Earlier this month, Fort Benning’s United States Army Infantry School (USAIS) announced its plan to retire the “shark attack”, an approach unleashed on fresh recruits during their first moments at basic combat training. Headlines and critics would have you believe that the Army’s decision to eliminate this tactic from the basic training experience represents a move to make the training ‘nicer,’ ‘easier’ or ‘softer’ on recruits. But the truth is that the “shark attack” is outdated, ineffective and likely does more harm than good in the long run; Its retirement is long overdue.
The “shark attack” is a purposeful stress-inducing attack on a single recruit that is carried out by several drill sergeants. It is typically marked by intense yelling, the issuing of contradicting commands and verbal denigration and is designed to assess the trainee’s ability to handle stress. According to Command Sergeant Major Robert K. Fortenberry, Command Sergeant Major for USAIS, the “shark attack” was designed to create a “chaotic environment that centered around applying physical exertion under stress.”
Sgts. 1st Class Alec Donahoe and Todd Owen, drill sergeants with the Mississippi National Guard Recruiting and Retention Battalion, motivate a warrior in the Recruit Sustainment Program during a “shark attack” Oct. 7, 2017, in Senatobia. (U.S. National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Scott Tynes)
In a video articulating the new USAIS approach, CSM Fortenberry explains that this weeding-out technique is outmoded due in large part to the fact that we have an all-volunteer force. In other words, volunteer recruits likely already have attributes favorable for military service and don’t need to be thinned by the extreme technique which was used to “establish dominance and authority using intimidation and fear to weed out the weak of heart.”
In truth, Army basic training techniques haven’t evolved much since the 1970s and in some cases since the early 20th century. The majority of the core training techniques are designed to reinforce blind obedience and reactiveness to commands. While making sure soldiers are able to follow orders is critical, modern warfare requires soldiers who are adept at, say, reading the mood of a marketplace in a foreign city versus going “over the top” or charging machine gun emplacements.
The Army Vision for 2028, which was announced in June of this year and is co-authored by Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, then Secretary of the Army, outlines a stark evolution of the U.S. Army’s battle stance. In addition to increasing the Army to 500,000 soldiers, the memo outlines the increased use of “autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and robotics” on a battle stage of “high-intensity conflict, with emphasis on operating in dense urban terrain, electronically degraded environments, and under constant surveillance.”
Getting rid of the “shark attack” is, in fact, just one way the Army is modernizing its approach to preparing a modern fighting force. The retooling of infantry One Station Unit Training, or OSUT, also serves as the introduction of a new program dubbed ‘The First 100 Yards.’ According to CSM Fortenberry, the program builds a “critical foundation” by “professionally introducing the soldiers to the spirit of our great branch” and introducing drill sergeants as “leaders willing to share in the hardship.” The goal of The First 100 Yards is to “develop teamwork, identify informal leadership, establish trust, and build esprit de corps,” explained Fortenberry.
But removing the “shark attack” isn’t just about modernizing training, but removing the vestiges of the hand-me-down era of training that was preoccupied with spitting out bonafide soldiers as quickly as possible. Late last year, USAIS announced its plans to extend OSUT from 14 to 22 weeks. The extension is intended to give recruits more exposure to weapons systems and small-unit and individual skills in a less pressurized, hurried training environment.
But the OSUT extension is also a nod to how the military has had to evolve to accommodate the level of preparedness of incoming would-be soldiers. In a press release around the announcement of the new 22-week OSUT program, Colonel Dave Voorhies, 198th Infantry Brigade commander said the extension is geared toward establishing “firmer training fundamentals: marksmanship, physical training, land navigation, the ability to medicate, combat lifesaver skills, combat water survival, Soldier discipline, and more.” The extended OSUT allows for more time for soldiers to get up to Army standards while adequately preparing them for a faced-paced, technologically advanced battlefield.
Attrition among recruits is a perennial problem for initial training facilities like USAIS. According to recent reports, attrition rates across the Army training centers fall somewhere around 12-15%, a number that comes at a huge price tag. A study of Army retention published in 2020 by the Rand Corporation, suggests that the total sunk cost for a single enlistment — including outlays for training, wages, and other benefits given to recruits — is roughly ,000. This equates to a loss of roughly 0 million dollars annually.
According to a January report from Stars and Stripes, attrition rates of extended OSUT courses have fallen to below 6%, and on average, posted higher fitness scores than those from the 14-week course.
Training centers like USAIS also have to contend with new reports that link post-traumatic stress and anxiety to the heavy-handed methods often used in basic training, especially tactics like the “shark attack.” And while the induction of stress and anxiety into training scenarios has always been seen as a crucial element to preparedness, methods like the “shark attack” may not have that effect, especially on a green volunteer looking to serve their country. In fact, it “betrays the innate trust between teammates,” said CSM Fortenberry. “And worse — betrays the crucial bond of trust with our leaders.”
U.S. Army Drill Sergeant Sgt 1st Class. Aleman assigned to Foxtrot 1st Battalion 34th Infantry Regiment participates in the “Shark Attack” or fear stage of the discipline process, as trainees arrive to the First day of Basic Combat Training on 12 June 2017 at Fort Jackson, SC. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Darius Davis/Released).
That breakdown of trust may prove to stick with soldiers long after they have left the training world. According to the American Institute of Stress, basic training environments which teach soldiers ’emotional numbing’ may in fact be unknowingly laying the foundation for PTSD. “Emotional numbing,” it states, “allows for the person to put aside feelings and do whatever it takes to survive or help others survive.” While this is, at face value, a positive trait for a soldier to have on the battlefield, it’s often that it remains as the mode of dealing with any stressors.
“Later such numbing may include a sense of not really being a person, feelings of not fitting in, that no one can understand, feeling or being told that one has no emotions, and not being able to feel emotions in situations calling for intimacy, tenderness, sexuality or grief. Efforts to avoid thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma may include isolating, substance abuse (drugs, alcohol, food, cigarettes), and other compulsive behaviors,” the report states.
Essentially, the “shark attack” may be a cornerstone of a training approach that has been pre-conditioning soldiers to manage their military-related stress through ‘mental numbing.’ This ‘mental numbing’ may then lead soldiers to suppress subsequent feelings of stress that arise from combat scenarios which could exacerbate the effects of COS — Combat Operational Stress — and lead to permanent patterns of PTSD. In short, there is no basic ‘un-training.’
Interestingly, the rate of PTSD among veterans since Vietnam has been fairly consistent. According to information from the Veterans Administration, roughly 15% of Vietnam veterans were diagnosed with PTSD resulting from combat service. That number was slightly lower in the Gulf War at 12%. For OIF and OEF, the amount of service-connected PTSD ranges from 11-20% year to year. There are a multitude of factors that contribute to PTSD. Further, the three aforementioned wars were markedly different in just about every aspect. That said, they all shared a common trait: the basic training doctrine.
Without further study into the relationship of the “shark attack” style training in basic training units and its long term effects on PTSD, it’s impossible to know if the two are connected. What is certain, however, is that the new approach ushered in by USAIS is a positive one, if only because it does away with the outdated training modules of a long-extinct type of warfare and refocuses on the needs of today’s soldiers to fight today’s battles.