FORT JACKSON, S.C. — On a humid August morning along a reddish-brown running track ringed by the loblolly pines that dominate the sandy soil of the South Carolina Midlands, the Army’s most ambitious accessions experiment in more than a decade was on full display.

The brigade commander overseeing the effort looked on as trainees streamed around the track, completing run/walk intervals interjected by an air horn, while a newer crop of hopeful troops went through their second day of warmup drill instructions. Across post, another group prepared for the day’s studies in hopes of improving their test scores.

“How is this group going to do?” wondered Col. Kent Solheim, the leader of the 165th Infantry Brigade. “I think we’re going to see this is a pretty unique group that’s going to set themselves apart.”

One hopeful soldier in the program already has — Jin-Seong Kim, an academic trainee who served two-years as an infantryman in the South Korean military before moving to the U.S. in recent months.

He struggled on his aptitude test because it was entirely in English, he explained, so having a stable environment to improve his vocabulary and reading comprehension has been a game-changer.

“My goal is to become an infantryman [again], and my next goal is to join the…Special Forces,” Kim said. He is perhaps the most poignant example of talent that could have otherwise fallen through the cracks, course officials remarked.

The Army’s new Future Soldier Prep Course is the headline initiative in the service’s efforts to alleviate its recruiting crisis and tap into a new vein of potential talent.

The Army originally wanted to have 485,000 troops at the end of fiscal 2022. But as warning signs emerged about slipping recruiting numbers, it quietly reduced that target to 476,000.

Then in July, the service announced it would fall significantly short on recruiting. Top officials acknowledged that end strength for fiscal 2022 could come in at about 466,000, with a further drop as low as 445,000 by the end of fiscal 2023.

The prep course is a pre-basic training improvement camp for those who aren’t yet qualified to join the Army due to excess body fat or low test scores, senior officials say. Participants enlist on 09M delayed training contracts, which they renegotiate into permanent ones upon passing the prep course.

Both the academic track and fitness track are three-week programs. Trainees who meet Army standards afterwards can proceed to basic training. Those who don’t pass repeat the course for up to 90 days, until they either meet standards or go home with an entry-level discharge.

The fitness track accepts applicants with up to 6% more body fat than the standard, as measured by the tape test. They must get within 2% of the standard for their age and gender to advance to training.

The academic track accepts those who score between a 21 and 31 on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, scores that place them within Category IV of the military’s tiered aptitude measurement system. AFQT scores, which max out at 99, measure general academic aptitude relative to others who take the test. That means a person who scores a 99 has performed better than 99% of test takers.

At the FSPC, academic trainees receive instruction intended to help them improve their scores enough to enter Category IIIB, which is for those who score between a 32 and 49.

Army Times reported the service’s plans to establish the FSPC on July 18, a week before senior officials announced the initiative. An Army Times reporter embedded with students at the course — from Aug. 22-23 — to document its early days, interviewing more than two dozen people ranging from trainees to commanders and medical providers.

We found scenes that leaders involved in the initiative acknowledged could be shocking to those who reminisce about their brutal experiences in reception or basic training. But the two Special Forces officers calling the shots on the ground are confident their approach will prevail.

Early data promising

If early data is any indication — the experiment just might work.

According to installation spokesperson LA Sully, the 141 trainees enrolled in the academic track class beginning Aug. 8 improved their AFQT scores by an average of 19.8 points. One soldier even scored an 88.

Out of the first class of fitness course trainees, 58 of 97 have “met standard and entered [basic training],” after just two weeks there, Sully added.

Fort Jackson’s outgoing commander, Brig. Gen. Patrick Michaelis, explained that “this is a small sample, but we are encouraged by the results.” The former deputy head of Army Recruiting Command will soon leave the Army to lead the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M University — where he earned his commission in 1993.

The service’s chief of staff, Gen. James McConville, characterized the data as “very impressive” in a phone interview with Army Times.

Echoing the post commander, the general cautioned that he didn’t want to “oversell” the raw preliminary data, which comes from a very small sample size and hasn’t yet been analyzed, but said “I think there’s something here.”

The Army needs there to be “something here” as it scrambles to maintain end strength amid the most challenging recruiting environment since the draft ended in 1973. The numbers forecast is so dire that the service is considering structure changes to its combat formations.

Service leaders think the prep course can help the Army mitigate two societal trends: the deepening childhood obesity epidemic and a post-pandemic drop in test scores.

Only 23% of age-eligible Americans are medically or morally qualified to join the military, Army leaders have argued, and obesity is one of the largest medical factors constricting that pool. The percentage of eligible youth is declining, too.

And in July, Army Training and Doctrine Command deputy commander Lt. Gen. Maria Gervais told reporters that AFQT-takers were performing dismally after years of virtual schooling — with an average drop of nine points since the pandemic began.

The Army’s spinning the prep course as an “investment in America’s youth,” according to TRADOC’s tagline, because it can’t fix the societal problems that have exacerbated the recruiting crisis — but it can respond to them.

McConville said senior leaders “are certainly thinking about expanding the numbers at Fort Jackson.” If the data supports the move, he “could see” the program expanding to training at Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

At Fort Jackson, then, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The pilot program, which senior leaders are closely monitoring with intent to expand across training posts if effective, is seen as the most ambitious, most promising initiative yet to help the service put a dent in the looming personnel shortfall.

Michaelis said the decision will “probably” come in October whether to establish “similar capability” at the other posts in spring 2023.

The officials on the ground leading the course think there’s a chance to inspire even greater changes to how the service welcomes new soldiers as well.

Building a ‘military campus environment’

Trainees who arrive at the academic track find a fledgling “military campus environment” along the installation’s Golden Arrow Road, as the course’s battalion commander described it, that radically departs from the traditions of basic training.

It starts with a pair of “transformational leaders,” as McConville described them.

Lt. Col. Dan Hayes, the commander of 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry, and “Task Force Opportunity,” knows a thing or two about training environments. And his commander, Col. Kent Solheim of the 165th Infantry Brigade, knows a thing or two about challenging fitness training and programming. Both units typically oversee basic training — the prep course is new ground.

Before the Green Beret took over 1-61, Hayes oversaw the Special Operations Forces Captains Career Course while assigned to Fort Bragg’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, commonly known as SWCS. He also held three company commands in 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, and completed an Army Congressional Fellowship.

Solheim, who was described as “Captain America” by Medal of Honor recipient Capt. Florent Groberg in a Jan. 4 Havok Journal interview, is a Green Beret and fitness enthusiast who had to re-learn how to remain active after gunshot wounds sustained in a 2007 firefight in Karbala, Iraq, eventually led to the amputation of his right leg.

This isn’t Hayes and Solheim’s first rodeo together, either. For most of Hayes’ post-Congress stint at 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, when he commanded two companies and served as the unit’s operations officer, Solheim was his battalion commander.

Michaelis, the post commander, hailed Solheim as “one of the most forward-thinking officers we have on this post…who can think big and [also] execute at the tactical level.”

Fitness track trainees currently fall under the 120th Adjutant General Battalion’s fitness training company, but soon they too will move to 1-61′s campus and its more relaxed environment. The fitness training company already had a similarly loose approach for its preexisting mission to rehabilitate injured trainees and harden those whose drill sergeants fear they may fail training events.

Both Hayes and Solheim emphasized the importance of establishing a supportive learning environment for the prep course — a sharp contrast to the “break them down to build them back up” philosophy that’s long influenced basic training.

The battalion’s drill sergeants have traded in their distinctive brown round campaign hats for black baseball caps that echo the expertise signified by instructor hats at schools around the Army, like those worn by Fort Benning’s airborne school cadre. At the prep course, the hats signify that the wearer has completed courses to become academic tutors who are also fitness and resiliency training-certified.

Officers who are temporarily teaching the classes don the hats, too. They’re providing instruction while the service works to hire more civilian and contract instructors, officials said.

The top enlisted soldier in 1-61, Command Sgt. Maj. Stuart Sword, described the headgear swap as “symbolic…[of] a temperament change within the organization.”

One senior drill sergeant from the unit currently running the fitness course, Sgt. 1st Class Rose Herrera, acknowledged that the campaign hat “symbolizes authority [and] instilling discipline.” But she thinks the move to black hats is necessary.

“By removing that hat…[we’re] symbolically changing the way that trainees will look at this person in front of [them] now,” she said. “‘Maybe I’ll let my guard down a little bit. Maybe I don’t have to be so afraid. Maybe it’s okay for me to ask questions…because this [drill sergeant] looks like a person I can actually ask questions to.’”

Solheim was quick to highlight it as well, noting the significance of reducing the “intimidation factor” that the classic campaign hat can have on trainees.

The change in approach goes beyond just the headgear. Especially in 1-61′s facilities, there’s little of the yelling common in basic training — our reporter did not witness any during the two-day embed period, for which Army Times was the only media present.

“It’s a campus-style learning situation where it’s not as much ‘in-your-face’ yelling,” explained Maj. Chris Wedge, who is a Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F) team leader for the 165th Infantry Brigade. “It’s more of, ‘Hey, how do I help you achieve this goal of [moving on to basic training] and becoming a soldier?’ There are going to be some inherent interaction changes.”

Not all drill sergeants can easily remove the hat, though.

Sword, the 1-61 sergeant major, told Army Times that one of his biggest challenges was ensuring that the unit’s drill sergeants believed in the concept and were willing to embrace the temperament shift that’s “conducive to an adult learning environment.”

He said that some drill sergeants who didn’t believe in the idea were swapped out with others who “really bought into the program.”

Herrera, the senior drill sergeant, said she had to pull aside one of her subordinates, who had volunteered first for drill sergeant duty and again later to join the fitness training company, to make sure he was on board.

“He [said],’I don’t think I could do this, this is not what I became a drill sergeant for,’” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Well, why did you [volunteer]?’ [He said], ‘Because I want to make soldiers better.’”

Herrera said he came around after she explained that even though the methods are different, the goal is the same. “We are trying to get these civilians to become soldiers,” she explained.

Trainees in the academic track have unprecedented privileges compared to typical trainees, thanks to Fort Jackson leaders’ commitment to the campus environment philosophy.

The hopeful soldiers have more regular access to their cell phones, explained Sword — “30 minutes to an hour per day,” that instructors intend as a “decompression mechanism” from their academic stress.

They also have unstructured physical training every afternoon, according to Hayes. Army Times observed a session in which instructors played pickup football and volleyball with the recruits. On the other side of the field, a lively soccer game broke out — a scene perhaps never before witnessed along Golden Arrow Road.

Every Army official — including senior leaders — who spoke with Army Times about the prep course emphasized the need for a different approach, even if it departs from established norms.

In the classroom, though, instructors are leaning on curriculum material that the service has previously developed to help soldiers with their test scores and fitness.

Inside the curriculum

The academic track is modeled after the Army’s long-running Basic Skills Education Program, which offers math and English instruction to already-serving troops in order to improve their test scores and expand their career opportunities.

The service has shifted some civilian BSEP instructors to Fort Jackson to launch the course alongside the black hat instructors while a contractor works to hire additional civilian instructors to expand the pilot.

The curriculum touches on reading comprehension, vocabulary, algebra and geometry. AFQT improvement courses aren’t new, but 1-61′s Sword pointed out that the prep course is the earliest they’ve ever been available in a soldier’s career.

The 1-61 campus is also “completely wireless [internet-enabled],” explained post commander Michaelis. That allows trainees to use Army-issued tablets to study in the evenings.

Over at the fitness course’s temporary home at the 120th AG Battalion’s fitness training company, trainees don’t just exercise all day. In fact, they’re limited to two PT periods per day — their 6 a.m. session is usually more rigorous, with the afternoon workout focused on lower-impact exercises such as running form instruction, low intensity cardio or stability work.

During the day, trainees attend classes on nutrition, healthy habits and resilience meant to help them achieve a healthier lifestyle so their body changes can stick. They also keep food journals and have one-on-one meetings with dieticians and nutritionists.

Course instructors include H2F officials who are subject matter experts in their field, who supplement the company’s drill sergeants and officers. All of the unit’s cadre members have a fitness training certification.

Army Times observed a class on macronutrients taught by the company commander, Capt. Remedios Timo-Dondoyano. She helped the trainees understand which nutrients they needed and why, as well as the healthiest ways to consume each of them.

“The deficiency [in the trainees’ knowledge] I noticed was how do you actually have a more mindful way of eating? How do you actually understand what quality food means?” Timo-Dondoyano, a physical therapist with several fitness training certifications, said. “This is more than just food in and food out.”

She’s hopeful that her program could be a launching point for expanding fitness and nutrition education at the entry level alongside the ongoing expansion of the service’s H2F program.

“You’ve got a lot of really good, solid future soldiers out there with a good mindset who may not have the right body type right now,” she said. “It’s an awesome opportunity to…change the culture of fitness within the military and potentially within our society.”

The dining facility for the fitness trainees has healthy choices available, but due to pre-existing contracts, there are also some unhealthy options. Army Times observed buttermilk biscuits available with sausage gravy, for example.

Herrera, the senior drill sergeant, praised the cafeteria staff but expressed some worry about the menu’s lack of variety in healthy (but repetitively served) options, such as egg whites and turkey bacon.

“If we’re not serving them nutritious foods, this program is not going to work at all. So we’re betting on these trainees trying to make better choices on their own,” the drill sergeant said. “Putting more options on the table would be absolutely great.”

Herrera argued the classes and one-on-one dietician appointments would be more effective combined with “a specialized diet for the type of body or composition that [the trainees each] have,” because each trainee has a unique body, and a unique story.

The trainee experience

Army Times spoke with 18 trainees across the prep course’s two tracks. They come from a variety of backgrounds, with diverse reasons given for why they fell short on their test scores or fitness before their arrival at Fort Jackson.

Most from the fitness track said they had little formal nutrition and fitness education and were overwhelmed by the crush of information available online.

Steven Fregoso of Los Angeles said he “spent all the money that I had on personal trainers” while trying to lose body fat and join the Army. “I didn’t spend the money on a nutritionist because I never knew that they were there.”

Darius Williamson of San Antonio said that when he tried to seek out health and fitness information online, it was “hard to understand what’s right and wrong…it’s hard to keep yourself on track.”

Others pointed to challenges they faced with affording healthy food or other factors that made it difficult to make healthy eating choices.

“In the civilian world, learning how to eat and stuff was a big challenge,” said Jonathan Jeffers of San Jacinto, California. “Like, ‘Hey, I need to eat healthier, but right now this is kind of cheaper.’ It’s easier just to get [healthy food] here — everything’s kinda laid out for you.”

Matthew Davis of Mitchell, Indiana, worked full-time at a McDonalds restaurant, he explained. He got free meals there, but they weren’t the healthiest.

“My nutrition was horrible,” he admitted. “I used to work…[eight hours] nearly every day…and the only time I’d have time to eat was at work.”

Another fitness trainee, Saidy Cortez of Sacramento, California, survived off the commissions she made as a salesperson at a car dealership. Healthy food was an afterthought.

“It got to the point where I was working from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and [some customers would] come in at 7:30 p.m.,” Cortez said. “So I wouldn’t leave until like midnight sometimes.”

Many praised the course and appreciated the one-on-one instruction and mentoring they were receiving.

“Here they have registered dieticians…to actually teach us the correct ways [of eating],” to include proper portion sizes, said San Antonio’s Williamson. “It’s a big improvement from just reading back home on the internet.”

A fitness trainee from Denver, Jayse Barnes, confessed he “wasn’t really too excited or motivated” for the prep course, as he was cutting weight before shipping in the hopes of avoiding it. But he’s changed his tune since. Barnes said he learned a lot of “very important” information about healthy nutrition and eating habits since arriving.

Adriana Jimenez, from Naples, Florida, discussed color-coded signs at the chow hall that quickly indicate whether a food would be a wise choice.

“There are the red signs and the green signs,” she said, gesturing towards the serving line. “If I see the red [sign]...I could just get…something healthier.”

Others from both courses of instruction attributed their progress to being in a disciplined, military environment.

Atlanta native Dominique Simmons credited fitness training cadre who “push us to do more than we thought we could do.”

Devin Grissett, an academic track trainee from Cleveland, confessed that if he “tried to [study by] myself, I’d get distracted.”

Some trainees from both tracks said that the prep course’s residential, paid format — where they’re receiving regular relatively healthy meals and military pay during their efforts to raise their test scores or get in shape — was the only way they’d have been able to make it.

Fregoso, the Los Angeles fitness trainee, said he left a well-paid but exhausting job in pest control to chase his service dreams. His pay is supporting his wife back home.

Naomi Horn, an academic trainee from Minnesota, was busy working as a phlebotomist. “Here is so focused, and I feel like I’m in my zone…and nothing is distracting me in the outside world,” she said.

“This is a really good program for someone who is my age, because they need to take care of their own family and they don’t have much time for studying because they need to go to work,” said Kim, the former infantryman.

He and Puerto Rican trainee Glerisbeth Rodiguez both attend after-hours study groups for those whose first language isn’t English.

Potential pitfalls

Even as the program’s early data shows promise, officials spoke about some of the potential risks involved and what steps they’re taking to address them.

For fitness trainees, one worry is the potential for eating disorders, which a 2021 Task & Purpose investigation characterized as a “pervasive culture” harming an unknown number of already-serving troops.

Timo-Dondonayo, the current commander of the fitness initiative, talked about her efforts to reduce the risk of accidentally encouraging eating disorders in trainees whose only way through the prep course is to lose body fat.

Trainees who enter the program complete eating disorder screenings, she said, and are evaluated by dieticians during their one-on-one appointments. The course lessons also emphasize the need to eat enough to withstand the rigors of a military training environment.

“The dieticians are very keyed into the concern of eating disorders [and] body dysmorphia,” she said.

Part of preventing disordered eating goes beyond classroom instruction and extends to the drill sergeants who are actually in the chow hall with the trainees, said Herrera, the senior drill sergeant.

“A while ago, one of my drill sergeants…[saw a trainee] only get two pieces of kiwi,” she said. The NCOs pulled the trainee aside and had “a one-on-one talk…so she can understand that it’s not about starving yourself — we don’t want you to starve yourself.”

During the planning for the academic track, an Army official told Army Times there were concerns, too. Funneling Category IV aptitude trainees into a specialized training environment together could potentially result in worse outcomes than the existing mechanisms for allowing a limited number of them to enlist and go directly to basic training, some argued.

But the necessity born of the recruiting crisis won out.

Hayes, the 1-61 commander, thinks the prep course will improve outcomes for their trainees in basic training, advanced training and beyond.

“So we’re investing in America’s youth. What are going to be the second- and third-order effects of it?” Hayes asked. “I think some of them are going to probably perform better…because they were brought into the Army in a way that allowed them to transition…and [that] invested in them.”

He acknowledged that such a study would be “hard to do,” but that it would be worthwhile to evaluate “the secondary orders of effect for this course,” beyond simply helping the service meet its accession goals.

But before anyone can study potential long-term success, Solheim just wants to make sure that the lessons stick, especially for fitness trainees.

“This will all atrophy as soon as somebody’s lifestyle doesn’t change [when] they get back to controlling everything in their life again,” he said. “So, yeah, this is about educating people in a positive way.”

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.