Drill Instructors (DIs) are the stuff of legends, entrusted with turning civilians into the next generation of United States Marines. They’re some of the most professional leaders the Marine Corps has to offer, selected carefully from the ranks to provide recruits the crucial bridge between the “me” culture of modern American society and the Marine Corps family.
As a Special Duty Assignment (also called a “B-Billet”), Drill Instructor positions are not entry-level -- they’re only open to men and women who've already reenlisted at least once in the Marine Corps, and are trained in a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). Although not a career in itself, being a Drill Instructor is a bold and challenging goal for potential and current Marines alike to keep in mind.
No particular MOS is required to become a Drill Instructor. A supply clerk is as eligible as an infantryman, as long as they’ve earned the rank of at least Sergeant (E-5). Applicants are in tight competition, judged on criteria set in the Special Duty Assignments Manual including weight and appearance standards, medical qualifications, and physical fitness scores (a near-perfect score is basically mandatory).
But the most important qualifications for a successful tour as a Drill Instructor are intangible, such as family and financial stability. Because their job is so demanding, DIs must be prepared to give their full attention to the job, so burdensome debt or a shaky marriage are possible deal breakers. The screening checklist for DI duty also notes that someone who “has exhibited an explosive personality or is known to ‘fly off the handle’ is not normally the Marine for drill instructor duty.”
If your image of Drill Instructors comes only from popular media like Full Metal Jacket (or totally awesome YouTube videos like this one) you may be surprised that the Marine Corps actually doesn’t want unhinged maniacs training recruits. A Drill Instructor’s anger seems real and terrifying to a recruit, but in fact it's a carefully cultivated act. Case in point: As a child, my mother-in-law once approached her father on the drill field, who interrupted whatever litany he was throwing at his recruits to greet his daughter pleasantly with, "Hello there, sweetie." The sudden shift from vengeful Marine-god to loving father caused several recruits, who scarcely believed him human, to faint from shock.
Drill Instructor Schools at each of the two Marine Corps Recruit Depots (Parris Island, SC or San Diego, CA) offer a three-month training program. Marines aren’t allowed to bring spouses or children with them to the depot until they’ve graduated school and earned their first assignment as a Drill Instructor. Spouses have been advised in the past to treat the school assignment as they would a deployment to combat.
The Parris Island Drill Instructor School's website warns students to expect “a heavy academic work load and a demanding physical fitness schedule.” The “Welcome Aboard” booklet issued to incoming students shows that Depot Regulations receive the most academic emphasis, reflecting the heavy regulation and oversight placed on recruit training to prevent incidents like the 1956 Ribbon Creek tragedy or the 2005 drowning of a recruit during swim qualification. Close Order Drill (marching) clocks in second at about 100 hours, followed by subjects like Combat Conditioning and, most importantly, Leadership.
Although DI school is “not a return to recruit training” according to this article from the Marine Corps news service, it is an intense regimen that ensures its graduates are able to administer the backbreaking routine of recruit training over and over again without – so far as their recruits can see – showing any signs of weakness.
Duties and Responsibilities
The essence of a Drill Instructor’s many duties is best captured by the pledge they recite before taking charge of a new platoon of recruits (I distinctly remember it feeling like the calm before a tornado):
"These recruits are entrusted to my care.
I will train them to the best of my ability.
I will develop them into smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Marines, thoroughly indoctrinated in love of Corps and country.
I will demand of them, and demonstrate by my own example, the highest standards of personal conduct, morality and professional skill."
Drill Instructors rise before their recruits, spend the day training them to be Marines, and continue working well after lights out. Recruits rarely, if ever, catch their DIs off guard -- I wish I could tell you how they manage to eat, drink, or sleep, but it’s just that hard to catch them in the act.
For every platoon of about 60 recruits (sometimes upward of 80 in the summer), Drill Instructors work in a team of three or four, each with authority and responsibilities according to their experience on the drill field:
- The Junior Drill Instructor is the least experienced on the team, primarily tasked with perfecting the platoon’s (and his own) close order drill through constant practice.
- The Experienced DI (or “Heavy”) – in my experience usually the most terrifying – oversees most of the training and discipline of recruits.
- The Senior Drill Instructor is in charge of the platoon and his subordinate DIs. The senior can be just as terrifying as the others, but is also considered the “mom” or “dad” of the platoon, often responsible for most of the benevolent aspects of recruit training. These may include pep talks, rewards for a job well done, or -- let’s say -- protecting the recruits from an angry Heavy that decides to plug all the drains in the restroom, flood the squad bay, and have the recruits bail out the water while screaming in unison, “It’s the Titanic! Oh my God, iceberg!”
During a three-year tour on the drill field, DIs endure cycle after cycle of new recruits every three months, but there are some opportunities for respite. They may be assigned to Support Battalion for duty in one of several roles, including martial arts instructor, classroom instructor, water survival instructor, or the rehabilitation of injured recruits.
Although Drill Instructors have no career designation like the recruiting field, a successful tour may make them eligible to return to the job later in their careers, with added responsibility. Subsequent postings may include:
- Recruit Training: It takes a larger chain of command than the juniors, heavies, and seniors to run boot camp. Within the Recruit Training Regiment, experienced Drill Instructors fill more senior positions in the chain of command, including but not limited to Series Gunnery Sergeant (in charge of three or four platoons), Company First Sergeant (at least six platoons) and Regimental Sergeant Major (right-hand Marine to the commander of all recruit training).
- Officer Training: All commissioned officers are trained by enlisted Drill Instructors before they’re allowed to take responsibility for the lives of enlisted Marines. Veteran DIs are selected for duty at the Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, VA. They may also become one of 65 Assistant Marine Officer Instructors at colleges around the country, where they train students in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps and the Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Program, as well as serving at OCS during the summer.
Even if they never return after a first tour, former Drill Instructors hold a qualification on their resume that is valued about as highly as a combat deployment, and adorns the record of many senior Marines at the top of their careers. In fact, nearly all of the 17 Sergeants Major of the Marine Corps, since creation of the top enlisted position in 1957, were Drill Instructors during their careers.