WASHINGTON -- In a real about-face for the fire-breathing, order-barking stereotypical drill sergeant of yore, the Army has named a woman as "Drill Sergeant of the Year" for the first time in its history.
"It's better to lead by example than intimidation and fear," explained soft-spoken Staff Sgt. Jill Henderson, 27, from Fort McClellan, Ala., who recently beat out 15 male colleagues for the honor.
Sergeant Henderson's ascension marks the first time in the 24-year annual competition that a woman has won the title. Women have served as drill sergeants -- training both men and women -- for about 20 years, and today fill 263 of the Army's 2,548 drill sergeant slots.
"Her success demonstrates that the decisive factor for success is performance," declared Sgt. Maj. Richard Kidd, the Army's top enlisted soldier.
Not only is Sergeant Henderson shy, but she said she "very seldom" swears at young recruits, an admission that would be heresy to those legions of drill sergeants who trained America's troops to fight in the mud of Europe, the jungles of Southeast Asia and the deserts of the Middle East.
"Cussing signals a loss of control," Sergeant Henderson said. "As a military leader, I should always be in control of the situation."
Drill sergeants have always been the blacksmiths of the Army, pounding the crude iron of young recruits into the hardened steel of highly trained soldiers. Many are remembered as screaming brutes who scared recruits into submission.
"Today's drill sergeant is different from yesterday's," she said. "I wouldn't want a soldier scared of their leader because he or she thought their leader was going to beat 'em up."
Sgt. Calvin Smithers, whom Sergeant Henderson replaces as the Army's top drill sergeant, agrees. "Years ago, the drill sergeant would yell at you, curseat you, kick you and throw stuff at you," he said. "But now we try to be more positive."
Today's drill sergeants teach young recruits how to march, salute and the basics of soldiering "not by physical force, but by example and training," Sergeant Henderson said.
"It's a drill sergeant's job to take a civilian and give him or her the right qualities to be a soldier," she said. "You've not only got to teach them to be a soldier tactically and technically, but you have to teach them how to give selfless service to the country."
Sergeant Henderson was chosen for the honor by a panel of six senior noncommissioned officers, representing the Army's most experienced enlisted troops.
The six-day competition -- including tests of soldiering, teaching skills and physical stamina -- were conducted in April by the Army's Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe, Va.