When students step off the bus at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, to attend the Future Soldier Preparatory Course, it quickly becomes clear that they’re not on a school campus.
They are met by drill sergeants in campaign hats. Haircuts happen, uniforms are issued, posture is corrected, formations take shape, drill and ceremony begins, phone use is curtailed, and Army Values are introduced.
But it’s a reception that is intentionally gentler than it is for basic trainees, because the students are there for a purpose: to improve their military entrance test scores or to slim down, or both, so they can qualify for basic combat training and become soldiers.
Launched as a pilot program in August 2022 at Fort Jackson and later expanded to Fort Moore, Georgia, the Future Soldier Preparatory Course was created to help the Army confront the most difficult recruiting environment since the creation of the all-volunteer force 50 years ago.
Expansion of the program to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where basic combat training also takes place, has been contemplated by senior leaders, but is not planned for this year.
“We’re continuing to assess the program, but we haven’t exceeded capability at Fort Jackson or Fort Moore, so there’s no immediate plan to expand to other basic combat training posts,” said Lt. Col. Randy Ready, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.
The students are recruits who have enlisted in the Regular Army, U.S. Army Reserve or Army National Guard. Those who achieve a higher test score or improve their physical fitness, or both, are eligible to renegotiate their contracts for a new MOS and receive the same pay, bonuses and incentives as other recruits.
As of late June, more than 9,800 students had attended the academic or fitness courses at Fort Jackson, where the lowest-scoring trainees are sent, and Fort Moore, where the academic course began in January for students with higher scores.
Of those, more than 7,200 had graduated and shipped to basic combat training, while some 2,200 were still in the academic or fitness pipelines, according to Ready.
When the program was stood up, it was modeled after a campus-style learning environment, said Command Sgt. Maj. Fred Tolman, senior enlisted adviser for the 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment, one of two battalions under the 165th Infantry Brigade at Fort Jackson, where the dual-track academic and fitness courses are conducted.
But as the busloads of students kept coming and students were improving enough to move on to basic combat training, the reception and follow-through were ramped up to be more Army-centric.
“It’s not a lot of yelling and screaming like you’re going to have in [basic combat training],” Tolman said. “We’re not trying to give them that shock and awe that they would receive there, but we do want to integrate them into the ‘soldierization’ process as soon as we can.”
In the early days of the program, when students graduated and reported for basic combat training, “there was a huge shock” because they had been treated like students rather than recruits, Tolman said. Making the course more Army-centric, he said, is “not just about preparing them to either pass academically or meet the fitness requirements … it’s also about giving them a head start” before basic combat training.
As COVID-19 pandemic restrictions eased toward the end of 2021, Army recruiters had lost almost two years’ worth of in-person meetings at high schools, sporting events and outreach activities. They faced a pool of undereducated high schoolers who didn’t know anything about the Army.
The pandemic also spurred a drop in the number of people willing to serve and raised a host of societal problems such as increased obesity, substance abuse and behavioral issues.
After the Army missed its fiscal 2022 recruiting goal by about 15,000 people, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth declared recruiting “a very serious problem,” noting in February that the crisis took more than a year to set in and would “take more than a year to turn it around.”
With a price tag of about $95 million for the first year, Wormuth and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville touted the Future Soldier Preparatory Course as having a higher than 95% success rate in helping people meet the standard to train to become soldiers.
In the academic track as of late June, 95% of students increased at least one test category and boosted their test score by an average of 18 points, while in the fitness track, 95% of students graduated within 90 days or earlier with an average weekly body fat loss of 1.7%, according to Ready.
The program also has helped recruiters, said Maj. Gen. Johnny Davis, commander of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. “Instead of turning away applicants who either don’t score high enough on the [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] or who don’t meet physical fitness standards, the recruiter can now offer the [program] as an option so that those applicants can meet the standards,” Davis said.
The maximum score on the ASVAB is 99. For recruits who score between 21 and 30, graduation from the academic course at Fort Jackson with an increase of at least one test category is mandatory, with a chance to test every three weeks. Academic students can enroll for both tracks, but they first must complete the academic course.
Each track is three weeks long, and trainees have a chance to test every three weeks, with up to 90 days to complete each course. At the end of either course, body fat percentage is measured. Those who are within 2% of the Army’s standard based on gender, age, height and weight will ship to basic training. Those who exceed the standard will be moved into the fitness track for up to 90 days.
At Fort Moore, the only course offered is the academic track, and it is optional for recruits who score between 31 and 49 on the ASVAB. Those who opt for the Fort Moore course have one opportunity and up to 30 days to move into a higher test category.
In each location, students who improve and meet the physical standards have the chance to renegotiate their contracts for another MOS based on aptitude scores and needs of the Army, and receive incentives offered in their new test category.
The curriculum for the academic portion of the program is based on the Army’s Basic Skills Education Program in use since 1977, a high school-level course of reading, writing, math, speech, science, computer skills and language.
The average class size at Fort Jackson is about 30 students, while at Fort Moore the average is 13. Students arrive each week, and classes are taught by a mix of civilians and soldiers, including drill sergeants.
Students come from as far away as Guam and range in age from teenage to mid-30s, said 1st Sgt. Tatiana Mason, the top NCO of Company A, 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry Regiment, one of the battalions at Fort Jackson dedicated to the Future Soldier Preparatory Course. The other is the 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment.
Eight of the two battalions’ 10 combined companies conduct the academic track, while two companies handle the physical fitness track, where many of the students are slightly older because they’re not coming directly from high school.
Day in the Life
The daily schedule in the academic track follows an Army routine with plenty of classroom time for learning and studying. Students are roused from their barracks and begin with physical training at around 5 a.m., followed by time to clean up, grab breakfast and head to class, which includes the “soldierization” briefings, Mason said.
With a focus on the five domains of the Army’s Holistic Health and Fitness program—physical, mental, spiritual, nutritional and sleep readiness—recruits in the fitness track get to sleep an hour longer and spend the day learning about their bodies and minds, in addition to performing fat-burning physical fitness tasks, Mason said.
“The goal is essentially to reach a certain body fat percentage, so working out is obviously going to be one of the things that we focus on,” she said. “With the academic piece, just like the fitness track, we have anywhere from three to four drill sergeants per company that have been certified on the Master Fitness [Trainer] Course and can properly give instruction on things like injury prevention and generating physical fitness plans.”
At Fort Moore, Companies E and D in the 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment, 197th Infantry Brigade, conduct the shorter academic track, where the environment is more permissive because students there volunteered to enroll.
“They have privileges like an hour a day minimum of cellphone time, but we’re trying to wean them off of having regular contact with their families,” said Company E commander Capt. Patrick Shanahan.
But his company, whose first class graduated in early February, also acquired some recreational equipment to “make the environment more welcoming so students can learn rather than be overly stressed.”
There was skepticism among some in the drill sergeant cohort about leaving the hardcore basic training trail to teach and shape underdog recruits. Some drill sergeants opted out.
But as the program progressed, the achievements of the come-from-behind students impressed everyone and lifted the mission. “We had some people who had their doubts when we first got assigned the mission because they want to be drill sergeants, and people were concerned with going back and teaching some academic classes. They felt marginalized,” Tolman said. However, as the students succeeded, “it was truly rewarding for our drill sergeants,” he said.
Mason said the drill sergeants are now motivated and invested, having overcome a very human response to change, which was “a struggle for some.”
“We’ve witnessed and watched some of the students graduate from basic combat training, and up to this very moment, just seeing the expressions on their faces when they receive a passing score or after they meet the body fat percentage, it’s reassuring for the cadre,” Mason said.
Shanahan said his cadre understand that “this program has strategic significance” for the Army. “Yeah, they’re infantry drill sergeants, and you could say they came to Fort Moore to put on rucksacks and run around in the woods and do infantry stuff, but they get to sit down and mentor these young trainees who are going to go off and do other things in the Army,” Shanahan said. “My NCOs are really excited to have an impact and leave a fingerprint on somebody that they wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with in basic training.”