TYR Tactical

Terry Baldwin – Leadership, Character and Basic Training

I get asked about Military Service and Basic Training specifically quite frequently. The transformational impact of Army Initial Entry Training or Marine Corps Recruit Training on young people is often profound and undeniable. Yet the practical intent of the process is often misunderstood, shrouded in mystery and a source of confusion for civilians. Even those who have participated as recruits and trainers often mischaracterize what happens as “breaking down” the old and replacing it with something new. The Army’s 3rd Infantry Division even has a song that proudly declares “they are tearing me down to build me over again”. And young people who talk to me about serving often say they are most afraid of having their individuality stripped or “taken away” from them. That is simply not how the process works. Perhaps the following will better explain some of what goes on behind the curtain and help separate mystique from reality.

In the end it’s really all about character. I had a welcome spiel that I gave to Special Forces candidates when I worked at Camp MacKall years ago. In part I explained the role of the cadre and our expectations of the students by using this story. Supposedly late in his life someone asked Michelangelo how he created such life like statues from lifeless marble. The artist replied “the figure was already in the stone, I just chipped away the excess pieces”. My cadre and I were not in the business of building character. We were focused instead on revealing and assessing the students’ existing traits. To do so we would put them in stressful situations where the excess pieces – their public façade – would be naturally whittled away and their core qualities would be exposed. We weren’t going to give them anything or try to take anything away. In short, we simply wanted to see what they were really made of.

The exact same dynamic is at work in a basic training or commissioning program scenario. By 18 it is fair to say that the fundamental character and personality of a young person has formed and is largely solidified. Family, teachers, coaches, clergy and especially parents have had the prime opportunity in those earlier years to truly shape that young man or woman. The military services can and do encourage – and in some cases may accelerate – the natural maturation process. But the military cannot and will not “make a man (adult) of you” if you don’t have a solid character foundation to build on already inside of you. Of course, any program that is rigorous enough to reveal character strengths and weaknesses to an outside observer also serves to reveal those things to the individual as well. Often for the first time. Because by 18 a young person has also learned to effectively present an often false “public face” that serves to obscure, mask and protect their true nature even from themselves.

Not to get too Zen about it, but you first have to see yourself as you truly are in order to have a real opportunity to grow into a better person. Here is one well known but often misconstrued example of how it usually works in the military. By being required to adopt a common uniform appearance young people come to realize that their personality or their self-worth is not dependent on the stylishness of their cloths or the length of their hair or the cool clique they associate with. They often learn that they are stronger and more independent than they ever realized. This usually results in enhanced self-confidence and sense of purpose. In other words their existing character has been honed and strengthened by the experience. Nothing has been taken away. None of their individuality or personality has been erased or replaced or damaged in any way. That is how it is supposed to work.

That is not to take anything away from Drill Sergeants or anyone else tasked to make entry level Soldiers, Marines, Sailors or Airmen out of civilians. The art of successfully socializing these young people and introducing complex new skill sets is a daunting task under the best of circumstances. But there are also some important lessons here for the rest of us. First, as parents, teachers, etcetera, we have a duty to actively mold the foundational values of our children. That is an obligation that demands our daily attention. And that effort by responsible adults is vital to slowly but surely forge a young person’s core character. The strength of that character not only defines them as people but also shapes their individual destiny and our collective future. And even someone who has not served in the military can and should, over time, help them better understand lofty concepts like Patriotism, Duty and Selfless Service. Principally by setting a good example in our own lives of those virtues for them to emulate.

But military leaders and even parents need to be realistic when dealing with young adults. We can teach, coach, mentor, guide and lead but we can’t force change on anyone. We can be good role models and assist someone who is struggling. We might even be able to supply some helpful external motivation. And if we are lucky we may be able to inspire a positive evolution. But we also have to recognize our limitations. Because no matter how good our intentions, we cannot “fix” someone else’s character related issues. Serious personal problems like drug or alcohol abuse are not “leadership issues” that you can solve for someone else. Instead hurdles like those must be overcome and conquered by the affected individual. And likewise, none of us have the power to impose a sense of Civic Virtue, Honor or Citizenship in someone who is not predisposed to accept that responsibility. When leading others, we would all do well to remember “Oz never gave nothing to the Tinman he didn’t already have”.

Do you have a son, daughter, relative or family friend who is considering military service? Do they wonder if they can “make it” or have concerns and fears? I certainly did. I would suggest that it is best to avoid the temptation to embellish your own experiences or otherwise add to their natural anxiety. Just tell them the truth. That the experience will be a mental and physical challenge they need to prepare for realistically. But mostly it is a test of their character. Also tell them that millions have done it before them and tens of thousands do it successfully every year. Of course, if you don’t think they have what it takes tell them so and why. There are plenty of legitimate reasons why someone might not choose to serve in the military. But it should never be because they don’t have accurate information and are afraid of the unknown. Dispelling rather than perpetuating the myths of basic training is a good place to start. And we all benefit by enhancing the next generation’s propensity to serve our Nation in some worthy fashion.

LTC Terry Baldwin, US Army (RET) served on active duty from 1975-2011 in various Infantry and Special Forces assignments.


9 Responses to “Terry Baldwin – Leadership, Character and Basic Training”

  1. Shteve-O says:

    Powerful piece. Totally agree. Character counts – and there’s a lot of folks who have a bite at the apple to shape young men’s character. Thank you LTC Baldwin! And all, Kickass 2016!

  2. Wardog 1-7 says:

    I like this, and may borrow some of it, as I’m currently in the business of taking young men and turning them into Soldiers down at Fort Beginning. Much appreciated, sir.

  3. Harry says:

    Excellent Article as always. BCT can’t make up for a lack of 18 years of home training or parenting. However, young people want to be challenged. It’s hard to break the Mr. Rodgers mindset that everyone is special but, kids need to understand that there are winners and losers in life, that it pays to win, and that they need to push themselves to succeed in a task, condition, standard environment.

  4. Bill says:

    FWIW, the exact same dynamic applies to police academies. I was an academy administrator and during Orientation would explain the concept of “disinterest” to the cadets – that the training team and I would do everything we could to facilitate their success, but we couldn’t do it for them. If they failed, the responsibility was theirs, and if they graduated, the only person who made that possible was themselves, with the support of their team mates and families. Training standards existed for a reason. The candidate’s success or failure was within their control and theirs alone; they just had to want it bad enough to put forth the effort and sacrifice to achieve the ends. They had to focus on ways to win, and not waste energy on trying to find excuses for failure.

    • Terry B. says:

      Bill, Shteve, Wardog and Harry,

      “That which does not kill me makes me stronger” is a very true statement in regards to individual human development. The things in life that challenge us and require real effort make us better people. Greater challenges evoke more significant change. Even initial failure can be a positive if we learn the right lessons from the experience and use it to improve ourselves.

      I really appreciate the feedback. Thanks!


  5. 61575 says:

    Great piece, and very true.

    It inadvertently reminded me of a question I have been mulling over for the last decade: “does bullying have a place in military training?”

    Obviously the party line is that bullying is unacceptable and vindictive bullying is abhorrent to all.

    But it is a truism that only the weak get picked on. One politically incorrect standpoint could be that it will either toughen someone up or get them out if they can’t handle it. The implication being that those who don’t have the moral fibre to avoid or resist it would be unsuitable for combat operations.

    As I said, its a question I’ve been asking myself, not an opinion and I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has a considered, informed standpoint on the matter.

  6. Terry B. says:


    I think you just gave me the subject of my next leadership piece. Thanks!

    But I will give you a short version of my opinion on the subject now. Bullying is never ok. The “strong” being allowed or somehow encouraged to prey on the “weak” in a unit directly contradicts military good order and discipline.

    And that is especially true if the bullies outrank the bullied. Junior soldiers don’t have many options to “avoid or resist” if their supervisor is a petty dick who enjoys torturing his subordinates. It is not that those subordinates are “weak” as you say but rather they don’t have the power in that relationship.

    Real leadership is the antithesis of bullying. A real leader develops soldiers without the need to resort to bullying. In fact, show me any leader who is a bully and I will show you a piss poor leader. That kind of leader actually runs off good soldiers.

    Holding people to high standards, demanding the best from them and setting the example by holding yourself to the same standards is the better way. No bullying necessary.


    • 61575 says:

      I wholeheartedly agree with you, a leader shouldn’t ever be vindictive and genuine bullying from any leader is an indicator of many other flaws.

      However one could argue that a trainer might apply pressure to an individual to weed them out of a program because they had seen flaws in them that could not be quantified or form the basis for de-selection via conventional means. One could argue that by doing so the trainer was potentially saving the candidate’s life and the lives of their future colleagues. In such a case, where do you draw the line?

      In fact I was mainly thinking of peer-to-peer bullying.

      It brings to mind a lad I knew who I’ll refer to as “gollum”. Gollum wasn’t a terrible lad or a terrible soldier, but he was never popular or respected and took a little bit more banter than most. I even tried to protect him on occasion and told others to lay off him when I felt it was getting too much.

      If he’d never been given any special responsibility then he’d never have had an opportunity to do any damage or show us all what he was really made of. One day he volunteered to become the company clerk and he began using the perceived authority that this gave him via way of his close relationship to the company leadership.

      Gollum decided to demonstrate his new-found status one evening when he drunkenly destroyed the living quarters and many of the personal possessions of a junior member of the unit. He even went so far as to tear the buttons off his uniform and ripped the cap badge off his beret. There was nothing remarkable about the victim he chose, he was new and maybe a little quiet but certainly not a bad guy.

      I’ve often wondered why he did this and can only surmise that it was partly a reaction to the way he’d been treated and partly an attempt to assert himself amongst his peers. I believe he thought he was showing some sort of leadership by “sorting out” someone he thought was a weaker member of the unit.

      The reaction of the rest of the company was righteous indignation. The next day a formation was called where we were categorically told that any of us who took matters into our own hands would face the most severe punishment. Gollum was merely given a slap on the wrist and forced to pay his victim for what he’d destroyed. The company leadership quickly had him transferred as they were aware that he was now at risk of harm from the rest of us.

      Years later I heard he’d been commissioned.

      Perhaps a little off topic I know, but I think there are three instances of “bullying” in this example that bear scrutiny:

      1) As a weaker member of the unit gollum got a little more banter than the rest, he wasn’t popular and perhaps this had the effect of prompting him to volunteer for duty away form the rank and file. One could argue that this kind of peer pressure crated a self correcting system; professionally weaker members of a unit find themselves unpopular, don’t enjoy being there and consequently remove themselves from the equation.

      2) Classic or vindictive bullying, exemplified by the unjust treatment meeted out by gollum to his victim under the guise of “sorting out” someone they saw as weak and detrimental to the rest of the unit. There’s no grey area here, this kind of behaviour is indefensible and frequently associated with other character flaws. But what is interesting is that from the standpoint of the hierarchy this can be indistinguishable from the kind of “bullying” exemplified in point 1. In this example the company hierarchy wrongly interpreted gollum’s behaviour as an unfortunate excess of zeal in trying to encourage a weaker member of the unit to “up his standards”. This raises the question of where do you draw the line and how is a leader to tell the difference?

      3) When a member of a unit is at risk of harm from his peers and needs protection from their leaders. At what point does a leader stop looking to fix a problem with the perpetrators of bullying and start looking to fix a problem with the victim? In most cases where a leader identifies bullying it will be one or two perpetrators who need to be shown the error of their ways, but what if its more than just one or two guys?

      Maybe I’ve been lucky in the units that I’ve served in but I’ve generally seen that collectively the soldiers have shown excellent judgement and good sense. I say collectively because sometimes you do get bad individuals who will be vindictive for fun, but by and large they will be told to cut it out by one of their peers without any need for the leadership to intervene or even become aware of it. Perhaps such a “self correcting system” is the best example of good leadership that there is; where a leader is able to set the moral tone of a unit and subordinates will follow their example without the need for any intervention.

      Hope that this has given you food for thought and I look forward to reading your next article.

      • Terry B. says:


        Food for thought indeed. But I will make a couple more comments now.

        Leaders, including entry level trainers like Drill Instructors most certainly are required to apply appropriate pressure and stress on their soldiers. Doing it right is a critical part of the job and pressure / stress are the key “tools of the trade”. That is not bullying.

        Those legitimate tools correctly applied usually suffice to identify those who can’t meet the established standard. The idea being to keep the process as objective as possible and not subject to the whims or particular bias of any given instructor.

        However, there are procedures in place, certainly in the US Military, to also consider the trainer’s subjective evaluation of the candidate’s suitability to serve. Again, no bullying required.

        This isn’t about being PC or coddling soldiers. Actual bullying behavior, especially by leaders, damages units and promotes the kind of vigilantism in your example. Where individuals feel somehow empowered to take it upon themselves to punish or ostracize those that are perceived as “weaker”. That kind of conduct in the ranks indicates a serious discipline problem in a unit.

        Thanks for your comments. TLB