FORT JACKSON, S.C. – Being “under the hat” means more than breaking recruits down – it’s also about the process of building them up. Today’s drill sergeant coaches, counsels, mentors and transforms civilians into combat-ready Soldiers.
For many in uniform, whether they left basic training last month or 20 years ago, seeing a drill sergeant immediately conjures up feelings of respect – the memory of the person who “showed them the military ropes” and proudly molded them into full-fledged Soldiers.
Even in the civilian sector, there are those who recognize the “brown round” campaign hat as a symbol of the ultimate Army professional and a beacon of excellence. Those characterizations are juxtaposed by depictions in Hollywood films – the stereotypical hothead pouncing from the shadows of Army posts, with veins popping from their necks as they scream at new recruits.
The intensity commonly attributed to a drill sergeant’s temper is “just a switch you turn on,” joked Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Holliday, deputy senior drill sergeant leader at Fort Jackson’s Army Drill Sergeant Academy. However, there’s no “on or off switch” for exemplifying the Warrior Ethos and living by the Army Values, he noted.
Whether he’s at the gas station on base or grocery shopping in town with his family, Holliday said he understands when the general public “sees the hat,” they see the Army’s gatekeeper. “They see a professional with overall command presence.”
Holliday, a native of Bardstown, Ky., started his Army career as a reservist in the Blue Grass State. He was originally part of the 475th Transportation Detachment as an 88M, motor transportation operator. That road led him on two deployments – Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2010.
Wanting to make the military a full-time career, Holliday applied for and was accepted into the Active Guard Reserve, a federal program that offers full-time jobs in part-time services, such as the Army Reserve.
After he spoke with friends who were drill sergeants, Holliday liked what he heard and volunteered to become a candidate in 2014. Shortly after, he was off to the academy at Fort Jackson to earn his own campaign hat.
“The drill sergeant leaders were everything I thought they’d be,” he said, regarding his time as a candidate. “They were subject-matter experts in everything they talked to us about. They were well-prepared non-commissioned officers who knew how to lead their peers to become drill sergeants themselves.”
After graduation in 2015, Holliday earned his drill sergeant badge and went on to become an instructor at the CONUS Replacement Center, Fort Bliss, Texas. There, he prepared individuals and small groups of Soldiers, contractors and government civilians for upcoming deployments.
“I quickly learned how important, and overwhelming, it is to be a subject-matter expert in everything,” he said. “(Being an instructor) requires constant learning and steps to refresh yourself on what you're teaching, such as first aid, because things always change.”
In an ever-adapting Army, Holliday has been on the frontlines of those changes for years, but one constant that doesn’t change, he said, is what the hat and badge represent – an expert in all warrior tasks and battle drills.
“If a trainee asks you something, you have to always be ready,” he said. “Because they have no knowledge other than you to base anything off of. You have to be the Soldier’s Soldier at all times.”
After his stint at Fort Bliss, Holliday returned to the Drill Sergeant Academy, this time as an instructor. Today, with more than four years under his hat, he’s been at the assignment longer than “just about anyone,” he said.
Stepping back into the school, Holliday felt a heavy weight on his shoulders. He could see the words “This we'll defend” etched into the dorm building, facing the drill pad. He knew the gravity of the phrase – it’s the Army’s official motto, and it’s on the identification badge worn by every drill sergeant since 1958.
“Drill sergeant candidates see us as who they are (supposed to become),” he said. “There are no ‘off days’ in this environment; you have to be your best at all times.”
In his capacity as a Drill Sergeant Leader at the school, Holliday handles “the bullets and beans” of his platoon, he humorously said. What that entails is ensuring all drill sergeant leaders have everything needed to accomplish their mission of training candidates.
The academy’s curriculum mirrors Basic Combat Training’s week-by-week cycles, setting a routine that helps candidates “get in the mindset” of that environment. The drill sergeant selectees live like trainees, down to wearing water canteen belts, marching in formation everywhere they go and sleeping in Army-issue bunks.
“Our training environment brings (candidates) back to basics,” Holliday said. “Some Soldiers tend to get more relaxed in the regular Army, and lose some disciplines such as drill, standing at the position of attention, or going to parade rest when talking to a senior non-commissioned officer.”
The reintroduction of those skills is accompanied by a monumental realization – they are going to be entrusted with forging the Army’s newest Soldiers.
“The NCOs who leave here learn they’re not training Soldiers anymore, they’re teaching civilians to become Soldiers,” Holliday said with an admission that such a task is “not always easy.”
The initial entry population has its share of “hard cases,” he further observed. “Sometimes, they’re only in it for the money, the school or because they believe there are no other options. When those cases come along, (it’s the drill sergeant’s job) to inspire them, so by the end of BCT they’re ‘all Army’ and that’s all they want to be. That’s the most rewarding part of being a drill sergeant.”
Other small victories, Holliday said, have a tendency to be overlooked in film or the funny videos people post online.
“Nobody captures those moments when a drill sergeant is patiently teaching trainees how to qualify with their weapon and finally gets through to them to the point that they’re on the firing line demonstrating everything they need to know about rifle marksmanship,” he said.
That “picture” of a drill sergeant – along with the many instances of coaching, counseling and mentoring Soldiers at the beginning of their Army journey – is the key motivator for Holliday and the many others like him.
Those “on the trail” and possibly interested in becoming an instructor at the Drill Sergeant Academy should discuss it with their chain of command and review Army Regulation 615-200 and Training and Doctrine Command Regulation 350-16 to see if they’re eligible.