Illinois National Guard Officer School Digs Deep to Help Soldiers Going Gold

Story by Army Sgt. Daniel Stinson, 139th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

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Candidates with Illinois National Guard Officer Candidate School (OCS) conduct a road march at Camp Lincoln in Springfield. OCS is changing the way it recruits, mentors and trains future leaders.

SPRINGFIELD, IL (04/11/2011)(readMedia)-- The Illinois National Guard Officer Candidate School (OCS) is changing the way it recruits, mentors and trains future leaders by making officer recruiting and training a state-wide priority and not just an OCS priority.

Most Soldiers are familiar with the term Gold Rush, a program where all Soldiers who have at least 60 hours of college are required to attend a two-day program for officer recruiting. These weekends were often far from home and Soldiers were required to attend even if they had no desire to become an officer.

The OCS program has grown through recent change; involving more unit level communication and raising the number candidates in training with Soldiers interested in a career as an officer.

"We are on pace to have 178% increase in the number of officers we commission this year over last year," said Maj. Benjamin Shakman of Springfield, the 129th Regimental Training Institute's (RTI) training officer. "Our 56-11 class is track to be one of the biggest in recent memory."

Seventy-four candidates are in the phase 0 program with the possibly of six more Soldiers coming into the program.

The new program allows commanders to identify Soldiers in their units they feel will make a good officer. This lets units take ownership in the people they send off to the program.

"When units know they will see these Soldiers again, and they are able to maintain visibility of the Soldier throughout the length of program it motivates them to really take the time to find qualified candidates to send through the process" said

Under the old system once a Solider enrolled in OCS they often did not know what their unit of assignment or basic branch would be till they were close to graduating from the program.

"(Now) when a Soldier leaves for OCS, the company, battalion, brigade and state are all tracking the same thing. They will know when the Soldier will complete the program, where he is going and when he will be at drill. This is a great help to commanders in the field, so they know and will not have to hope or guess when their needs will be met for leadership within their unit."

This transparency is not only limited to tracking of Soldiers going through the program, and what their

basic branch and assignments will be, but it also includes regular updates after drills on what the candidates are doing in training.

"The main reason I am interested in the program now is, I am able to pick the branch I want, and I will know where and what I will be doing before I commit a year to the program, and that is very important to me," said Sgt. Catherine Sanagursky of Springfield, a prospective officer candidate.

Shakman said the driving force behind the changes was due to the decline of Soldiers in OCS.

"Maj. Seth Hible, the OCS commander and I, who are both OCS graduates, tried to look at the program and figure out where we needed to improve and what will work best to train Soldiers and successfully get them through the program."

One of the problems they found was making Soldiers wait till March to start the program. By making people wait to start the program it often create conflicts with starting the program.

Soldiers can now sign up for OCS at any time and start preparing for the program as soon as they make the commitment. There is now a three-section program for Soldiers to prepare them for the stress of phase 1 of training.

"We have found that land navigation and (physical training) to be the biggest stumbling blocks for potential candidates," said Shakman.

The time Soldiers spend in the program is now put to good use. Soldiers spend time focusing on land navigation, physical training and leadership training. The sections are not dependent on each other and a Soldier can come in any time to start training for the future.

"This gives us time evaluate Soldiers strengths and their challenges, and it will give the Soldiers time to brush up on any weaknesses they have before leaving for phase 1."

The RTI and OCS program have been encouraging commanders to participate in drill weekends with the officer candidates.

"We had a brigade commander come to our last drill to do PT with our candidates," said Shakman. "In the past, this level of unit involvement rarely happened."

When candidates see colonels and generals getting involved in making them leaders, that sense of importance to the Illinois National Guard only drives them to succeed and complete the program because they know many people are depending on them to graduate, said Shakman.

Brigade and battalion commanders will show up to drill and talk to their future soldiers. This makes Soldiers feel needed and they will find the drive to stay and complete the program.