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Old Salts Might Not Recognize Boot-Camp Routine in New Navy : Military: Recruits wear running shoes while training and don't have to learn to swim. The changes are a reaction to soaring attrition rates, budget constraints and a new breed of enlistee less accustomed to exercise.

March 04, 1990|MOLLY MOORE | THE WASHINGTON POST

ORLANDO, Fla. — At 0700 the Grinder was covered with hundreds of panting Navy recruits struggling through push-ups on the cold, damp concrete. Amid the swarm of sweating bodies, three recruits stood idle, breathing heavily.

"What's going on here?" bellowed an impatient drill instructor, glaring at the three who refused to keep up with other classmates.

"It's that new Navy, sir," snapped their frustrated company commander.

That new Navy, confronted with dwindling dollars and soaring attrition rates among a new generation of youth more at home on the couch than the exercise field, is changing one of its most symbolic rites of passage--boot camp.

Recruits are no longer required to wear heavy, steel-toed chukka boots in their first weeks of training; they keep their jogging shoes because too many youths were suffering muscle strains and other injuries. The mandatory swimming requirement--long a staple of the sea service--has been eliminated. And instead of a snarling drill instructor, a soft-spoken chaplain greets the future sailors and airmen when they step off the bus at the Orlando Naval Training Center here.

"We don't have the luxury of dumping recruits that don't measure up as quickly as we'd like," said Capt. Tom Holme Jr., who heads the center's recruit-training program. "We don't destroy a kid to build a sailor out of a quivering mass of jelly left on the deck. We don't baby them, but we don't terrorize them."

In recent years, the Navy has been losing one-third of its new enlistees between the day they entered boot camp and the time they were eligible to re-enlist at the end of their first tour. Many of those recruits, according to Navy officials, never made it past the initial ego-wrenching, body-aching days of boot camp.

"If we keep throwing away about one-third, given the tough recruiting market and lessening numbers of enlistment-eligible people in this country, we are fighting a losing battle unless we do something to stop the exodus," Vice Adm. J.M. Boorda, the Navy's personnel chief, wrote in a memorandum distributed to service commanders last year.

As a result, Boorda ordered major changes at the Navy's three basic training centers, in Orlando; Great Lakes, Ill., and San Diego, where 95,000 fresh enlistees get their first taste of Navy life each year.

Initial figures indicate that boot-camp dropout rates at the Orlando training center have been reduced from 10.5% to about 8% since the program began last summer.

According to center records, the number of men and women who are ousted for "non-adaptability to military life" is one-fifth the level it was the year before the new initiatives began. And attrition blamed on attitude problems is one-third the previous level.

The percentage of recruits dismissed for other reasons, however, such as failed drug tests, homosexuality and personality disorders, has increased.

Training officials caution that the new training program is too new to draw definitive conclusions from the statistics. "Are we just delaying attrition to a future school or the fleet?" Holme asked. "We don't know."

And some Navy officials are grousing that the rush to cut attrition may soften boot camp too much and force the Navy to accept enlistees who should not remain in service.

"Attrition is not necessarily bad," Holme said. "We want to identify some people who ought not be in the Navy." Holme said statistics have not proved that allowing recruits to wear soft-soled shoes instead of Navy-issue boots for the first three weeks of training is cutting down on foot and leg problems.

And he has another concern. "It's really not all that military-looking when you have people wearing blue and green and purple shoes," he said. As for eliminating swimming skills as a requirement to graduate from boot camp, "It's my personal opinion that anybody who wants to join the sea service ought to know how to swim."

The Navy and other military services are inheriting even more troubling societal problems from the civilian world than youngsters with flabby muscles. Even though the young men and women enlisting in the armed forces today score better on entrance tests and have higher levels of education than any recruits in the history of the volunteer forces, officials here estimate that as many as 25% of their recruits--most with high school diplomas and many with some college education--read at eighth-grade levels or below.

"We've got college grads in nuke (nuclear training) school that can't read," said Rear Adm. Louise C. Wilmot, commander of the Orlando center.

Large segments of training time are devoted to remedial reading programs to help give the future sailors and air force personnel the skills they will need to use the technical manuals of today's sophisticated weaponry and equipment.

Remedial reading classes here are jammed to capacity. And instructors say far more than the current 165 students per week need the services.

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