Fort Jackson Trains the Nation's Drill Sergeants

Nov 19, 2020

A statue of a drill sergeant stands outside the Drill Sergeant Academy at Fort Jackson.  All the drill sergeants in the U.S. Army are trained at the fort in Columbia.
Credit Tut Underwood/SC Public Radio

Picture the stereotypical army drill sergeant we've seen on television and movies for decades:  screaming, ranting, cruel, hounding recruits until they're ready to break.   These abusive images once reflected most drill sergeants, but in the 21st century, that image and behavior is rapidly fading.  

Drill sergeant leader Minette Sandoval trains drill instructors at Fort Jackson, and she acknowledged the difference between the D.I.s of yesterday and those of the modern army.  "It's definitely changed.  I never had to yell.  My presence alone helped me.  There are still those leaders who find it necessary to yell or be in your face and be screaming.  But there are some leaders who don't need that."

Fort Jackson houses the Drill Sergeant Academy, which trains all the drill sergeants in the U.S. Army.  Sgt. Major James Hill, the Academy's commandant, said modern drill sergeants are trained to a professional standard.

"They are the epitome of a soldier through actions as well as words," he said of D.I.s trained at the fort.  "We expect them to be the epitome of a professional, to be a disciplinarian, to lead by example."

Producing a top drill sergeant takes nine weeks of education and training, Hill said.  "We ensure that the drill sergeant has the knowledge and the proficiency on basic war tasks and battle drills, basic rifle marksmanship, physical readiness training and ceremony, which is marching.  We ensure that they're not only able to execute what a soldier is expected to execute, but they're able to teach a soldier how to do those things." 

A drill sergeant's day is long and hard, said Hill.  It begins with waking at 4 a.m. to be in the office by 5, and gather with fellow sergeants to discuss the day's operations.  Then it's waking the trainees and doing physical therapy, training them all day and feeding them in the evening before putting them to bed at 9 p.m. (2100 hours in army talk).

According to Hill, a drill sergeant plays many roles in the lives of his or her trainees.  They "aren't only trainers, they are coaches, they are family counselors, they're fitness trainers, they're financial advisors.  You name it, a drill sergeant does it." 

Sgt. Dan Robert is in his second army career after being a civilian for four years.  He's training to be a drill sergeant, and he knows how he wants to be remembered by the soldiers he trains.  "I'd like to think of me a as somebody they can model themselves after.  Did I have integrity?  Was I upfront with them, was I honest?  Did I train them to the standard?  Was I capable?  Could I keep up on the runs?  Could I shoot?  Could I do all those things?   That gives validity to the things I'm teaching them, because they see it's possible."

The Academy trains about 2700 drill sergeants a year, then deploys them to four basic training centers across the country.  Sandoval said the most rewarding thing about being a drill sergeant is helping to mold people and seeing the transformation of an unsure civilian into a confident, able soldier.