NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Army Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Heilman knelt down in a wooded section of Fort Eustis and calmly told six soldiers he had never met before to prepare — they might find an improvised explosive device on their way to relieve some other soldiers at a checkpoint.
"If you encounter an IED before it explodes, make sure you don't make a ruckus. Don't scream," Heilman said as the young soldiers listened intently. "Remember someone put that thing there. They're trying to kill you, and if you react to it and they know that you reacted to it, they're going to try their best to get whatever result they can. You might be running away from it but they're still going to blow it up and try to catch you."
Less than a foot away, an evaluator from the Army's Training and Doctrine Command stood with a clipboard in hand and listened to every word Heilman said, evaluating whether he had the right leadership and critical thinking skills to be named the Army's Drill Sergeant of the Year.
Noticeably absent from the test scenarios last week were any of the yelling, screaming and order-barking associated with drill sergeants in popular culture. To be sure, Army drill sergeants can still instill fear in new recruits. But as the Army focuses more on developing the critical thinking skills of its soldiers and less on rote memorization and one-size-fits-all training, some of their top drill sergeants say bellowing is a last resort.
"I really consider myself a new generation of drill instructor. I mean, unless you do something really, really out of place I don't think there's any need to do the whole yelling and screaming," said Staff Sgt. Danneit R. Disla, who is part of the 98th Reserve Division based in Rochester, N.Y. "I just think if you talk to them like a person, like a man, they will act like a man, like a grown man."
There are about 2,400 drill sergeants in the active duty ranks and about 3,000 in the Army Reserves. Six drill sergeants spent the past week in a physically and mentally grueling competition to win top honors in their division, writing essays, answering questions and marching for miles with 50-pound rucksacks on their backs, all the while never knowing what's coming next.
Heilman was named the winner Friday. He will spend a year assigned to the Initial Military Training Center of Excellence, part of the Training and Doctrine Command, where they will help shape the future of the Army. The new breed of drill sergeants, who help mold quiet and unassuming soldiers and who can still be vocal when they need to be, are just as effective as the classic drill sergeant.
Sgt. 1st Class Adam McQuiston, who is based at Fort Leonard Wood, acknowledged being shy before becoming a drill sergeant. He said he's fought that by constantly leading and teaching new recruits, but that doesn't mean he has to be loud.
"Maybe there's a time for the screaming and yelling and constant pushing, but you also need to be that expert trainer at those skills they're going to need out of basic training," McQuiston said.
Part of the drill sergeants' evaluation focused on what they would do if a trainee refused to do as they were told. One drill sergeant tackled the scenario by simply saying "let's talk" and listening to the recruit and then providing mentoring.
The top drill instructors, who each won competitions at the posts where they're based, say being a trainer who excels means finding a way to relate to individual soldiers who come from a variety of backgrounds.
"You have to realize that not every single trainee that you deal with is going to be the same. They're all not all going to relate, take the information the same and relate the same," said Staff Sgt. Jarod Moss, a reservist from Dallas who is part of the 95th Reserve Division based at Lawton, Okla. "Look at it as a different way to teach it."
Underscoring the importance of being able to relate to soldiers, the drill sergeants were evaluated on the correct actions to take in response to a role-playing soldier who was suspected as suicidal.
Among other things, the drill sergeants were also evaluated on how to move soldiers under fire to cover and then return fire, how they would teach soldiers how to enter and clear a room and how to conduct a medical evaluation.
"You don't really just want the most physically fit, or just the smartest. It's got to be a very well-rounded, intelligent, articulate individual that's going to get through this. Much like our basic training has changed from being a mindless basic training, really all about blind obedience, to more of teaching them to think and make decisions under stress," said Command Sgt. Maj. John R. Calpena from Fort Eustis. "In the fight they're in they can't be looking back for the sergeant to know what they're going to do when they come under fire in a marketplace. They have to make a decision, shoot or don't shoot and report. Same with our drill sergeants."
That's not to say physical endurance isn't still important.
On the third day of the competition following a run through an obstacle course filled with ditches, walls and cargo nets similar to the ones recruits go through, McQuiston was so exhausted that he vomited.
Heilman, who is stationed at Fort Jackson outside of Columbia, S.C., and is originally from Philadelphia, complained of having blisters on his feet the size of half-dollars.
"My feet are pretty much just nubs, but I'm able to push through it. Pain, shmain. I don't care. It's a competition," he said during a brief break. "I'm just going to keep pushing until they tell me I have to stop or until I fall over and stop, but I'm not going to quit."