More than two decades since he served as a drill sergeant at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston has not aged a day, nor has he lost his edge, or his focus on the service’s values.
That was the gist of a recent post on the popular Army subreddit by Chief Warrant Officer 3 Blake Furman. In the post, Furman recounted what it was like to have the Army’s top enlisted leader as his drill sergeant, and did so in the time honored tradition of current and former service members: By telling a story from basic training about an instructor absolutely ruining lives because someone else screwed up.
About 24 years ago, in the winter of 1998, before his career with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, or his current post at Training and Doctrine Command, where he teaches special victim courses for criminal investigations, Furman was a young private, sitting in a crowded classroom with 60 other soldiers with Echo Battery, 1-22 Field Artillery Battalion, and a furious Sgt. 1st Class Grinston.
The story takes place during one of those welcome breaks in basic training when soldiers file into a large auditorium for a traditional class with guest presenters. The respite took a turn, however, when one of the junior soldiers decided to whistle at the guest instructor as she walked to the stage.
Silence descended and hell was soon to follow, with Grinston as its herald. There would be only one chance to avoid mass punishment: Whoever whistled needed to step forward.
No one moved, presumably due to complete and utter fear — the kind that paralyzes entry-level trainees living under the iron fist of their instructors.
For the next 50 minutes, the class went on with the Army staff judge advocate lecturer running through the course material as if nothing was amiss. Meanwhile, the future sergeant major of the Army loomed over his charges, eyes roving the seats, searching for the one. By the end of the lecture, no one had come forward to take responsibility, and so responsibility would be shared by all.
“What makes it even worse is that you know he’s right,” Furman told Army Times. “It’s not fury over nonsense just to screw the privates for random stupid rule violations that they made up. You know he is 100% justified in that absolute rage.”
Once the class was finished, Grinston ordered the battery to exit the auditorium. The soldiers headed back toward their building, made their way past it and formed up near the unit’s laundry facilities and bathrooms.
Then, as many have before and since, they endured a gauntlet of physical exercises. Corrective training, as it’s called, is a rite of passage for all who serve and a common training technique, wherein drill sergeants use physical training as a disciplinary tool, but with the added benefit of soldiers getting some more PT in during the day.
“It was constant and continuous,” Furman said, adding, “they would give us breaks, but the breaks would be the exercises where you don’t move, like putting your arms out and just holding them there. Like, ‘We know you’re at muscle failure for push-ups, so we’re going to give you a break. Stand up and put your arms out.’ That kind of stuff.”
And so it continued.
“They just rotated through each one, changing muscle failure to a different group, so eventually in a half-hour you could get back to that group again, and muscle fail it again,” Furman said.
With the caveat that some of the details are hazy, given the gap in time, Furman noted that throughout it all, Grinston, who was the unit’s senior drill sergeant, hammered home the why behind the training: “Reinstilling Army values, talking about how harassment is not tolerated, this type of behavior is not tolerated, every soldier is equal, we don’t treat anybody different because of their race, gender, nationality and that type of behavior would not be tolerated in the military.”
Looking back on that day in 1998, Furman says it helped shape his view of service in the Army and “that harassment of that type would not and should not be tolerated in the military.”
Grinston, for his part, has not forgotten either, telling Army Times, “I remember that story very clearly,” he said. “I’ve never tolerated harassment in any form. I hope those soldiers understood that after our corrective training and continue to live by the values instilled at initial entry training.”
Based on the Reddit thread that surfaced nearly a quarter of a century later, it certainly seems at least one — and likely many more — remember the lesson well.
The original Reddit post has been edited lightly for style and clarity:
Picture this: A small, flat, auditorium style room, elevated stage up front. Chairs filled with baby soldiers, still with mama’s milk on their lip.
An easy training day, random classes by outside presenters. Get the instructors on stage, sit down somewhere, make sure the trainees don’t fall asleep. Try not to kill anyone.
Last class, then the drill sergeants get to go home. The end is almost here.
Ethics and EO, guest instructor, SJA Office.
1457: Stage is empty. A soft cacophony of voices from rebellious but terrified privates.
1458: CPT (random female SJA) walks onto the stage with SFC Grinston.
1458.03: A loud, crisp, clear, cat call whistle ...
1458.04: Pure … silence …
1458.05: Mid-stride, like a slow motion movie, SFC Grinston slows his gate and cocks his head toward the soldiers, with a “what the f*@k did I just hear” face. The face of a man who can’t comprehend what just happened. The face of a man that knew right from wrong … and he just heard the voice of evil call out across the aether. A face of a future SMA, that WOULD see justice.
But who would pay? No one would (or did) admit to the crime. Who would pay? That face said they would all pay. Everyone will pay.
50. Long. Minutes... of EO training. CPT (SJA) taught slide by slide, as though all was right in the world. Meanwhile, SFC Grinston stood at the edge of the stage, arms crossed, burning eyes.
50 minutes knowing it was coming. Would he find the offender? Or would we all …
30. Those eyes ...
20. He can’t actually … kill one of us … can he?
10. Please, it wasn’t me.
CPT (random): ‘Thank you for the wonderful presentation.’ Turns to the soldiers.
[Grinston]: “Battery … ATTENTION! Formation OUTSIDE! You have 2 minutes to fill your canteen.”
That was the first of 3 times we filled our canteens that evening…
James is the editor of Army Times and a Marine Corps veteran.