What is a Drill Instructor?

Karyn Maier

A drill instructor is a member of the military who has been given non-commissioned and non-combatant status for the purpose of reserving his or her duties for matters closer to home, namely breaking in new recruits. However, the term has different regulatory definitions, depending on the country represented and even among branches of its military. For instance, in many parts of the world, a drill instructor is aptly named since the officer’s sole task is to instruct drill commands. In the U.S., on the other hand, a drill instructor usually conjures an image of an overbearing figure that strikes fear into the hearts of those about to be initiated into military life. To make this bigger-than-life persona seem even more imposing, a drill instructor in the U.S. Armed Forces oversees nearly every waking moment of a new recruit for the entire time they are in Basic Training, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Drill instructor schools may require applicants to have a perfect physical fitness score.
Drill instructor schools may require applicants to have a perfect physical fitness score.

There are further distinctions for instructors made in the United States. For one thing, the title of drill instructor is held exclusively by officers of the Marine Corps. In other branches of the U.S. military, other designations are used instead, including drill sergeant in the Army and company commander in the Navy. So, if you’re reading this because you are about to enter the Marine Corps, try to remember to never refer to your drill instructor as drill sergeant and to begin and end every utterance from your lips to your instructor with “Yes, Sir” or “Yes, Ma’am.” Deviate from these basic rules and you’ll likely go through a great many toothbrushes before basic training is over.

As might be expected, it takes a good deal of stamina and an optimum level of physical fitness in order to be a Marine Corps drill instructor. The training alone is thought to be one of the most intense of any training in any branch of the U.S. military. The training, which takes place at Officer Candidates School (OCS), typically consists of 15-16 hours per day, beginning at the crack of dawn. Once training is complete, the drill instructor is assigned to a Recruit Training Battalion and is expected to commit to three years of service. Although becoming a drill instructor is strictly a voluntary endeavor, it is a mission considered highly honorable and many instructors receive awards and commendations for their tour on the drill field.

While it generally isn’t difficult to pick out a drill instructor from a crowd with one glance, it is interesting to note that there are certain “badges of honor” that further distinguish them from other military officers. For example, each instructor is decorated with the Drill Instructor Ribbon. Drill instructors also sport what’s known as a campaign hat fashioned after the Stetson-type hats worn by Army officers during World War I. Also known as a “lemon squeezer,” and reminiscent of the hat worn by Smokey the Bear, this style of hat is also traditional attire for the Boy Scouts. However, given their general demeanor, it’s quite unlikely for a drill instructor to be mistaken for either.

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