Photographer Raymond McCrea Jones says the first 36 hours of life for new Army recruits can best be described using a common military refrain: shock and awe.
“It’s a very intense period,” he said. “For many, it’s when their decision to join the Army actually materializes and becomes real.”
He has been following a group of recruits undergoing basic combat training at Fort Benning, an Army post outside Columbus, Georgia.
Jones started the project on February 19, when more than 400 young men arrived from across the country. They were dropped off by the busload throughout the night.
When they got to Fort Benning, known as the home of the infantry, they were greeted by a drill sergeant and immediately began orientation and processing. First, they had to surrender most of their personal belongings.
The next day was a bit of a daze.
“Many soldiers are so tired they are falling asleep, even standing up,” Jones said. “They do not sleep until that following night. And neither did I.”
What followed was a barrage of medical screenings, briefings and preparation for the physical and mental challenges ahead. A lot of time was spent standing in line at various stations. The experience defines the adage "hurry up and wait."
Everyone was given a close-trim haircut before being issued uniforms and military ID badges. Then came a trip to the Post Exchange, a store on site where they purchased items from an approved list.
Jones said so far he hasn’t interacted much with the recruits. "I’m pretty much the last thing they were worried about."
And at the end of the day, they were still a long way from being deemed fit for battle.
Basic training, a rite of passage for generations of soldiers, was revamped nearly a decade ago to introduce rigorous new drills and prepare recruits for immediate deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the contentious and costly war in Iraq officially ended in December 2011, and the bulk of combat forces are set to leave Afghanistan by the end of next year.
As a result, Jones said, “The U.S. military is transitioning from an active wartime machine with multiple deployments guaranteed for every soldier to a more ‘garrison-like military,’ as one drill sergeant I spoke to put it.”
With that come budget cuts and the need to enlist fewer soldiers.
Meanwhile, Jones has been documenting the journey of 162 recruits through their 10 weeks of basic training as members of Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment.
The idea was sparked by a visit to Fort Benning last year for a freelance assignment. It was the Atlanta-based photographer’s first time working with the military, and even the most mundane things fascinated him.
He kept hearing about the mission of turning civilians into soldiers and wanted to take a deeper look at the transformations. After months of negotiating, his project was approved by the Army.
“I thrive on making connections with the people I photograph,” Jones said. “I really want to continue growing in my personal life through projects like this one, where I am given the opportunity to explore a part of this world that is foreign to me.”
- Brett Roegiers, CNN