Wisconsin drill instructors train new recruits
NEENAH, Wis. (AP) — In 2003, Peter Valitchka was training new U.S. Army recruits at Fort Benning, a military base near Columbus, Georgia.
Valitchka was approached by a high-ranking officer with a disconcerting message.
“These guys have to be ready,” Valitchka recalled the officer saying. “They’re going to be in combat in less than 90 days.”
Valitchka was immediately struck by the weight of the responsibility placed on his shoulders.
“That was a shocker because I had never been in combat,” he said. “Yet I’ve got to train them to make sure they can survive.”
Valitchka, 49, is part of a U.S. Army Reserve unit based in Neenah made up entirely of drill instructors. They’re responsible for basic training and working with new recruits, among other duties.
“You’re getting these young kids off the bus. They have no idea what to expect,” he said. “You get to watch them transform from a civilian to a soldier.”
The job isn’t easy. They work long hours and handle all the responsibilities of training a few hundred new recruits at a time, the Post Crescent reported .
Valitchka has almost two decades of experience as a drill instructor, but still remembers getting in front of recruits for the first time.
“It was intimidating,” he said. “You’re the man in front of them.”
Brad Schmoll, also a drill instructor, was also intimidated his first time. He expected to work alongside a more-experienced drill instructor the first time he ran basic training when he began his career more than a decade ago.
Schmoll showed up “ready to change the world,” he said, but got off to a rough start when he told the other drill instructor it was his first time.
“He picks up his stuff and says I’ll see you tomorrow,” Schmoll said.
He wasn’t kidding. Schmoll was left on his own with a crowd of recruits. The other drill instructor didn’t return until the next day.
“I had barely slept because I was worried about getting all this stuff done,” Schmoll said.
But the other drill instructor wasn’t being malicious. Schmoll had a lesson to learn. He had to act, despite the stress of the situation.
“You have to be very assertive and take charge,” he said.
Schmoll, 40, has gained plenty of experience as a drill instructor since he learned that lesson. Schmoll, Valitchka and other drill instructors with the unit in Neenah have trained recruits all over the country.
“You have to be ready to go at any moment,” Valitchka said.
Laura Rozeboom went to basic training — to train, not to teach — three days after she graduated from high school. She was deployed to Iraq about a year later. She was young, but the experience changed her.
“I was forced to grow up and take responsibility and be an adult,” Rozeboom said.
Rozeboom, 33, became a drill instructor a few years after returning from her deployment. She had a desire to help others reach their full potential.
But members of the Neenah unit aren’t in the military full-time. They’ve got other jobs too. The balance between a civilian life and a military life isn’t always easy to maintain.
Valitchka has worked at Protective Coating Specialists in Appleton for 17 years. Schmoll has worked at CMD Corporation in Appleton for 21 years. The hardest thing to do for many members of the unit is transition from a civilian job to a military job, and back again.
“You have to be able to turn that on and off,” Schmoll said.
The situation isn’t always ideal for families either, with members of the unit often gone for weeks at a time. That makes the support of family members incredibly important, Valitchka said.
“If we don’t have the family support, you’re going to have trouble with the soldier,” he said.
But despite the tremendous responsibility, the opportunity to help transform young people into soldiers has kept many of them around for years, Valitchka said.
“We’re mean. We’re tough,” he said. “But we teach them what they need to know.”
Information from: Post-Crescent Media, http://www.postcrescent.com