years ago such accusations, if privates dared to voice them, might have led
to no more than a reprimand or a transfer for a drill sergeant.
But Sergeant Rhoades, a 16-year veteran, was court-martialed in May and
found guilty of cruelty and impeding an investigation. He was ordered
dishonorably discharged. Two other drill sergeants in his unit were demoted
for mistreating recruits, and a fourth is awaiting court-martial. Their
captain is serving six months in prison for dereliction of duty.
Sergeant Rhoades says he is being punished unfairly for techniques that have
long been part of basic training. "It's commonly known that all drill
sergeants work in the gray area," he said. "If you don't, you aren't doing
Pentagon leaders reject the notion that training is aided by humiliation and
hazing. And now, as the military struggles during wartime to fill its ranks,
commanders appear to be more sensitive than ever to accusations of abuse.
Their rapid, public response in the Fort Knox cases reflect a concerted
effort to demonstrate, to the public and to the trainers, that such behavior
will not be tolerated.
"We will hunt down and prosecute those who mistreat recruits," said Col.
Kevin Shwedo, chief of operations for the Army's recruitment and training
"If we don't do that, we won't get the support of the mothers and fathers,"
Colonel Shwedo said in a telephone interview from Fort Monroe, Va. "We won't
attract the right kind of people into the military."
Maj. Gen. Terry L. Tucker, the commander at Fort Knox, said procedures for
uncovering abuses there had been strengthened in the last two years.
"This may have resulted in an increase in the numbers of allegations
reported since 2003," General Tucker said in an e-mail message. "We have
improved the ability for trainees to communicate their concerns," including
giving them access to senior officers, he said.
The Fort Knox courts-martial have drawn praise and lament from soldiers and
veterans. After one of the trainers, Sgt. First Class David H. Price, was
demoted in April for telling a recruit to swallow his vomit, dragging
another by his ankles and hitting a third with a rolled-up newspaper, one
soldier wrote to The Army Times saying that when she was in basic training
in 1988, "the drill sergeants were allowed to do a lot of things."
"Now if they look at a recruit the wrong way, they get in trouble," wrote
the soldier, Specialist Kirstin Clary. "Back then, it was still the real
Army and not a farce."
But others wrote that although they understood the stress of being a drill
sergeant, the punishment was fair, or even too light. Maj. John E. Niamtu,
retired, wrote that molding recruits should be done "by example, not
Senior officers and independent experts in military justice agree that the
culture of basic training has been transformed since the Vietnam War.
"Hazing is neither useful nor necessary," said David M. Brahms, who retired
from the Marines in 1988 as a brigadier general and top legal officer and
who is now a lawyer in California. "You can't create people who are
disciplined, who are law-abiding and who will adhere to the buddy system by
the use of brutality."
Drill sergeants still get carried away, commanders say, but not often. The
Army, the largest branch of the military, had about 2,600 drill sergeants
training almost 180,000 recruits in each of the last two years. It received
99 complaints of abuse in 2003 and 109 last year. Investigators deemed that
86 of those were "founded" in 2003 and 76 in 2004, with most involving
physical abuse, sexual misconduct or verbal abuse.
The complaints led to six courts-martial in 2003 and eight in 2004; the
outcomes were not available. Other punishments included counseling,
reprimands or removal from drill sergeant status.
In the first five months of this year, the Army trained 102,000 recruits and
received 59 complaints; data on the outcome was incomplete.
The courts-martial at Fort Knox, which takes in 14,000 recruits a year, all
men, are the first in recent years, said Constance H. Shaffery, a base
Boot camp is still strenuous, and that is evident here at Fort Knox, one of
many Army training centers, where recruits can be seen sweating through
obstacle courses or martial arts training with the crackle of rifles in the
background. But the gratuitous torments of legend and film - the rivers of
profanity, the endless pushups as punishment for an unauthorized grin - are
"Sometimes you have to get in their faces, but it's not about making them
cry," said one trainer, Sgt. First Class John Jennings.
"The old philosophy was that you're not ready for combat unless you're made
miserable all day," Sergeant Jennings said. When he was trained in 1989, he
said, he saw verbal cruelty and, more rarely, physical contact that would
now be reported.
According to their detailed manual, drill sergeants may address recruits
only as "soldier" or "private," or by surname. With few exceptions, they
must ask before touching a recruit; the use of extra pushups as a
"corrective action" remains common, but with limits. At the end of their
nine weeks of initial basic training, recruits can discuss any complaints
with the commander, whether about the food, the homework or the drills, in
The Marines are now considering filing charges against an instructor at
Parris Island, S.C., who they say failed to prevent a flailing recruit from
drowning during a test in a swimming pool. The case has been referred for a
hearing similar to a civilian grand jury to determine if a court-martial is
Aspects of the case raise worrisome questions, said Eugene R. Fidell,
president of the National Institute of Military Justice, a nonprofit group
The day before the drowning, the same recruit was grabbed and hit by an
instructor after he refused to enter the pool. That instructor and another
who failed to report the incident have been disciplined. Mr. Fidell said he
wondered whether the scuffle would have been reported if a visiting
television crew had not captured it on tape.
Parris Island is where the most infamous case of military abuse occurred, in
1956, when six recruits drowned during a forced nighttime march through a
swamp. That tragedy led to tighter guidelines for drill instructors, known
"Substantiated cases of D.I. abuse are rare because the system is designed
with multiple relief valves," said Maj. Kenneth D. White, a spokesman at
Parris Island, one of two marine training centers. He said that he knew of
only one court-martial conviction for abuse in the last three years but that
the base had not compiled statistics on complaints.
Sergeant Rhoades, one of the punished trainers at Fort Knox, says that the
charges against him were exaggerated and that court-martialing him and his
colleagues was unfair.
"There was an agenda from the chain of command to do whatever it takes to
keep the Army from getting a black eye," he said in a telephone interview.
Several drill sergeants and officers at Fort Knox said in interviews that
the recent prosecutions had caused some soul-searching. But they said they
felt able to distinguish right methods from wrong ones.
"We're not here to coddle them," Sgt. Brian Schrank said as he watched
fellow trainers hustle bewildered arrivals into straight lines. "But there's
a saying," he added. "Every now and then you take off your hat for a while
and just talk to them."
The drill sergeants have a formal buddy system, watching each other for
signs of fraying nerves. "We read off each other; it's a system of checks
and balances we use," said one, Sgt. Daniel Mendez.
Even with more concern for aggressive techniques, boot camp remains
emotionally and physically intense, for trainers as well as recruits.
In one exercise on a recent morning here, recruits carried rifles
retrofitted with lasers and watched filmed simulations of scenes from Iraq,
like cars approaching a checkpoint and a forced entry into a house. The
recruits had to decide if and when to open fire.
When they shot without clear cause, the special instructor, a combat
veteran, told them they could face jail for a "bad shoot." When they were
too slow to kill an attacker, the instructor told them he would send
condolence letters to their parents.
More traditional was a grueling obstacle course that a platoon ran through
on a hot July afternoon. The recruits cheered each other on, and sometimes
were joined by sergeants as they helped laggards across monkey bars or over
When a man got blisters on his hands, he was given bandages and a pass on
the bars. When a recruit vomited, he was told to drink water and carry on.
"Are you ready to kill somebody?" a sergeant shouted to the privates as they
readied for a third agonizing run through the course.
"Yes, drill sergeant!" they cried in unison.
"What's the matter? Give it to me!" he yelled back.
"YES, DRILL SERGEANT!" they screamed before diving into sawdust pits for a
crawl under webs of ropes.