FORT EUSTIS, Va. –
After weeks of waking up before sunrise and getting reprimanded by no-nonsense drill sergeants, raw recruits earn the privileged title of "Soldier," and move onto their Army Initial Training installation to become proficient in their military occupational specialty.
At Fort Eustis, Va., future helicopter technicians become leaders and begin to appreciate the tight-knit community of the Army, said U.S. Army Capt. Chad Siverling, 1-222nd Aviation Regiment, 1st Battalion, Charlie Company commander.
"While they learn about their craft at the schoolhouse, we also want to teach them the importance of professionalism, Army values and, most of all, respect," said Siverling. "Our goal here is to craft these new students into Soldiers the Army can be proud of."
The training environment acts as a limbo between basic training and typical Army living; giving the students freedoms, such as going off-base, while enforcing rules, including curfews. By "phasing in" the new Soldiers, Siverling and his staff hope to give them a chance to relax and re-acclimate to a normal lifestyle while developing them as new Soldiers.
During basic training, Soldiers go through their first three phases, which are highly restrictive. Once they arrive at Fort Eustis, the latter three phases revolve around what the students can do in their free time.
In phase four, students must wear their uniforms outside of the barracks and cannot leave the installation. Phase five allows them to go off-post on the weekends, and they can wear civilian clothes when they do. Phase five-plus grants students the same freedoms as a normal active-duty Soldier with minor restrictions, per the commander's discretion.
No matter what phase they are in, Soldiers have access to the amenities offered at the barracks. While the opportunities vary by installation, C Co. students enjoy a number of on-site facilities, said Sgt. Maj. Ahan Hunter, C Co. first sergeant.
"All three floors of this facility are identical," said Hunter. "The students have spacious rooms, access to the internet, multi-purpose rooms and anything else a Soldier needs to stay entertained."
While the Soldiers are not allowed to have Wi-Fi in their rooms, each floor is equipped with 72 internet-accessible computers for the students to use for studies or entertainment. To provide a more social setting, dayrooms are equipped with ping-pong tables, pool tables, TVs, DVD players and seating. Volleyball nets and basketball courts are outside the barracks, and all facilities on post are open to the students, said Hunter.
Students also have access to top-of-the-line laundry rooms, and a student-dedicated dining facility across the street from the training buildings, creating a quasi-campus area for them.
"With all of our school work, cleaning, [physical training] and other responsibilities, free time is definitely valuable," said Pfc. Sean Higgs, C Co. student. "Between the [Morale, Welfare, and Recreation] building and the barracks, there is really no excuse for being bored."
Whether working or relaxing, there is one thing unique about the AIT experience at Fort Eustis - The barracks are always bustling, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Soldiers attend school in three different shifts; "Dayhawk," "Nighthawk" and "Nightowl." Respectively, they begin their days at 5:30 a.m., 9:15 a.m. and 1 a.m. Higgs said the day - or night - is comprised of waking up, doing PT, eating, going to class, relaxing and doing it all over again.
In order to keep up with the constant demands of this schedule and look after the more than 350 students in C Co., Siverling has appointed noncommissioned officers to work with students to get the job done.
"My job is to basically set the example of who a Soldier should be," said Staff Sgt. Natalie Showers, a C Co. platoon sergeant. "While I also look after the students, I rely on their leaders to enforce the rules and inform the company on what they need to know to succeed."
Platoon sergeants select student leaders based on their aptitude and performance both in and out of school. These leaders are identified using a rank system identical to the one used for NCOs. Soldiers are "promoted" based on their merit and leadership abilities.
As a unit, students have the opportunity to shine. Sports challenges, drill and ceremony competitions, and the title of "Honor Company," which means the company's professionalism and competence in school and at the barracks trumps the other companies, are all ways students can identify with their units and "breed the Army community mentality," said Siverling.
Higgs said he believes all of the training demands, both in class and in the barracks, are worth the reward.
"All of us have been through some tough times, either in basic, here at school or some other point in life," said Higgs. "At the end of the day we are just brothers working towards the same goal."