The purpose of Basic Training is to prepare recruits for entrance into the Army. It is the first step in a long training process.
Movies like G.I. Jane, Tigerland, and many others have picked up on the attention focused upon Basic Training (also known as Boot Camp for the Marines). Basic trainings everywhere have received the undeserved moniker of a hard-core training regimen that seeks to transform ordinary civilians into mean and tough warriors. The reality is somewhat different: transformation does occur, but it takes years to form true soldiers and warriors, not the 6-12 weeks allotted for the average basic training.
Apples to Oranges: Are They the Same?
Not every basic training environment is the same. Differing branches of the military seek to provide a standardized training environment. For example, Marines place a high priority upon weapons proficiency and presentation, and spend a great deal longer than other basic training recruits in training with weapons. Both the Marines and the Army spend a great deal of time learning field operations environments as these are key "bread and butter" skills which will enable future success. Obviously, each branch has a different general mission, which helps explain why Navy recruits spend a great deal more time learning water survival techniques than do Army recruits.
Even different training bases within the same branch of the military have vastly different experiences. In the U.S. Army, there are five major Initial Entry Training / Basic Combat Training (IET/BCT bases: Fort Benning (Georgia), Fort Jackson (South Carolina), Fort Knox (Kentucky), Fort Leonard Wood (Missouri), and Fort Sill (Oklahoma). Fort Benning is responsible for recruits which have signed up for infantry and other combat arms careers, and it consequently has a reputation for a much higher difficulty than the other training bases. Fort Jackson is the largest training base and trains the majority of women entering the Army. In a typical summer, as many as 20,000 or more basic training recruits can be present (referred to as the "summer surge"), and approximately one quarter of these candidates are female. Fort Jackson was the training location at which I attended BCT.
What happens at Basic Training?
The training bases all have the goal of graduating recruits from a moderate fitness and military culture plan. The goal is to improve recruits' physical fitness and knowledge of the Army and their career path to the greatest degree possible. There are minimum fitness standards which must be met to progress through training. When I attended basic, we were allowed to graduate and progress to the next training cycle with 50 points per event. For a male that is 17-21 years of age, this consists of performing 35 pushups within two minutes, 47 situps within two minutes, and a two-mile run within 16:36 or less. For a female of the same age, the standards to achieve fifty points are 13 pushups, 47 situps, and a two-mile run within 19:42. After about ten weeks of training, these are hardly strenuous standards. These scores are also not passing according to regular Army standards, which require a minimum score of 180 or 60 points within each event.
To transform the physical condition of basic training recruits, the soldiers are not placed on a specific eating plan. Drill sergeants are, however, extremely aware of recruits with weight problems, and most basic training bases do not permit the consumption of candy, doughnuts, muffins, burgers, fries, or other unhealthy and fattening foods, except for perhaps the last day of training before graduation. If a particular candidate is struggling with eating properly, the instructors will make sure that the recruit does not become unhealthy. This includes under eating issues typically a problem with female recruits. Physical training, however, typically occurs 5-7 days per week, and can involve formal training such as company group runs or P.T. tests, or informal calorie-burning exercises such as "smoking" (ordering recruits to perform an exercise such as pushups until muscular exhaustion). Obstacle courses such as the one shown here give recruits a chance to endure some physical effort and face fears such as heights.
Surprisingly, sleep deprivation is not a common procedure during training. Although recruits usually awake from 0430-0530, they are typically in bed by 2200. Training requirements have noted that 7-8 hours of sleep provides optimum recovery, especially for recruits of the normal basic training age bracket of 17-21. During field and garrison operations, sleep may be broken for the performance of "fire guard" duty (security detail), but a complete amount of sleep is still typically received provided that the platoon is behaving well.
Although basic training seeks to create a high-stress environment to impress military standards upon new recruits, it does not often approach the degree of difficulty of the training at the toughest center in Fort Benning. All of these centers, however, pale in comparison to training as it existed in generations past. Social and civil rights issues permeated the military just as they did society, and just a few decades ago, hitting of recruits was still tolerated. Even earlier, recruits of different races found it difficult to penetrate a culture dominated by white males. Over time, however, the military has changed and defined itself as an equal-opportunity organization. Some training schools exist for training elite military units, and they are extremely strenuous. These include training for the U.S. Army Rangers and Special Forces and U.S. Navy Seals. It is to these training schools that the reputation of difficulty should be most applied to.