In Praise of Basic Training Instructors

By Roberson, John R. | Army, January 2008 | Go to article overview

In Praise of Basic Training Instructors


Roberson, John R., Army


A product of a too-often maligned system casts a vigorous vote of confidence.

I feel that I am something of a connoisseur of instructors and instruction. Something like double the normal number of teachers has passed before my student desk in this country and in Europe, offering in various languages to impart their knowledge to me. Some have been excellent, some pitiable. Hence I feel that I am better qualified than most to pass judgment on the instruction I received in the eight weeks of basic combat infantry training I completed in the U.S. Army.

I approached the Army with considerable apprehension. I had heard stories of superannuated noncoms handed lesson plans and assigned to lecture on subjects about which they knew nothing-mess sergeants discussing ballistics, mechanics discussing infantry squad tactics. I had heard how they had memorized their material to such an extent that a question from an eager student was unthinkable, since any interruption of their spiels would force them to return to the beginning of a section and start over (like the aged custodians of some of our national historical shrines). Furthermore, so the stories went, trainees must answer questions from these instructors in exactly the words handed down from on high in the class outlines or be counted wrong. As you can see, I was prepared for the worst.

What I actually found in the division to which I was assigned for basic was a splendid training faculty. The instructors, almost without exception, were interested in their subjects and in their students, enthusiastic in their presentations and imaginative in their classroom techniques. We, the members of Charlie Company, were a far from model class. We were frequently nearly asleep on our feet as the result of strenuous physical exercise and long hours of night training. At least half of us were draftees, often subconsciously or openly hostile to anything the Army had to offer. We ranged in age from barely 17 on up. Some of us had the equivalent of a fourth-grade education, and some of us had considerably more. (The Army gave special prebasic classes to those trainees whose test scores indicated less than fourth-grade achievement.) Despite all these handicaps, any one of which might cause a teacher to give up in despair, our faculty was undaunted. When the day came for us to review what we had learned in our eight weeks, I found that they had been remarkably effective in getting through to their students. My comrades in arms, even the ones I was sure had slept through every class, showed that they had taken in and retained the information presented to them, to a surprising degree.

Instructors with firm convictions

Our instructors were as varied a group as we were. Some were privates E-2, some first lieutenants; some were veterans of World War II and some merely serving a two-year tour of duty. But all were held together by a firm conviction that should we ever be sent into combat, the lessons they had to teach us could save our lives. They knew the number of casualties that occurred in Korea and before, purely because of lack of training. And so they were interested in us, their students, in a very vital way.

These men were also interested in their subject matter. They had a prescribed lesson plan for each class, but that plan was only a point of departure for them. As they began, for instance, to extol the virtues of the Ml rifle or the Handie-Talkie radio, they waxed eloquent indeed, with an eloquence that was all of their own making. There was even a friendly rivalry between rifle instructors and the carbine instructors as to which was the better weapon to carry in combat. As is the case with any teaching, their interest was contagious. We saw their interest and their obvious sincerity, and we got interested, too-so interested that a tall lanky city boy, who had never fired a rifle in his life, listened to what the rifle instructors had to say, made expert and tied for third-highest marksmanship score in the company. …

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