Drill sergeants are shouting their last at Fort Gordon

Charmain Z. Brackett/Correspondent
Sgt. 1st Class Harold Rivera (right), Fort Gordon's drill sergeant of the year for 2006, shows Pvt. George Popereyes how to get into the proper position to fire his weapon. In a few months, Fort Gordon no longer will have drill sergeants.

With their wide-brimmed "Smokey Bear" hats, drill sergeants stand out when marching troops across Chamberlain Avenue or training young soldiers at the forward operating base.

Within the next few months, however, drill sergeants at Fort Gordon will be a part of history, phased out for a new system. Drill sergeants are being assigned to installations offering basic training. Fort Gordon does not have basic training.

"For me, it's a big thing," said Sgt. 1st Class Harold Rivera, who was named Fort Gordon's drill sergeant of the year in March. He recently extended his assignment as drill sergeant for another year.

"I fought for drill sergeants to stay here," he said. "I believe young soldiers are touched in a positive way by drill sergeants."

At Fort Gordon, drill sergeants work with trainees who have just finished basic and are in advanced individual training, a 20-week course.

Sgt. 1st Class Rivera, who has been in the Army for 18 years, said it was a drill sergeant who inspired him to become one.

Col. Frank Penha, the commander of Fort Gordon's 15th Regimental Signal Brigade, said there are 83 drill sergeants at Fort Gordon who will be "de-hatted" by Nov. 1.

"Drill sergeants have been a significant piece of what we do and a significant part of our success," he said. "We are proud of everything they've done."

The Army is changing, though, and the elimination of drill sergeants at this level is part of it, he said.

Gen. William Wallace, the commander of Training and Doctrine Command in Fort Monroe, Va., outlined his reasons for relegating drill sergeants to basic training during an Aug. 1 visit to Fort Gordon.

"Basic is pretty structured, and AIT (advanced individual training) is pretty structured," he said. "Then we give them a plane ticket to go to their first assignment."

There, the structure isn't as rigid. With the new system, soldiers training at Fort Gordon would have more contact with their instructors, who also would serve as squad leaders. The five months in AIT would provide soldiers a transition period, Gen. Wallace said.

"We will reduce the structure in AIT so the first assignment isn't a traumatic experience," he said.

With the instructors taking more of a leadership role, the ratio of students to noncommissioned officers would be lowered, he said.

Currently, the ratio is 75- or 80-to-1, Gen. Wallace said. He estimates the new ratio will be 12 or 15 soldiers to one instructor-squad leader. Drill sergeants will be moved into new roles.

"Whatever they need me to be, I'll be," Sgt. 1st Class Rivera said.

"(Noncommissioned officers) always make it happen," he said. "With a sad heart, I will make it happen."

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