Army prepares for extra week of basic training at Fort Jackson

COLUMBIA -- Since the Iraq war began, Fort Jackson's drill sergeants have worried less about polished boots and straight formations.

They've spent more time teaching combat medicine and urban warfare, making basic training a cram session for war.

Starting Nov. 2, the Army will give drill sergeants an extra week to get soldiers ready for war as basic training becomes a 10-week program, said Brig. Gen. Jim Schwitters, commander at Fort Jackson, the Army's largest basic training center.

"We've continued to stuff more and more training in our rucksack," he said. "We haven't expanded the rucksack. This is a recognition of the reality that we've asked more to be done."

It's the first time the Army has expanded basic training since 1998. The change applies to all five basic training posts.

The extension will have implications throughout the Army as it shuffles schedules for soldiers' advanced training and then moves them to units where they will replace soldiers who are retiring or quitting.

Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Defense Information, called the increase in training time "good news."

"Yes, they have problems getting warm bodies to Iraq," Wheeler said. "But you want them to be well trained. You don't want them to learn the hard way."

Pilot program for 6 months

The 10-week training cycle will run as a pilot program for six months. The Army then will switch back to its nine-week format through the summer, when it sees a surge in the number of soldiers going through basic. The 10-week plan will become permanent in October 2008, said Col. Kevin Shwedo, deputy commander at Fort Jackson.

Fort Jackson trains about 50,000 troops a year, and most of them have signed up for support jobs, such as mechanics or cooks.

The Army has been talking about extending basic training since the Iraq war began. The war has forced the Army to change its training concept so soldiers will be ready to fight in a battle where there are no front lines, and it's not always clear who the enemy is.

About half of all new soldiers will end up in Iraq and Afghanistan within a year of graduation.

Rather than adding new requirements to its training, the Army wants the extra week to ensure soldiers are prepared. Already, soldiers are put through three exercises that total 11 days in the field.

When a freshly trained soldier arrives at his first unit assignment, he should not seem like he's new, Schwitters said.

"They need to move straight to a unit and contribute, not finish out the training," Schwitters said.

Sgt. 1st Class Felisha Dodson, a drill sergeant, said the extra week would allow her to instill more discipline in soldiers and improve their physical fitness.

"It all rolls together," she said. "That discipline might be what saves their lives on the battlefield."

On Tuesday, Dodson was on a firing range at Fort Jackson to teach soldiers how to use large weapons, including the .50-caliber machine gun.

Soldiers listened to a drill sergeant explain how to use the weapon, and then they handled an unloaded weapon before firing live rounds.

The Army has pledged additional funding to pay for the food, bullets and other supplies needed.

It costs the military about $67,000 to recruit and train each soldier. That amount won't increase significantly with the extra week, Shwedo said.

The Army's largest training post was established in June 1919 as the country geared up for World War I. Its mission has varied, but it has primarily been a training post. During World War II, nine Army divisions trained there. In the 1990s, the post added a number of Army schools to expand its mission beyond basic training.

Fort Jackson:

• Sits on 52,000 acres and is part of the city of Columbia

• Has about 3,600 soldiers and 10,000 military dependents assigned to the post

• Employs about 4,200 civilians

• Provides services to more than 100,000 veterans

• Is home to the Army's drill sergeant school, adjutant general and finance schools, Chaplain Center, and Soldier Support Institute, and also is home to the Defense Department's Polygraph Institute

• Contributes an estimated $2.6 billion annually to the local economy

About basic training

Fort Jackson is one of five places the Army sends soldiers for basic training.

It is the largest basic training center, receiving 50 percent of all new soldiers and 70 percent of all women entering the Army.

About 50,000 troops are trained at Fort Jackson each year.

Basic training has three phases:

• Red Phase: Covers the basics such as physical training, rifle maintenance and radio communications

• White Phase: Intense marksmanship, map reading and road marches

• Blue Phase: Tactical and combat training, including a seven-day field exercise

Since the Iraq war began, Army basic training has changed to include urban warfare, driving in convoys, operating checkpoints and dealing with civilians on the battlefield.

Next month, Army basic training will become a 10-week program. Basic training in other military branches:

• Marines: 13 weeks

• Air Force: 6 weeks

• Navy: 8 weeks