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Army's new program elevates role of AIT platoon sgts.

Aug. 9, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
An AIT platoon sergeant, representing the U.S. Signal Center of Excellence, communicates via radio during the 2012 Advanced Individual Training Platoon Sergeant of the Year competition. AIT platoon sergeants are trained to be 'masters of formations.'
An AIT platoon sergeant, representing the U.S. Signal Center of Excellence, communicates via radio during the 2012 Advanced Individual Training Platoon Sergeant of the Year competition. AIT platoon sergeants are trained to be 'masters of formations.' (Stephanie Slater/Army)
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Tips for junior NCOs

Sgt. First Class Jerome Rogers, chief instructor for the AIT Platoon Sergeant Course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, offers three tips for junior enlisted soldiers hoping to be AIT platoon sergeants down the roads:

1. Learn your job
. AIT platoon sergeants have a job to mentor soldiers, and some of their wards will inevitably have loads of questions. “That platoon sergeant sits them down and stays with them until, like, zero-dark-thirty to help that soldier pass that course,” he said.

2. Step up to lead. Experience as a team leader, a squad leader or a platoon sergeant in the operational force will give you the experience to teach life lessons to trainees.

3. Stay clean. To pass the background check, it’s best to avoid trouble. The Army takes sexual harassment and assault seriously, and it’s the kind of thing that could immediately disqualify you.

“We want the best quality people out there,” Rogers said. “We want the people who want to make a difference in the Army, and if they have a suspect background, that’s just something that will disqualify you.”

Interested soldiers are advised to make their preference known to their branch managers.

— Joe Gould

The Army is looking to strengthen the ranks of its Advanced Individual Training platoon sergeants by beefing up training and boosting promotion potential, making the job an awesome career move for a noncommissioned officer looking to advance in the ranks.

The Army has, over the last year, flagged the job as a career-boosting, “broadening assignment,” putting it alongside drill sergeant, recruiter and observer-controller.

Promotion boards are receiving instructions that specifically outline the job’s merits, and the assignment is included on your enlisted record brief (these are basically green flashing lights to the board that say “Go, promote this soldier!”).

The Army also has a special badge in the works that would appear in your official photo, another way to impress a board and make master sergeant, officials say. The badge is set to be proposed in 2015 and is being pitched as retroactive to all previous AIT platoon sergeants.

Starting Oct. 5the AIT Platoon Sergeant Course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, is expanding from two to six weeks to make it better resemble drill sergeant training. Its main goal is and will remain graduating “masters of formations,” troops who can lead masses of troops, officials say.

The AIT platoon sergeant is largely a job for non-combat MOSs, which train outside of the combat arms’ model, which combines Basic Combat Training and AIT, using drill sergeants throughout.

“The noncommissioned officer who served as an AIT platoon sergeant has an advantage over absolutely every one of his peers who have not served,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Woods, senior enlisted adviser for IMT. “As we go back to a more competitive promotions system, it’s these little nuances that will make the difference.”

The Army trains 600 AIT platoon sergeants on an annual basis to serve a coveted mentoring role with new soldiers. AIT platoon sergeants train and guide company-sized units of new troops as they learn the technical skills for their first assignment in the Army.

AIT platoon sergeants say that, beyond career advancement, the job’s main rewards are the leadership experience and impact on future noncommissioned officers that come with it. AIT platoon sergeants are often grouped with soldiers of their military occupational specialty.

“If you love soldiers, if you love teaching, mentoring and training soldiers, you want to be an AIT platoon sergeant,” said Sgt. First Class Jerome Rogers, chief instructor for the AIT Platoon Sergeant Course.

In years past, there were AIT drill sergeants filling these jobs, but the Army moved to AIT platoon sergeants in 2007. Army leadership wanted new soldiers to be trained, not by the shouting drill sergeant, but NCOs who could better acclimate soldiers to how the chain of command operates in the operational Army.

However, two problems emerged that the Army is just now tackling: The job gained a reputation for hard work with long hours and no incentives, and the two-week prep course was too basic. Officials say the course was not relevant, not challenging and not adequately preparing AIT platoon sergeants, especially for handling the large formations they’d see on the job.

A 2012 Army Research Institute study showed how tough the job really is. Researchers found the imbalance between work and personal life, the job’s unclear duties and responsibilities, and the isolation of the job were significant sources of stress for AIT platoon sergeants.

Eligibility rules

Sergeants first class and staff sergeants with two years time in grade and five years time in service are eligible to become AIT platoon sergeants.

The job is considered by the Army to be a position of trust, like a sexual assault response coordinator, a recruiter and a drill sergeant, and requires a “strenuous” background check, said Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Campbell, who leads the operations, plans and training shop at the Army Center for Initial Military Training. Soldiers with a criminal record or a history of domestic violence are ineligible.

According to Campbell, soldiers who met the criteria and became AIT platoon sergeants were advancing all along to sergeant first class if they hadn’t already, but the selection rate for master sergeants had been too low to act as incentive.

That is, until recently. This year, promotion rates among AIT platoon sergeants and drill sergeants were much higher than the NCOs who hadn’t done either job, according to Campbell. But, startlingly, AIT platoon sergeants began to be promoted at higher rates than drill sergeants.

“That was a huge success for us,” Campbell said.

Expanded training

New AIT platoon sergeants have largely been unaccustomed to leading large formations, officials said. They were what IMT calls “masters of systems” and not “masters of formations.”

As Campbell explained it, a typical night vision repair technician who is a staff sergeant might lead two or three soldiers. When he shows up for work as an AIT platoon sergeant, he would have at least several dozen soldiers to lead and, under the old training, he’d be in over his head.

“We were not educating them. We were basically just throwing them to the wolves,” he said.

As Drill Sergeant School Command Sgt. Maj. Lamont Christian described it, a master of formations has the ability to move a soldier from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ in a disciplined, rhythmic formation, or project control over a group during training.

IMT officials say one problem had been that new soldiers were learning one way to do things from their drills sergeants, and in some cases, another way from their AIT platoon sergeants. That’s because AIT platoon sergeants tended to follow unit operating procedures, as opposed to the fundamentals.

“For a new soldier, you introduce a technique to them until its inculcated into themselves,” said Woods, “and every time you offer them a new version to do the same thing it becomes confusing.”

The new course, for the first three weeks, will overlap with the Drill Sergeant School at Fort Jackson, so that there is no daylight between the way drill sergeants and AIT platoon sergeants are taught physical readiness training, warrior tasks and battle drills, and drill and ceremonies.

“If you [were] to go to the Drill Sergeant School in the morning while they are doing PT, you would not know a drill sergeant candidate from an AIT platoon sergeant candidate,” Campbell said. “They are all in there together in the same PT. They are all doing the same training, the same with drill and ceremony.”

Even after the two groups split apart for their own training, they will share barracks and dining facilities.

“It’s not a watered down version of the Drill Sergeant Course, but it bridges the gap between the drill sergeant and the AIT platoon sergeant,” Christian said.

Instructors with the course say they are happy the expanded training will include administrative tasks like discharging a soldier and navigating a medical evaluation board, as well as financial management and physical readiness training.

“When I got on the trail, I had to go through a chapter process, and I kind of didn’t know what I was doing, to be honest with you,” said Rogers, who served as an AIT platoon sergeant at Fort Gordon, Georgia. “As an AIT platoon sergeant you have to be fully vetted in the process.”

Staff Sgt. Louis Whaley, a wheeled vehicle mechanic and former AIT platoon sergeant at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, said he saw soldiers injure themselves by exercising incorrectly. He said learning proper PRT is the fix.

“We weren’t doing the exercises precision-based,” said Whaley, another instructor.

“So now we are teaching them to do precise, precise movement. We’re helping them to increase their mobility, flexibility, endurance and strength — the correct way.”

Not drill sergeants

Despite the similarities in the new training, AIT platoon sergeants are not drill sergeants. They wear a patrol cap, not a campaign hat, and they don’t carry themselves in the straight-backed manner of a drill sergeant or exert the “total control” of Basic Combat Training.

The training will not change that, said Christian.

“If anything will rub off it’s the techniques to achieve success, not necessarily the regimented, stereotypical image of the yelling drill sergeant standing there,” he said.

Like drill sergeants, AIT platoon sergeants can work long, hard hours.

“At Fort Gordon, we averaged 16- to 17-hour days,” Rogers said. “Like a drill sergeant, you are at work more than you’re at home.”

Despite the demands on AIT platoon sergeants, the Army does not provide them with special duty pay as it does for drill sergeants (an extra $300 per month).

It has been a contentious issue: For soldiers surveyed for the 2012 study, the lack of special duty pay — behind the long work hours in the training cycle — was the leading source of stress.

According to Christian, the pay may not be provided because not all AIT locations have the same trainee ratio, workload or hours.

“You can take one with very easy hours and others that work hours longer than a drill sergeant,” Christian said. “It’s hard to be equitable, that all AIT platoon sergeants will receive this pay. ... Those questions would have to be tabled, researched and vetted.”

At the end of the day, Rogers says that being an AIT platoon sergeant is “a pretty demanding job, and it’s a rewarding job as well.”

And the prospect of getting promoted to master sergeant and possibly landing a first sergeant gig may be incentive enough for many soldiers concerned with budget cuts and force-outs.

“An AIT platoon sergeant does all the administrative work and all the formation management a first sergeant does without a staff,” Woods said. “The AIT platoon sergeant would be a logical, easy choice to make into a future first sergeant. He’s already demonstrated he can do anything a first sergeant does except [administer military law].”■

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