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Army Basic Training A Valuable Lesson in Diversity

Updated on November 4, 2013
Figure 1: The North Dakota National Guard Unit Patch
Figure 1: The North Dakota National Guard Unit Patch

Army Basic Training: A Valuable Lesson in Diversity©

Mark Monroe

December 14, 2012

My first lesson in diversity began October 17, 1979, when I enlisted in Company C, 141st Engineer Combat Battalion of the North Dakota (ND) Army National Guard (ARNG). This opening statement may seem a little strange given the lack of diversity in DickeyCountyND, at that point in time. In 1980 out of the 7,187 residents in the county, there were no African Americans, Asians, and only 22 Hispanics. The county was a reflection of the state’s demographic picture, which had a total population of 652,717[1], of which 2,568 were African American, 20,158 Native American, 1,979 Asian, and 3,902 Hispanic. The unit itself only had one African American soldier assigned to it; he was attending school at the local bible college. Given that as a backdrop, it is not surprising the lesson learned was not readily apparent. While these events I am about to describe took place right in front of my face; it took me several decades to understand the importance of them.

I started participating in weekend drills[2] before I departed for Basic Training (BT) the next summer. While at drill, unit members began exposing me to what might be expected during BT. In the early spring of 1980, I was sent to CampGrafton for three days, to meet up with other new recruits. We were introduced to each other, formed up into squads and began training as if we were in BT. When I left in June for BT, I had about 14 days of additional organized training in basic drill and ceremony, customs and courtesies, weapons training and mentoring to prepare me for the experience.

Normally when a recruit enters the Army, their first stop is BT. Once they have completed that phase, he/she will move on to another unit for Advance Individual Training (AIT). Combat Engineers had a little different process. For that career field the trainees were sent to a One Station Unit Training (OSUT) unit. Meaning there was no divide between BT and AIT, so instead of six weeks of fun in the hot and muggy summer of 1980 at Ft Leonard Wood MO, we would be there for twelve. When an enlistee arrives at their BT unit they generally did not know who they would be teamed up with during the training. I had some other very important information prior to my departure that proved to be an immediate advantage over the other trainees. 1) The whole platoon I was assigned to was from the ND ARNG; 2) we had met each other, trained together, many of us had played high school sports against one another and three of them were from my hometown; and 3) we had an identity, we were the Rough Rider platoon.

The importance of a group identity and being successful in this type of training environment has to be stressed. An individual can be talented and motivated, but in a program that is dependent on team work, their success may be limited. Once the team has an identity that the members accept, then their efforts are in support of the team. In a 2006 report authored by Dr. Steve W. J. Kozlowski, Daniel Watola, Jaclyn Nowakowski, Brain Kim and Isabel Botero discussed the role of identity to team success, “While commitment to the team refers to acceptance of the goals and values, team identity addresses the notion that team members are not simply individuals, but also members of a larger grouping of people with its own set of boundaries and expectations” (Kozlowski page 10) If they identify with the team, the ability to conform to the norms becomes more efficient.

Due to the advantage we had, the Rough Rider platoon did very well in the initial phases of the training. It got to the point where our platoon’s Drill Instructors (DI) were bragging to the other DIs that we were walking away with the best platoon award. We had already established our group identity so we could focus on performance. During a field day competition about quarter of the way through the cycle, the Rough Riders walked away with the majority of the team awards.

Something started to happen as the training cycle progressed; the other platoons were starting to come together as a team. They were learning how to play off each other’s strengths and support the weaker members. Keep in mind that the primary function of BT is to transform civilians into soldiers so they will work as a team to accomplish an objective and survive in combat. DI’s take young women and men from every state and territory, and some cases foreign countries with demographic, geographic, social status, educational and language differences to work as a focused unit. The obstacle was outlined in the 1942 edition of the Officer’s Manual. “America is a composite nation embracing many distinct elements. The great national melting pot has not yet made us one homogeneous people with easily distinguished national characteristics.” (Officer’s Guide page 444) While some of the terminology is a little dated, the point remains valid, in America there is no single point of identity, so it has to be manufactured during the training.

For the first few weeks it did not look as if the other platoons were ever going to achieve the same level of cohesion and identity that we had going in. That is not to say that we had an easy time during the training. By design BT is physically and mentally demanding even to the most prepared individual. We had a familiarity with each other, so we did not have the same growing pains as the other platoons. As time progressed through the training cycle the advantage the Rough Riders had was beginning to wane because the other groups were starting to come together as a team. Their progress as a unit continued until they were on the same level and provided some serious competition for the distinction of lead platoon.

Figure 2: 1980 Third Platoon, Charlie Company what a good looking group of guys
Figure 2: 1980 Third Platoon, Charlie Company what a good looking group of guys

Why were they able to gain ground? The training that all three platoons were going through was the same, while each had different DIs; they were all under the watchful eye of the Senior DI. The difference was their difference. As a group they came from very diverse backgrounds. Some were from large urban areas; others were from rural communities in the south. They had members from almost every state and Puerto Rico. In ND the largest urban area had a population of roughly 300,000. So the vast majority of the platoon came from a rural setting. Many members of my platoon never saw an African American until they were introduced to our DI. Once the other platoons started to form a common identity, it allowed them the opportunity to leverage their diversity.

How did this transition come to be for the other platoons? At the time we did not have “diversity training”, however we had to go through mandatory human relations training which talked about racism and stereotyping [3]. Even if we did have a formal course on diversity, the classroom is never enough to change a person perspective. The classroom plants the seed for change and defines the expectations. The actions of the organization in support of the training internalize the expected behavior of the members. There were several critical events that took place which made the difference.

1. The only choice the trainees were given was to work together or fail. The trainees did not have to like each, but they had to acknowledge each other as a member of the platoon. They had to learn how to trust one another, they had to become dependent. As one college text book describes the dependence “Positive interdependence is achieved when members of the team rely on each other to complete the project. They understand that their individual success is inherently linked with that of their other team members and with the success of the team as a whole. Group members focus on two objectives to achieve positive interdependence: maximizing their own productivity and working to maximize the productivity of all other group members.” (Abarca 40)

2. To a point the members were allowed to disagree with each other. The DIs did not interfere with the internal discussion unless they threatened to get out of hand or it would lead the platoon to an unauthorized action. In the book Building a House for Diversity, the authors speak about the tension that comes with diversity. “Diversity tension is inevitable. Whenever different perspectives are found, tension will exist. It is not a question of one party or the other’s being at fault. It is not the same thing as conflict, and it is not invariably negative, but it is invariably present.” (Thomas page 7) When you have a diverse group of people thrown together, there is going to be tension and conflict because of the competing value systems at play. The structure of BT put limits on how far that tension is allowed to grow.

3. The platoon members were allowed to build off each other and learn how to organize and utilize their relative strengths and weaknesses. People who have never been in the military may find it hard to believe that it promotes resourcefulness. There are very few situations/problems in life that will have the same answer every time; to work through them situational awareness is key to survival. “Productive members of a team do their duty as well as they know how and actively seek to improve their performance. They also cooperate with other members of the team and help them willingly. The members of a team are more interested in the success of the team than in personal gain.” (FM 7-21.13 Chapter 1)

4. The DIs did not treat any of them differently. A trainee’s view of the world is very limited during BT. They will have very little contact with any authority figures outside of their platoon or company NCO’s. Once in a while they will have contact with their Company Commander, after that they may have a remote chance meeting with someone of a higher rank. If the trainee sees that the DIs are treating people the same, rewarding them for their triumphs and holding people accountable for their missteps, then there is a willingness to contribute to the team. The DI, to the trainees represents the Army, as such if they show preferential treatment based on race, gender, religion, etc the Army discriminate based on those same values. If discrimination is the perceived norm then that perception is going to impact or limit the individual contribution. A report compiled at the JohnM.OrlinSchool of Business highlights the challenge of forming diverse teams. “While workers may prefer more demographically homogeneous groups in order to reduce communication costs and increase productivity and pay, Becker’s (1957) model of co-worker discrimination suggests that demographically diverse teams may also reduce worker utility. If workers are prejudiced, then they may choose to segregate themselves within the workplace and form teams with similar individuals, even if these teams generate less pay for their members.” (May 2004) Part of the responsibility of the DI was to recognize and intervene to ensure that the trainees could effectively and efficiently work together.

The Rough Riders had an identity before arriving at Ft Leonard Wood MO. We were a heterogeneous group with a sense of commonality towards a shared goal. The other platoons collectively did not have an identity, so it was forged as the training cycle progressed and was based on the multiple inputs by their members. When they arrived they were a diverse group of individuals, with their own personal sense of identity. It was not until they were able to form a collective identity that their productivity improved. A side effect of their diversity helped make our platoon stronger, their increased proficiency forced us to rethink what we were doing to remain competitive.

One advantage that we did not relinquish during the training cycle was the number of trainees that washed out. We had few people who did not complete the process than the other platoons. There are a number of reasons why people fail to graduate from BT. Some get physically hurt and their injury will not allow them to continue. Others fail because they can not meet the physical, intellectual or mental requirements of the training. A contributing factor in the lower wash out rate was the strong association of the individual with the identity of the platoon. The military has been studying the reason for attrition in the first six months of service a part of the problem is misidentifying the issue. Too often the disenfranchised soldier is seen as a problem, as a 2003 Army report shows the path that disassociation can lead a new soldier, “Morale, cohesiveness, and espirit-de-corps can be impacted at the lowest level of command. Too often, Army leaders view low morale only as an impediment to accomplishment of a complex and dangerous mission rather than seeing it also as dissatisfaction of military life or a lack of appreciation for soldiers’ contributions to the unit. Once a soldier becomes disgruntled or feels worthless and unappreciated, he or she may present the leadership with disciplinary challenges until the decision is made to discharge them.” (Hickman page 14)

In this limited controlled environment, in the initial stages of training, a homogeneous group had the greater success. It was also true that the newly formed diverse groups had issues while learning to work with each other. In the end groups that learn how to leverage the expertise of its members was more successful. No one should believe that creating and maintaining an effective diverse organization is an easy thing to do. This article was looking at a snap shot in time. The Army still struggles, as does out society, with issues of diversity.

You should have noticed that in my story there were no women in the mixed. At the time of these events they were barred from the career field. If there had been women present that would have added to the dynamic of the training, but one thing would have remained the same, until the group learns to harness their diversity and gain some sort of identity their success will be limited.

Foot Notes:

[1] Yes I mean only six hundred and fifty-two thousand

[2] Weekend drill refers to the time that Guard members meet and train, usually one weekend per month.

[3] No, we did not go through sexual harassment training.

Source of figure 1:


Shanks, David Major General. The Officers’ Guide 8th edition. Chapter XXV Management of the American Soldier. The Military Service Publishing Company. 1942

Thomas, R Roosevelt. Building a House for Diversity. Amacom. 1999

Abarca, Javier, Al Bedard, Denise Carlson, Larry Carlson, Jean Hertzberg, Bev Louie, Jana

Milford, René Reitsma, Trudy Schwartz and Jackie Sullivan. Editors: Janet Yowell and Denise Carlson. Introductory Engineering Design: A Projects-Based Approach. Regents of the University of Colorado. 2000. (Accessed October 17, 2012)

Kozlowski, Steve W. J., Daniel Watola, Jaclyn Nowakowski, Brain Kim and Isabel Botero. Deloping Adaptive Teams: A Theory of Synamic Team Leadership. 2006. (accessed October 17, 2012)

Hickman, Sheila B. Colonel. Colonel Ruth B. Collins, Project Advisor. Army Enlisted Attrition: Where Are We, and Where Do We Go From Here?. U.S.ArmyWarCollege. 2003. (Accessed October 18, 2012)

Hamilton, Barton H., Jack A. Nickerson, and Hideo Owan. Diversity and Productivity in Production Teams. JohnM.OlinSchool of Business Washington University in St. Louis. May 2004

Army Field Manual (FM) 7-21.13. (accessed October 17, 2012)

© 2012 Mark Monroe


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      5 years ago

      An interesting reflection of basic training


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