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Amber Downes, a drill sergeant in training, looks up while listening to her orders during a tactical training session at Drill Sergeant Academy on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, at Fort Jackson in Columbia. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

COLUMBIA — Hollywood has painted a jarring image of drill sergeants. 

There's the gravel-voiced Sgt. Hulka in "Stripes," the grueling abuse of Gunnery Sgt. Emil Foley from "An Officer and a Gentleman" and the sheer intensity of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in "Full Metal Jacket."

All of them are men. All of them are scary. All of them are more bent on breaking instead of building soldiers. 

But the way the Army's drill sergeants address, treat and train recruits is changing. 

Since 1964, every soldier out to become an Army drill sergeant has to pass through South Carolina to earn the privilege of wearing the distinctive campaign hat.

Every 10 weeks about 88 percent graduate from the physically rigorous and academically demanding Drill Sergeant Academy at Fort Jackson. The Army wants, and needs, more of them.

Women are stepping up to fill that void. Last week, Fort Jackson graduated a class of drill sergeants that had more women than men. Base leaders were excited. 

"It's a rarity," said Megan Reed, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training. "We are looking at a time where women, statistically, are really stepping up as leaders in the Army. We hope it's a trend and that they'll continue to step up and shape the next generation of soldiers." 

In fiscal 2018, the academy graduated 17 classes with an average size of 100 drill sergeants. The following year, a demand from other basic training bases pushed that number to 22 classes with an average size of 140.

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Amber Downes raises her fist to alert her unit at Drill Sergeant Academy on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, at Fort Jackson in Columbia. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Nearly 30 percent of those drill sergeants are women. A little less than half of them are single parents, balancing a mission of raising a family as they turn civilians into soldiers.

In 2015, the Department of Defense said all combat roles were open to women. The Army needed to fill positions to accommodate the influx of females signing up to serve. The Army Reserve only had 60 percent of the drill sergeants it needed. 

In basic training, a typical company will have around 240 soldiers split into four platoons of 60 trainees. The branch wanted three drill sergeants in each platoon and at least one of them needed to be a woman. The Army started to meet the demand.

But as females slowly transition into combat jobs, their ability to train recruits in key areas such as marksmanship and battle formations are being tested.

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Michael Menchaca helps Kimberly Poyer go over drills in the soil during Drill Sergeant Academy on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, at Fort Jackson in Columbia. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

"Their experience in it was so limited," Sgt. 1st Class Dennie Taylor said. "They have lived their Army career being told 'You're a female, we don't need you over there.' Their opportunity was cut off by individuals who didn't expect them to join the ranks of combat roles."

Changing the culture

Overall, drill sergeant training has becoming more progressive since the academy's opening in the '60s. 

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The message on the wall of the Drill Sergeant Academy dorm building on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, at Fort Jackson in Columbia. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

"Our more seasoned soldiers will say it has gotten a lot easier," said Command Sgt. Maj. James Hill, the commandant of the Drill Sergeant Academy. "We don't say or do those things we did back then. It's not socially acceptable anymore." 

Stories that grandfathers have told sons about instructors who hit them, insulted their race or berated them are becoming rare. 

"Is it necessary to put our hands on a person to get them to do what we need them to do? No," Taylor said. "We don't have a draft anymore. There is more respect given to the trainees." 

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Richard Chae (center) writes down coordinates along with Jimmy Shepherd and Curtis Hammett during Drill Sergeant Academy on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, at Fort Jackson in Columbia. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Basic training is turning civilians into soldiers. Drill sergeant training is turning soldiers into role models. A recruit is a blank slate, learning everything for the first time. But a soldier becoming a drill sergeant is relearning the basics, and learning how to teach them to others. 

Many of them have anywhere from four to 16 years in the service. 

"Sometimes, we have instructors who are junior to the people they're training," Hill said. 

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A drill sergeant watches as cadets practice for graduation at Hilton Field on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, at Fort Jackson in Columbia. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Making the cut

Drill sergeants today aren't the late R. Lee Ermey, the actor and real-life Marine from "Full Metal Jacket," where he'd call anyone who crossed his path a maggot. They come in a variety of demeanors and personalities, like Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Hinojosa. 

Before shipping out for Army basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, a friend he knew on base made up a rumor and told his soon-to-be-drill sergeants that the recruit thought they were weaklings. When he arrived, he saw his name written on a whiteboard, singled out from all the other recruits. That's when the shouting began.

"He said I thought they were a bunch of candy asses," Hinojosa said. "It was a terrible experience."

Despite his experience, he said his style is more "laid back," and he likes to tease and joke around with his recruits. But what about those misguided soldiers who might need so-called tough love?

Sgt. 1st Class Antione Norris said most of the time if a recruit isn't listening, they just don't understand. It's the latter that causes problems. 

"I sit them down and I give them direction," Norris said. "Nine times out of 10, it's either their character or they just don't know. Not everybody can be saved." 

An estimated 12 percent won't make it through the course. Many are flagged for being overweight or not having the mental stability or service record to make them a preferred candidate, Taylor said. Being a drill sergeant also makes a noncommissioned officer favored for future promotions. It means a larger paycheck, but a soldier has to earn it. 

"We see more enlisted people saying they want to be a drill sergeant," Taylor said. "But we can tell who is going to make it."

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Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5715. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly reports on crime, growth and development as well as military issues in Berkeley and Dorchester counties. Previously, he was a reporter at the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.