Military Reins In Training Abuses

As Recruiting Suffers, Military Reins In Abuses at Boot Camp (NYT p. 1 | RSS)

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 your job.”

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 command. “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.”

Nonsense. Physical abuse of trainees has been illegal for generations. The insunation made by the headline–that the military is cracking down because of difficulty with recruiting–is absurd. The Army was relieving drill sergeants for much less obvious abuses over twenty years ago when my father was a first sergeant for a basic training-AIT company.

In the frontier era, where rabble soldiers were led by brute sergeants, such methods might have been necessary to coerce men into closer order battle. They would be simply counterproductive in getting the best performance out of bright, educated soldiers whose job requires an incredible amount of independent judgment.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ALS says:

    Physical abuse of trainees has been illegal for generations.

    True, but I strenously object to the following being called “physical abuse:”

    calling him a “fat nasty.”

    telling a recruit to swallow his vomit, dragging another by his ankles and hitting a third with a rolled-up newspaper,

    This is physical abuse? Give me a freaking break. What are drills supposed to do? Massage their feet and hand-feed them grapes?

    All of these situations above are not in context. Was the Soldier about to puke on the drill sgt or in a vehicle? Was the drill sgt dragging the kid by his ankles to re-position him while in the prone on the range? And hitting him with a rolled up newspaper? Are you serious? Did a Soldier ACTUALLY complain about that? And being called a “fat nasty?” Awww, did thumbody get their poor wittle feelings hurted? Who knew that DRILL SERGEANTS would say something that’s not very nice? Did his mommy tell him he’s handsome so many times that he’s shocked to hear otherwise? Maybe mommy fed him too many damn Twinkies and now he can’t make weight.

    What’s with society’s unrealistic expectations of basic training – the method by which we turn civilians into warriors – warriors who are supposed to be ready to do the country’s bidding on the field of battle?

    Do we really think the enemy is going to be NICER to them?

    Outright physical abuse is wrong. But to those who call name-calling “abuse,” grow up. It’s called the ARMY. And our mission is to fight and win our nation’s wars.