"There have been significant upgrades to the program since it was first implemented," said RSP Specialist Benny Spain, administrator for Team K in Dyersburg and a retired National Guardsman. "The soldiers that we send today are more prepared physically and mentally for basic training."
There are 12 RSP sites in Tennessee -- four each in west, central and east Tennessee. The four sites in west Tennessee include: Dyersburg, Millington, Henderson and Lavinia. Soldiers in the RSP are given valuable information such as the Battle Book, which contains a wealth of information including physical fitness and nutrition plans to keep soldiers physically prepared. The Battle Book also contains information that the soldiers will be expected to know in BCT, giving RSP participants a leg up on soldiers who have not been through RSP.
As part of the RSP, soldiers are required to attend one drill weekend each month to prepare them for the rigors of BCT and for life as a National Guard soldier. These soldiers represent the 1 percent of applicants that qualified to enlist. On Saturday, Nov. 17 and Sunday, Nov. 18 I joined that 1 percent on their weekend drill to be able to share with readers the sacrifices and dedication exhibited by our local National Guard soldiers. This article recounts my Sunday experiences as Pvt. Sierra.
As I awoke on Sunday morning, I was keenly aware of all my core muscle groups. The previous day's drill, although not awful, had left me sore and hurting. I arrived at the Dyersburg Armory about 10 minutes before my reporting time and was once again greeted by Sgt. 1st Class Christopher West, the recruiting and retention non-commissioned officer for Team K. West is responsible for taking the soldiers in the RSP and giving them a taste of what they can expect at BCT. I came to find out that playing the role of drill sergeant is not one that he particularly enjoys.
"It's very opposite of my character," said West.
"I heard that some of you complained yesterday that I was being 'mean'," said West with a dangerous-looking smirk (I came to nick-name this smirk 'the smile of death').
"I am going to show you mean," he continued. "This is your only chance to get rid of anything you don't want to have on you. It's going to get really hot in here and I will not stop until there is sweaty underwear."
Immediately soldiers began stepping away from the formation removing jackets, beanies and sweat pants, most stripping down to just a t-shirt and shorts. The gym contained eights sheets of paper with the numbers one through eight forming one large circle around the gym. West instructed us to break up into teams of two and three and pick a number to stand on. I quickly chose the number six and was joined by Pfc. Lamarcus Williams, out of Brownsville, one of the most physically fit soldiers in the room. Williams, I later found out, joined the National Guard because both his parents served and he believes the Army will give him the tools he needs to pursue a career in civil engineering.
One of the benefits of joining the National Guard is the flexibility it offers in allowing students to pursue degrees or continue their education with minimal interruption. The GI Bill -- Selected Reserve affords National Guard soldiers the opportunity to return to college or a trade or apprentice school. In addition, soldiers may qualify for different supplements based on if they are serving in a critical job or unit. The Army National Guard kicker is one such supplement, which can pay up to $350 a month in living expenses (up to $12,600 over 36 months on top of the GI Bill benefits.
The PT that morning was one of the most excruciating physical experiences I have ever endured. West sported the smile of death throughout the whole ordeal as we were all pushed to the limits. The exercise seemed simple enough: If you found yourself on an odd-numbered space you were to perform push-ups, if you found yourself on an even-numbered spaced you were to perform sit-ups until you heard a whistle. You would then run a full lap around the gym and migrate to the next station. This continued on for about 30-45 minutes. I completed a full circuit when I looked up and locked eyes with West.
"You can bow out at any time Pvt. Sierra," said West.
"Yes, sergeant!" I yelled back.
The truth was I knew I was probably going to have to bow out sometime soon if West kept this up-tempo pace. I was already breaking out into a cold sweat and was begin to feel sick. I kept praying that perhaps he would relent some after the next station. Perhaps the next station. I reached halfway through the second circuit when I stepped away, disappointed that I had to catch my breath but understanding that I was not on the same physical fitness plane as most of these soldiers, most of whom were 10-15 years younger than me and had been consistently training for some time.
I stepped away from the gymnasium and allowed the outside morning air to hit my face. I rejoined the platoon as West finally relented and gave everyone a 90-second break to catch their breath and get some water. I locked eyes with him again and we both just laughed, as he knew that he got the better of me that morning and I knew that I had just been whipped. During the break one of the sergeants went to each station and wrote a different exercise to perform. The exercises included everything from jumping jacks to push-ups to flutter kicks.
With a sound of the whistle the torture resumed. I found during the second round that I was not the only who had to stop as Pfc. Ashley Bergstedt experienced some challenges and James Kent, a visitor who was considering joining the National Guard, also had to stop a few times to catch his breath. By the end of the morning, West had pushed just about everyone as far as they could go and turned the platoon over to Staff Sgt. Keith Dunning, a recruiter out of Union City, for cool-down exercises, West's work of being 'mean' clearly done for the day.
Just like Saturday everyone was given 30 minutes to clean up, shower and get dressed and report in formation for drill time prior to lunch. There were four girls participating in the drill weekend, myself included, and we all compared our different sore muscles and tender spots.
The rest of the day passed with very little incident as I mostly observed the various classes going on and talked with the sergeants and Spain about the importance and value of the RSP.
Of course the weekend would not be complete without the sergeants trying to have one last bit of fun at the soldier's expense. Hardy, who is originally from Memphis but resides in Martin, Tenn., suggested to West that the donuts be laid out at the sign-in table inside the gym to see if any of the soldiers returning from class would take one without permission. I asked West what would happen if anyone did take a donut.
"We'll smoke them all," said West showing his 'smile of death'. "We'll punish everyone else while the offender stands there and finishes their donut."
Luckily for Team K, Bergstedt smelled the trap and warned her fellow soldiers not to eat the donuts and stay clear.
"Good for her," Hardy would later say. "It's good she's watching out for her fellow soldiers."
Bergstedt's care for her fellow soldiers was not unusual as I observed several soldiers demonstrating the same type of care throughout the weekend. I myself experienced it during the grueling morning PT as Williams patted me on the back several times to encourage me along (he had no idea at the time that I was a reporter). I watched soldiers helping recent enlistees with drill formations, salutes and any other information they could offer. Anything to make each other better and live the Army values of: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.
"The RSP is a good program," said Spain. "And it keeps getting better and better."
The Tennessee National Guard recruiting office is located at the Dyersburg Armory at 502 James H. Rice Rd in Dyersburg. Sgt. 1st Class Christopher West can be reached by phone at (731) 286-8340 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the Tennessee National Guard and the RSP, please visit www.nationalguard.com.
For more photos on this event please visit our photo galleries.