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What is basic training really like?

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Kevin Stringer
10/02/2019

Also known as "boot camp," basic training teaches the traditions and tactics necessary for military service. In films and television, basic training is often shown as extremely difficult and physically demanding; however, the actual experience differs significantly from portrayals in movies like Full Metal Jacket.

While the physical components of basic training plans can be difficult, the goal of most camps is to get the recruit into the proper mindset for military service. This means teaching them to work as a unit, follow orders, and put the needs of their country, unit, and military branch ahead of their individual needs.

Drill sergeants do sometimes yell at recruits—and some of them yell a lot—but they tend to address groups rather than individuals. They are not allowed to physically touch recruits, and their gruff behavior always has a specific intent behind it.

"I think the biggest misconception about drill sergeants is that we are paid (to be) mean—which completely isn't true," said Staff Sergeant Stephanie Rodriguez, a drill sergeant from Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in a piece on the United States Army’s website. "It's more of a tough love-type story. There is a time for discipline and a time for praise, and where I am from, everyone gets both."

During boot camp, recruits are generally unable to contact civilians, except via handwritten letters and extremely limited phone time. This is to compel recruits to focus completely on their training.

Different branches of the United States military have different basic training camps, and the exact experience of boot camp varies for individual military personnel. Here’s an overview:

Navy

In 2018, Navy leaders increased boot camp difficulty, focusing on the "gritty fundamentals of physical fitness, standing watch, and waging war at sea,": per Navy Times. Trainers cut down on computer-based training and set a new, loftier physical fitness standard. Since implementing the changes, "2 percent more recruits were shown the door."

"I’m okay with that," Rear Admiral Mike Bernacchi told Navy Times. "Not everybody can be a sailor."

"If it doesn’t have to do with firefighting, damage control, seamanship, force protection or watch standing, we flushed it," he said of the changes to the program. "We flushed over two weeks of curriculum."

While physical training makes up a significant part of Navy boot camp, recruits also learn essential skills to protect their eventual vessels. If they fail at their tasks, they’re fined real money. Recruit division commanders will also wake recruits in the middle of the night to test whether they’re able to respond to emergency situations (for instance, a man overboard).

At the end of training, recruits visit the USS Trayer, a building with a mock-up of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. Recruits must pass overnight exercise requirements in order to graduate.

Length of boot camp: Seven weeks (plus one difficult, but unofficial, processing week)

Army

Like the Navy, the Army increased graduation requirements for basic training in 2018. The new philosophy: Test soldiers under pressure. The focus shifted from learning concepts just once in a classroom to applying that knowledge in the field.

"You’ll touch a training event such as first aid, and you’ll continue to see that," Command Sergeant Major Lamont Christian told Army Times. "You’ll see it all day the next day, you’ll see it again the following day—even though you’re on the range."

Recruits learn shooting, radio communications, Army history, grooming standards, proper dress, the Seven Core Army Values, and the U.S. Soldier’s Creed. Aspiring soldiers may have to perform difficult tasks while sleep deprived.

Length of boot camp: 10 weeks

Marine Corps

Compared to other basic training programs, Marine boot camp is intense.

"Generally, no one argues that Marines’ boot camp is, by far, the hardest of U.S. military indoctrinatory exercises and is famous/infamous for its training tactics," wrote Marine sergeant Jon Davis.

Recruits learn basic marksmanship, military history, first aid, combat water survival, proper dress, Marine Corps Core Values, and other essentials. They must master an 11-station obstacle course, which requires significant upper body strength.

"Physical training takes many forms, but generally centers on building instant obedience to orders over actual exercise," Davis wrote. "Most of the time, it centers on listen and do what you are told, get through the exercise, and get out of the situation before you are yelled at."

At the end of their training, recruits participate in the Crucible, a 54-hour exercise filled with tough physical activities. Recruits get about eight hours of sleep during the entire exercise and walk over 40 miles.

"Some [recruits] come from middle-class homes where everything has been handed to them," drill sergeant Roger Summers told Military.com. "Others come from poorer homes where nothing was ever expected of them. If they finish the Crucible, they have accomplished something."

Length of boot camp: 12 weeks (plus four days of processing)

Air Force

The basic training program for the Air Force begins in San Antonio, Texas. Air Force boot camp has a reputation for emphasizing history, the honor code, and self-discipline—not so much on physical training.

In recent years, that has changed somewhat. In 2018, the Air Force added another week to basic training, and there’s now more physical fitness training (44 sessions, as opposed to 31 prior to the changes).

"There are a lot of health benefits that go along with being physically fit," Master Sergeant Robert Kaufman told Air Force Times. "We want them to go to their first base ready to roll, and pass that fitness test, and make that a lifestyle."

The new program also includes more weapons training and classes on Air Force heroes. Recruits must pass the Basic Military Physical Fitness Test, which includes one minute of push-ups, one minute of sit-ups, and a timed 1.5-mile run.

Length of boot camp: 8.5 weeks

Coast Guard

Although the Coast Guard is the smallest of the services, its basic training is nothing to sneeze at. In addition to physical requirements like being able to complete a swim circuit, Coast Guard recruits learn about military justice, customs, ethics, and Coast Guard history at their basic training in Cape May, New Jersey.

Length of boot camp: Eight weeks

Again, these are overviews—no two recruits have identical experiences, and some programs (for instance, the Navy SEALs) have far different requirements than what we’ve outlined above. Most basic training programs have similar goals: To form recruits into military professionals. That’s typically a difficult process from the recruit’s perspective, but not insurmountable.

"Normal people can’t do the things warriors are asked to do," Davis wrote. "They can’t imagine it and shouldn’t be forced to. But there are those that do. For these people, though, there must be a transition from ‘civilian’ to ‘warrior.’ Boot camp is the means of that evolution, and every part of it is necessary."