Originally created 08/17/97

A day in Company C

A sea of scissoring legs flutter-kicks in unison as the drill instructor counts the progress.

"You're supposed to be paying attention to what I'm doing," Staff Sgt. Shawn Leonard shouts to the soldiers as he leads the exercises. "Some of you are sleeping out there."

It's just after 4:30 a.m., that time of morning when the sun still hasn't burned up last night's darkness. The Fort Gordon trainees in Charlie Company of the U.S. Army's 73rd Ordnance Battalion groggily plod through their daily physical training.

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"All PT can't be wrong," the 175 soldiers shout in cadence. "PT makes a body strong.

"Drive on, drill sergeant, drive on."

In the Army, the work day starts early. It starts hard and it stays that way.

Drill instructors have only a few short months in basic and advanced military training to mold civilians into soldiers.

"That hat has represented the military standard for so long," 1st Sgt. Ronnie Johnson said of the wide-brimmed campaign hats that only drill instructors wear. "That hat represents the total soldier concept, what a trainee strives for."

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As Staff Sgt. Leonard leads his troops, Pvt. David Feuerhak, a trainee, pumps off 55 pushups in two minutes on another nearby field. The 18-year-old private does even better on the situps and running portion of his end-of-course Army physical fitness test.

Seventy-five pushups, 55 situps, two miles in a speedy 14 minutes, 15 seconds - all before reveille at dawn.

By 6 a.m., the troops, sweaty and jolted into wakefulness by the surge of physical activity, are back at their barracks. Some sprint to the latrine so they'll have time to shower before cleaning the barracks.

Before the soldiers leave for class, their barracks must be scrubbed clean. Their beds must be crisply made and their desk tops cleared of any clutter. The floors must be swept and buffed. Fans and laundry bags must be stashed in wall lockers. Every surface must be dusted.

"Before I came in the Army, I was really neat, but after basic I kind of slacked off," said Pvt. Feuerhak, who attended basic training the summer between his junior and senior years in high school. "Now, once I'm back in, it's not so bad."

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Pvt. Feuerhak, one of 51 recruits in Staff Sgt. Leonard's platoon, is training at Fort Gordon to become a flight systems repairer in the Army National Guard. As a part-time soldier, he will owe the National Guard one weekend a month and two weeks a year.

For now, he owes the Army all his time.

After breakfast, the soldiers reassemble at 7:30 a.m. at the barracks for morning formation. Staff Sgt. Leonard, 29, walks through the rows of soldiers, inspecting uniforms and haircuts.

He stops in front of Pvt. Feuerhak and appraises his starched uniform and mirror-clean boots.

"Do your boots always look like that, Feuerhak?" he asks. It's the closest Staff Sgt. Leonard comes to praising any soldier's appearance.

"The boots are always shined, drill sergeant," Pvt. Feuerhak responds.

Farther down the line, Staff Sgt. Leonard balks at another private's mismatched uniform and dusty boots.

"This is a classic example - summer jacket, winter pants and ugly boots," he says to the soldier's squad leader, who is supposed to correct these things. "Oooh, he's raggedy. He's about ready to make me throw up."

The drill instructor's words are harsh, but his demeanor never is. Throughout the inspection, he laughs and jokes with the soldiers, leading with levity. It's not his nature to be the in-your-face type of drill sergeant that actor Louis Gossett Jr. played in An Officer and a Gentleman.

"After I sweat them up a little bit, most of the time they're laughing because I'm cracking jokes on them," he says.

After inspection, the soldiers march together to class, where they are learning their military occupational specialties.

While the recruits study, Staff Sgt. Leonard patrols the barracks on an unannounced inspection.

In every room, gray T-shirts hang from the wall lockers on bent hangers, as if at attention.

Upstairs where the male recruits live, Staff Sgt. Leonard begins the inspection in a squad leader's room. He is not happy with what he finds.

"The first sight I see is all this trash they've got on their desk," Staff Sgt. Leonard says.

"Just to let them know I've been in here, I usually just throw the whole drawer out," he says. "Then I get nit-picky and start checking for dust."

He finds plenty of dust and other violations in the room - an extra wall locker, a lumpy, wrinkled bunk and a fan that has been left on.

"By this time, I'm already mad," Staff Sgt. Leonard says as he makes notes on a yellow legal pad. "These guys here, they're going to GI (clean) their room tonight and have a full inspection."

But nothing can compare to what he finds in Pfc. Nizar Hatoum's room. Pfc. Hatoum is the platoon guide, Staff Sgt. Leonard's "right-hand man." He is the only trainee who doesn't have to share a room.

Underneath the desk in Pfc. Hatoum's room, Staff Sgt. Leonard discovers an opaque plastic bag, leaking liquid.

At first, the drill instructor thinks the bag is full of trash, but then he notices the shape and sees scales through the milky white plastic. He drops the bag and it makes a hollow thump on the desk.

"I thought it was trash," he says, laughing despite his anger. "I was just hitting it. Then I realized it was a snake."

Later, Staff Sgt. Leonard orders Pfc. Hatoum to his room and confronts him about the hidden package - a dead rattlesnake preserved in alcohol.

"I was looking for you to tell you about this, by the way," says Pvt. Hatoum, who had found the snake dead on post. "I'm disappointed that I wasn't here when you lifted it up. I would have loved to see the look on your face.

"Since we're on the subject, where can I get this trophied at?"

After inspection, Staff Sgt. Leonard returns to his office, transferring the notes from his legal pad to official Army paperwork. He is disappointed with the messy squad leaders and with another recruit who was absent without leave for four days.

"You can tell a difference between soldiers who had responsibility when they were growing up," says Staff Sgt. Leonard, who is mother, father, friend and enemy to all the soldiers in his platoon.

As punishment, Staff Sgt. Leonard decides the sloppy squad leaders will have a special training session that night with their drill instructor.

"I'm just going to stress them out," he says. "I'll go through their rooms and tear them up. Nothing's going to be right."

He smiles at the thought of it.

"I'm going to just overload them, just wax them out, then threaten to make them work through the weekend," he says. "Just to let them know they shouldn't be slack."

Two other soldiers - another squad leader and his assistant - might be fired from their leadership positions. Not only were their rooms messy, but they also have been neglecting their other duties, Staff Sgt. Leonard says.

Of all the recruits in trouble, the AWOL soldier is in the most.

"I let him go Friday to deal with personal problems, and he didn't come back until 7:30 Tuesday morning," Staff Sgt. Leonard says. "There is no excuse.

"He couldn't tell me one, and I haven't spoken to him since."

Irresponsible people like that don't belong in the Army, the disappointed drill sergeant says.

"I wouldn't put him in a foxhole beside any soldier," he says. "I'm not always going to be a drill sergeant. I'm going to be a guy in the field."

Better to be fighting beside someone like Pvt. Feuerhak, who appreciates how dangerous life in the trenches can be.

"Feuerhak is a very mature person," Staff Sgt. Leonard says. "When I fire the two guys down there, I might make him a squad leader."

Pvt. Feuerhak is the grandson of two military men. One grandfather was an Army chaplain, and the other fought in World War II.

"I know what they had gone through, especially my grandpa who (was in) World War II," Pvt. Feuerhak says. "He was in the trenches."

Like his grandfathers, Pvt. Feuerhak enlisted to serve his country, to test his physical limits, to challenge his spirit.

"You just bring it from deep down and do it," he says. "So many soldiers have done it before me, why can't I?"


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