Staff Sgt. Michael Johnston said, “The competition for Drill Sergeant of the Year is more than I expected.”
After more than 7½ years in the Army and coming from a family with deep military roots, he said he volunteered to become a drill sergeant “but I came down on orders” first.
After 19 months “on the trail,” Johnson said he knows what it is like to work with recruits. “When you pick up the cycle of 55 recruits, you have to identify the needs of each soldier, really find out what they require to become a soldier.”
Because he is at Fort Benning, Ga., Johnston’s basic trainees are in a 14-week one station, unit training cycle. The subject of infantry deployments is always present in the trainees’ minds.
Johnston, who has deployed twice to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division, said during mail call in the third week or so the trainees begin to ask questions about what it is like to be a soldier, what it is like to be deployed and what they might expect to experience during their first deployment.
“We start by passing out the mail, do a quick AAR (after action review) on what they did that day and then open it to questions.”
He knows the importance of answering those questions.
When he was in their boots, he was also at Fort Benning about to start basic training on 9/11.
Sgt. 1st Class Michael Cavezza is just beginning his newest assignment at the Drill Sergeant School at Fort Jackson, S.C. He volunteered to become a drill sergeant.
But, for those who did not, but have been selected by the Army to be one: “I tell them, he’s here to change a recruit’s life, become a better person and train him to be a good, professional soldier.”
Winning the drill sergeant competition at Jackson, winning the Army-wide competition at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command has become a goal.
To achieve that he knew that he would face obstacles: “Having 11 days to prepare for the board” and when he arrived at Fort Monroe, Va., with a number of events also being held up I-64 at Fort Eustis, “adapting to the competition” and the different challenges he faced in day and night land navigation, before another board and a host of “go-no-go” situations.
“This is the TRADOC competition,” so he needs to take a deep breath, he said, to relax himself.
“It’s like being a drill sergeant. Patience! You have all levels of individuals. You have to treat each of them as you would your own child.”
After 10 years in the Army, Staff Sgt. Kevin Wildman of Fort Knox, Ky., said, “If I were given the opportunity again, I’d do it. Being a drill sergeant “is the most rewarding experience I have had.”
Being a drill sergeant is not living the easy life all seven contestants said.
For Wildman, there is constantly coming up “with how many different ways you have to teach your soldiers.”
Staff Sgt. Joshua Marshall, a mobilized reservist representing the 95th Division, said, “It’s the time required. The first three weeks you have real sleep deprivation. You don’t get weekends off and you have so much work to do,” but he does it.
“I spent a year in Afghanistan on active duty” and he said he knows that training pays off. “At the end, When you see the finished product, you know you’ve changed some one’s life. … It will stick with them the rest of their lives.”
For reservists, Staff Sgt. Shanna McKinnon, representing the 98th Division, said, “It’s not the same as active duty. We have a civilian life” with its own demands.
In her case she is an editor for a Web site on the fashion industry; but after 13 years, McKinnon is also committed to the Army. “You’ve got to do it on your own and it can get overwhelming.”
But taking a step back, she added, “You get paid to do what others pay to do” by serving the in the Army.
Having extended for another year as a drill sergeant, Staff Sgt. Arron Barnes from Fort Sill, Okla., said he draws pleasure from “having family members, thanking me for what you did for my son, what you did for my husband.”
Barnes said he gives his duty 100 percent and that’s what he did during the competition. “Give it your best.”
Looking back to his own time in basic training seven years ago, Staff Sgt. James Barrett, a military policeman from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., said, “We train them at a higher level. We have to. There’s a very good chance that in 90 days they may be deploying. When I went through, it was 17 weeks long. Twenty weeks now” because of the continuing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The seven had completed a long week of M-16 stress shooting, combatives, weapon and first aid stations, teaching recruits entering and clearing a room, handling improvised explosive device situations, completing the obstacle course, working with soldiers threatening suicide, etc.
As the competition drew to an end, there was also a tour of the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe, Va.; a waterborne tour of Hampton Roads and a barbecue at TRADOC Command Sgt. Maj. David Bruner’s home at Monroe.
Among the attendees at the barbecue were Gen Martin Dempsey, TRADOC commander.
Adding as did the others, “I hope I win, but I’ll be proud of whoever wins. This was a tough competition,” Barrett said.