Thursday, April 3, 2008


A lead-grey sky threatens rain as the "3rd Herd" heads out towards graduation ceremonies from basic training at Fort Dix. The "3rd Herd", officially designated 3rd Platoon, B Company, 5th Battalion, 3rd Basic Training Brigade, is unusually quiet as they march towards the main post parade grounds where family and friends wait to see them pass in review. No march songs this week. A recent and probably temporary whim from command. There is grumbling among the ranks about the order. Grumbling about orders is a God-given right of all American soldiers. You grumble and then you obey.
Singing to marching cadence harks back to earlier times and certainly both of this century`s world wars. ~3rd Herd is the Honor Platoon this training cycle so the platoon has plenty to sing about as they march.
Today's graduation ceremony is symbolic of the end of recruit training. The end a hurdle that is remembered by many generations of American soldiers. Basic Training and eight long weeks of learning about military life. That first day of Basic seems like a life time ago. That first moment when they met the single most important person in a young recruit's life. That first second when all their senses came in contact with their DRILL SERGEANT.
28-year-old Staff Sergeant Cynthia Strohl walks into a dimly lit barracks room where the floor is covered with the inert bodies of 40 some odd green-clad young recruits who lie sprawled across bulky duffel bags. The room smells of freshly waxed floor and brand new canvas. Staff Sergeant Marion J. Medeiros, Sgt Strohl's training partner for the new 3rd platoon is already explaining the ground rules for surviving basic training. A veteran of nine years in the army, Sgt. Medieros stops his speech as Sgt. Strohl, Senior Drill Sergeant for the platoon, moves to the front of the room. Sgt. Strohl looks around the room with a practiced eye, watching for tell-tale signs of personality and character in the young faces that are giving her their full attention. None of the young recruits seem to give any indication of surprise that their senior drill sergeant is a woman. Sgt. Strohl moves to the front of the room next to Sgt. Medeiros.

"ON YOUR FEET", she yells.

The room seems to darken as a blur of green leaps to attention from the floor, blocking most of the light coming from the windows behind them.
Looking pleased Sgt. Strohl then gives the order to sit back down.

Strohl pauses long enough to let those words sink in.

Forty some-odd sets of eyes give her their unflinching attention. Salient bits of information like this will not be repeated.
As the meeting progresses each trainee gets the chance to stand and tell the others their name, home town, and reason for joining the army. One recruit reluctantly admits he joined to get away from home. In his case home turns out to be only a few miles away from Ft. Dix. This confession brings laughter.
Another trainee explains he joined to get a persistent recruiting sergeant off his back. More laughter. Now he adds, he wants to get out of the army. Strohl and Medeiros do not laugh.
The two drill sergeants listen carefully to each story. Judging each recruit they need to find leadership potential within the new platoon. These recruit leaders will help to organize and the lead the others into becoming a team. Consequently this first meeting can have far-reaching effect on some of the young soldiers budding military careers.
In the long history of the U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Cynthia Strohl is not the first female soldier to serve with men. During the Revolutionary War New Jersey citizen Molly Ludwig Pitcher so distinguished herself at the Battle of Monmouth New Jersey in 1778 that General George Washington made her a sergeant for her bravery. Later he placed her on a list of half-pay officers for life. During the Civil War there were many documented cases of women found posing as men in combat infantry regiments. Women were not officially recognized as soldiers in the United States until the formation of the Women's Auxiliary Corps in 1942. The name was shortened to Women`s Army Corps or WACs in 1943.
In 1969 President Lyndon Johnson signed into law a bill that freed women from the limitations of rank and duty that had been imposed on them prior to that time. In 1972 the first female drill instructor graduated from Drill Instructor School at Fort Jackson South Carolina. In 1977 the first female drill instructor trained male recruits. Soon after came the introduction of coed basic training. Although coed training was discontinued in 1982, female drill sergeants like Sgt. Strohl continue to train male recruits. There are 80 female sergeants serving as drill instructors in the army today.

A native of Tampa Florida, Strohl joined the army nine years ago, originally enlisting to become a plumber and then changing to personnel management. After a string of state side assignments and a tour overseas in Germany she needed a change. One day Sgt. Strohl found herself standing at attention in her commanding officer's office. The captain informed her she had been selected to go to Drill Sergeants School. No questions. That was it. An honor she could not refuse. My March 1983 she was beginning her first basic training cycle at Fort Dix. The pace was grueling. Days began at four in the morning and lasted until after nine at night. She survived and she thrived.

Basic Training has undergone some major changes since Vietnam. More emphasis is put on practical exercise and performance testing, with increased hands-on equipment training. As in the old days trainees are taught marksmanship with their basic infantry weapon, the M-16 assault rifle. They are also given exposure to military history, military courtesy, chemical and biological warfare, and of course physical exercise.....the daily dozen that any veteran will remember.
The training day for the recruit is still long but the emphasis has shifted from the traditional harassment that used to turn the recruit from civilian thinking to military. Smarter, and better motivated than the average recruit of the past, these trainees respond to training rather than brain washing.

Senior Drill Sergeant Cynthia Strohl lands on the class hard and fast to establish her authority.

Sergeants Medeiros and Strohl listen carefully to each recruit, looking for potential leaders within the platoon.

The new recruits must listen carefully because what they learn now will be import for the rest of their training cycle.

Sergeant Strohl gets in the face of one recruit to let him know who is the "boss."

Doing push-ups is still the time honored way of getting a young recruit's attention.

Out in the hinterlands of the sprawling Fort Dix training facility, the 3rd Herd is on Tactical Bivouac, receiving instruction in the use of the M-60 Machine Gun, the Light Anti-Tank Weapon (LAW), and the M-203 Grenade Launcher. While her troops are attending classroom instruction, which is conducted by other NCO's who are specialists in those weapons, Sgt. Strohl waits nearby with the other drill sergeants who can now take a break from keeping track of their charges. The conversation is generally the friendly give and take of locker room humor. Typical of a group of men who are professionals in uniform. Sgt. Strohl, gender not withstanding, holds her own with the group. Part of her confidence comes from having won the Drill Sergeant of the Cycle Award for their training brigade the cycle before. Dues paid in the army are dues acknowledged.
Outside, under the shade of a clump of black jack oak, the drill sergeants can hear their recruits shouting inside the nearby classroom.
The drill sergeants know this signals the end of classroom instruction and it`s time to get back to work.
Later, outside during training with the LAW, Strohl sees one of her young charges having difficulty with the weapon's firing mechanism. Deftly she corrects the problem. Drill sergeants have to know a little about a lot. The surrounding forest echoes to the sound of unison`~clicks' from the trainees dry firing their weapons at pretend enemy tanks.
Bivouac marks the half-way point in the training cycle and the emphasis of practical training has taken on more intensity. For those trainees who are going on to fields in the army other than infantry, this is the only exposure they may get to practical weapons training.

Sergeant Strohl watches a recruit arm a LAW or Light Anti-Tank Weapon.

Sergeant Strohl oversees the recruits as they learn to set up and arm claymore mines.

Sergeant Strohl relaxes with her male counterparts while the recruits receive indoor classroom training.

Inside the classroom the recruits learn how to clean the M-60 Machine Gun

Four weeks later the day room for B Company is awash in the noise and confusion of trainees and their family and friends in a post graduation celebration. A color television in the corner is playing a tape of the past eight weeks of training. A few people appear to watch the video but most are too busy looking at each other, family members marveling at the new, leaner soldiers that left home two months ago as slightly flabby civilians. Sgt. Strohl moves easily around the room, smiling at babies or admonishing her soon to be former charges with now gentle firmness to stand with their families.
Basic training is over and the weaning process for the young soldiers from their drill sergeant has begun.
"Sure I'll miss them", Strohl wryly comments during a quiet moment. "I'll miss them like you miss a baby after it grows up. But I won't miss changing their diapers!"
Later the 3re Herd stands together in the area parking lot with the rest of
B Company. Duffel bags are strewn in apparent disorganization around the feet of the excited group of soldiers. Attired in their dress green uniforms, hair gorwn out to regulation length and overseas caps tilted at a now jaunty angle, the former recruits of the 3rd Herd look like real soldiers. Soon buses will arrive to take the young men off to the next level of training. Sgt. Strohl moves among her platoon one more time, signing training cycle yearbooks, joking with some and straightening a tie for others. A ghetto blaster plays loudly somewhere and some of the soldiers stand around nervously with large yellow envelopes tucked under their arms containing orders and personal papers, anchored by hands stuck in their pockets. Sgt. Strohl observes this breech of training discipline and moves quickly to straighten up her troops one last time.
"Get those hands out of you pockets you knuckle heads! Think you can get all sleazy now just because you are leaving here!"
Sgt. Strohl adjusts more ties, buttons buttons and checks for general neatness. Her admonishments are met with good humored smiles. The time slips by for the soon-to-be former 3rd Herders. While Sgt. Strohl does not spend alot of time ruminating about being female drill sergeant in a mostly male army, she does have a few opinions.
"Being a woman make the job a little harder, but being a woman also has it's advantages. Because I'm a woman they find it easier to bring their personal problems to me. Many of these kids are away from home for the first time."
Sgt. Strohl believes that being tough is not always enough in today's army.
Some of her troops agree.
Teetering on one leg as he shines a shoe on the back of the pants leg of the other one young private remembers.
"Sgt. Strohl was easier to relate to. Personal problems especially."
Nearby, other members of 3rd platoon non their heads in agreement.
Another private remembered he had a hard time remembering to call her sergeant.
"I kept calling her Mam. Until after a couple of days I heard her cuss. Then I called her sergeant."
Three big greyhound buses pull up in front of the company parking lot. The young soldiers perk up. It seems the arriving buses are already filled up...with recently graduated female soldiers from across the post.
Sgt. Strohl shades a few last hands, chats with a couple of her favorites, and suddenly the once littered park lot is empty.
Sgt. Strohl does a high five with a nearby sergeant
"Their gone!", he yells. "It's Miller Time!"
After a short break the drill sergeants will start on another back breaking training cycle of brand new recruits. Another round of eighteen hour days, dedicated to turning adolescent gum poppers into memebers of the mean green fighting machine.
Thats then and not now. Staff Sergeant Cynthia Strohl and her colleagues from B Company are more interested in heading over to the NCO Club to see who buys the first round.

Before graduation and shipping out the young privates make sure each small detail is perfect.

Sergeant Strohl gives her young charges one last look before inspection..

The end of another training cycle.