September 9, 2010:
The U.S. Army has drastically changed its basic training in the last nine years. This is to be expected in wartime. But the army also had to contend with another, unexpected development. The enormous growth in computer entertainment, and subsequent massive reduction in exercise teenage boys get. As a result, one of the biggest problems American military recruiters have is unfit young Americans trying to enlist. It shouldn't be that way, for there are 32 million people in the prime military age group (17-24). But because of bad lifestyle choices, only 13 percent of them are physically eligible for service. Each year, the armed forces have to recruit 180,000 new troops. The military is allowed to waive some physical or mental standards, and this means that only about 20 percent of those 32 million potential recruits qualify. Each year, recruiters have to convince 2.7 percent of those eligible that they should join up. It's a tough job, made worse by a generation that eats too much, exercises too little and doesn't pay enough attention in school.
Some 57 percent of potential recruits are lost because they do not score high enough on the aptitude test the military uses to see if people have enough education and mental skills to handle military life. Many of those who score too low do so because they did not do well at school. A lot of these folks have high IQs, but low motivation. Most of the remainder are not eligible for physical reasons. But get this, the most common physical disqualifier is being overweight. Nearly a third of the people of military age are considered obese. The big folks who are eager to join, are told how much weight they have to lose before they can enlist, but few return light enough to sign up.
During World War II, the percentage of acceptable recruits was more than double what it is today. Young men and women were in better physical shape, fewer got into trouble with drugs or crime, and military educational standards were not as high because there were more non-technical jobs available.
The sharp decrease in physical fitness means that the service, especially the army, had had to changes its basic training to include more exercise that will get recruits into shape. That was one of the reasons why, two years ago, basic was increased from nine to ten weeks. After tracking the performance of the 10 week trainees, the army found that the additional week was well worth it.
The extra time was not just being used to enable trainees to learn their basic military skills better. Commanders and NCOs in combat zones have been complaining that many newly recruited combat support troops reach them not-quite-ready for combat. The problem, it turned out, was lessons being learned, but not pounded home so they would still be there when the new soldier reached the combat zone.
This led to a lot of other changes. There was far more emphasis placed on firing weapons, and doing the kinds of things you actually do in combat. For example, the army cut back on the long distance running, and instead got the troops used to sprinting short distances carrying all the weight (over 25 kg/55 pounds) of weapons and combat gear. Troops were also shown the best way to pull, or carry, a wounded buddy out of harm's way. Actually doing this a few times makes the trainee aware that they can do it, and how hard it is. Sure beats going through that for the first time while you are under fire.
The traditional sit-ups and push-ups have largely been replaced by "whole body" exercise. This is also needed because of the increased emphasis on hand-to-hand combat. But this is a new form of brawling, based on what troops actually encounter in combat. To this end, the army has developed a special form of close combat it calls "combatives." The army has even made it into a competitive sport.
There is also renewed emphasis on making sure that, during basic training, the civilian recruits get that necessary mental adjustment needed to deal with stress and combat. Basic tends to get watered down in peacetime, mainly for political reasons. Too many (or just any) injuries during training can get the media and politicians demand that the problem go away. During the 1990s, there was a major flap over the problems female trainees had keeping up with males. It wasn't fair. It was made "fair," but that began to change after September 11, 2001. By now, everyone is getting pretty strenuous Basic, but that will change one peacetime returns.
Many combat veterans, including high ranking ones, believe that the combat support troops, especially those running convoys, or otherwise outside the wire (working outside base camps) just have not had sufficient training in combat basics. That's another reason for basic training looking more like a crash course in "how to survive in a combat zone". For the non-combat troops, who do not get several months more of combat training, what they get in basic can be a lifesaver.
Once soldiers graduate from basic, they go on to specialized training, which can last from a few weeks, to a year, depending on their military job. If they are going to Iraq or Afghanistan, they usually get some combat training before they leave the United States, or before they arrive in bandit country.
The additional basic training time is, in theory, to instill basic combat skills early on. These skills are expanded using an additional week or so of additional combat training for some combat support troops before they hit the combat zone. The additional training is also meant to improve the discipline and general military effectiveness of new troops. During the 1990s, basic training was watered down quite a bit, and that resulted in new recruits coming into their first units still acting a lot like civilians. The army has been trying to rectify that ever since. But with the decline in exercise, and growth in obesity among teenagers, the army has get these recruits to look like soldiers, and not out of shape video-gamers carrying real guns.