By Maj. Michelle Lunato
98th Training Division-Initial Entry Training
Most people think about Basic Combat Training when they think of drill sergeants. However, to mold new drill sergeants, experienced drill sergeants must transform noncommissioned officers to replace them. Then, like any other military school, there must one lead for those instructors developing the new drill sergeants.
At the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant Academy, that noncommissioned officer in charge of the drill sergeant leaders is the Senior Drill Sergeant Leader. It is a position of great trust, responsibility and honor at the Fort Jackson, South Carolina school house. And for Cycle 5-20 (January 2020- March 2020), Sgt. 1st Class Lisa Capocci, a U.S. Army Reserve drill sergeant from the 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training), seized that challenging role.
Capocci, who hails from 2/415th Cavalry One Station Unit Training, 1st Brigade, out of Sacramento, California, said that being the Senior DSL at the Academy is an entirely new experience than the role as Basic Combat Training drill sergeant.
“Being a Senior Drill Sergeant at the Academy is completely different, because now you are dealing with [noncommissioned officers] who been in the Army for five, ten or twelve years.” Those years of experience give the drill sergeant candidates the base to build on, to become the next role models for future recruits. Like any school, there is a mix of student abilities, personalities and motivation, said Capocci. Then, there is a combination of candidates from the Active Duty and the U.S. Army Reserve. Some students were directed to attend the Academy, while others may have volunteered. Regardless of all that, the drill sergeant leaders at the Academy are there to mentor the candidates all the same, explained Capocci.
“Now, it is all about taking care of them and mentoring them. It’s a completely different role than [Basic Combat Training]. You are already dealing with Soldiers, you are not turning anybody into a Soldier.”
The Academy is about teaching noncommissioned officers HOW to teach, how to mold the potential they see in civilian recruits. To do that, the Drill Sergeant Leaders must refresh the candidates’ experience of what it is like to go to Basic Combat Training. They have to review all the updated standards, skills and regulations. They may have to break old habits. Then, the Drill Sergeant Leaders must take all that and instruct the candidates on how to teach each and every recruit they will mold into the next generation of Soldiers.
The Academy prides itself on excellence, as they know they have a direct impact on the future of the U.S. Army, and as the Senior DSL, Capocci said she had to ensure that did not change.
“The best possible drill sergeants is what we are turning out here at the Drill Sergeant Academy. Paying attention to that detail and keeping them up to the standard is my job as the Senior.”
In that role, the Iroquois Warrior had to rely on her experience on the trail, time as a leader and a number of time management skills. With a limited amount of time to mold the next line of drill sergeants, every second counts. The Senior DSL handles the coordination of schedules, certifications, meetings, plans—everything for each Drill Sergeant Leader working with all the candidates.
Of course, being in charge of other Drill Sergeant Leaders is complicated. These are experienced drill sergeants who are already here at the Academy, already in the role of Drill Sergeant Leader. They know their job, and I’m coming in after some of them, said Capocci.
“They are pretty much already self-propelled. So you have to switch from teaching Soldiers to being a mentor for [drill sergeant leaders], and those are your peers. That line gets blurred a little sometimes. You just have to remember that you are their supervisor and these are your peers, and that you have to mentor them properly.”
The Academy knowingly selects strong drill sergeants to become Drill Sergeant Leaders. And before becoming the next Senior DSL, the incoming Senior DSL shadows the current Senior DSL for even more experience. This preparation assisted Capocci in the nuances of the school house of course, but the bulk of her readiness to excel in the role of Senior DSL came from not only her experience on the trail with recruits, but also from her role in civilian law enforcement.
Capocci’s call to serve her Nation started when she was 17 years old, when her father allowed her to join the U.S. Air Force. However, she felt compelled to become a Soldier. So when she was old enough, she transitioned to Active Duty U.S. Army. The young Soldier said she always wanted to become a drill sergeant, but the opportunity was just simple not there at the time.
Life progressed and Capocci transitioned from Active Duty to the U.S. Army Reserve. Meanwhile, she began a career in law enforcement that had her working in prisons and with sheriff offices.
In 2002, when she switched Army components, the opportunity to earn the iconic drill sergeant hat became possible, and Capocci said she did not hesitate or look back, in fact, she thought becoming a drill sergeant was natural and went “hand in hand” with her civil service role.
“I have a heart for service. I like to teach. I like to be a public servant. So, as soon as I joined the U.S Army Reserve, I saw that there was an opportunity. So I jumped and went for it. I got accepted into the Drill Sergeant Program and have been trucking on ever since.”
The hard work of teaching a civilian a set of skills and helping them uncover their potential was not easy, but Capocci found it very rewarding. She recalls countless moments when she’d see it just click for a recruit. When she saw that, she knew they’d become a Soldier and she’d made a difference.
“For those Soldiers who actually grasp the Army concept and are an integral part of our team—they get the seven Army Values; they get and understand our Warrior Ethos—it is like a lightbulb turns on for them, and you kind of feel like a proud parent at that moment.”
Recruits are not children, nor do we treat them that way, but it’s the best explanation of this sense of accomplishment—that you’ve done your job, said Capocci.
“This Soldier is now going to be a productive part of the Army, and you’ve had a small part in that. So it’s kind of a big deal that they are always going to remember what you did for them, but you are always going to remember them, for what they are doing for the Army.”
Though her role at the Academy as the Senior DSL was completely different her role as a drill sergeant at Basic Combat Training, Capocci said the feeling of purpose, pride and accomplishment is just as great, if not even more.
“It’s cool to see them go from [noncommissioned officer] to then at graduation, we put that hat on their head—they just carry themselves differently. Because now they know, they are a drill sergeant, and all eyes are on them. Now they have this great responsibility. They are put in this big position of trust to train Soldiers. Their whole persona changes, and they’ve earned it,” explained the Senior DSL.
So as her and her Drill Sergeant Leaders perform the ceremonial rights of bestowing the drill sergeant hats and badges to the Army’s news drill sergeants, that same sense of accomplishment from a Basic Combat Training graduation fills the room.
“This is a hard school to get through. They earned the right to be called drill sergeant. Seeing them graduate is a moment of pride for us leaders too.”
Another element of achievement is the fact that Capocci is part of the U.S. Army Reserve. Many things have changed over the past decades, but there are still pockets of stereotypes and jokes about “you are just a Reservist,” which is just a fact of life since there are just less of us U.S. Army Reserve drill sergeants, said Capocci.
“We can do everything that the Active Duty component can do. And sometimes, we can even do it better, because we’ve had more time to study or we’ve had more time to dedicate to the position.”
The occasional ribbing of the Reserve component doesn’t bother Capocci much though because she knows she is doing the exact same things. And that is exactly what she recommends to any other Reserve drill sergeant out there.
“A way to combat that ‘just a Reserve’ mentality is to do the job and do it well. Know your information. Know your TRADOC regulation 350-6 and be good at it. Show up. Be ready to work those 12 to 15-hour days. Be ready to go forth with whatever training they have that day,” advised the Senior DSL.
“I can tell you that when I was on the trail at Fort Leonard Wood, I had outstanding Reservists. I appreciated that they were all squared away and ready to roll. So as long as you are ready to roll, and you’re ready to go, that mentality diminishes rather quickly.”
The fact that the Senior DSL came from the Reserve component may have even been an extra sense of motivation for the U.S. Army Reserve drill sergeant candidates. Regardless, Capocci knows it was a bonus for her at least.
“It was an honor to train them all, but doubly so that I was able to touch the Reserve population of drill sergeants. They have a unique role of being put into an intense school while also maintaining their civilian lives. I am glad I was there to relate to those NCOs who attended as Reservists,” she explained.
Capocci doesn’t claim one component to be better than another. They merely offer different aspects and both come with their own pros and cons. The bottom line is, the component from which a drill sergeant may come from is irrelevant. It’s the amount of work, passion and commitment the noncommissioned officer puts forth into becoming the best drill sergeant is what matters, said Capocci.
“That being said, I HIGHLY recommend volunteering for a mission in [Basic Combat Training]. The two years I did at Fort Leonard Wood allowed me to see the full picture of basic training, and also how vital the Reserve [Echo] Mission is to the Active Duty side. Without the Reserve drill sergeants supplementing the Active side, the mission would be much more difficult.”
With her rotation as Senior DSL complete, Capocci is now moving onto her next mission—recruiting, which she’s excited about.
“I am looking forward to recruiting and being on both sides of the Soldier experience. I’ve come full circle as a drill sergeant and it has been quite a journey!”
Though she won’t be ‘under the hat’ anymore, Capocci said she will always be drill sergeant and live the drill sergeant motto of ‘This We’ll Defend.’
“This We’ll Defend represents us all in the Army, I think, because we are all working towards a goal and that’s the defense of our freedom and our Country. For me, I’ve always taken that to heart. I am a very patriotic person, so ‘This We’ll Defend’ is me, having a part, as minor of a part it is, in defending our freedom in America, and I think that has always been at the crux of my service. I have always been one of those patriotic people who wanted to serve just to serve. I come from a family of military personnel so defending America’s freedom has always been super important to me. I know that sounds cheesy, but that’s what it stands for me and that’s what it stands for at the Academy. I know that we are very proud of the Soldiers that we produce here and of the Soldiers that they are going to produce. It’s the second, third and fourth order of effects here.”