SFC Erik Rostamo - 2020 US Army Drill Sergeant of the Year
MSG Half-Mast recently had the pleasure to sit down (virtually, of course) with SFC Erik Rostamo, the 2020 Drill Sergeant of the Year (DSOY) to discuss his role as an adviser to the Center for Initial Military Training, which includes the roll out of the Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F) System.
SSG Rostamo hails from St. Michael, MN. He enlisted in the US Army on July 10, 2008, and attended one station unit training at Fort Leonard Wood, MO, and earned the military occupational specialty 31B - Military Police.
In 2009, he deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom performing internment/resettlement operations at Camp Taji, Iraq. In 2012, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, he performed route clearance and convoy security in Regional Command East, Afghanistan. SSG Rostamo’s stateside assignments include Fort Drum, NY; Fort Campbell, KY; and Fort Leonard Wood, MO. He has served in almost every Military Police position to include driver, gunner, team leader, squad leader, military police investigations non-commissioned officer-in-charge and platoon senior drill sergeant.
He has attended the Senior Leader’s Course and the Drill Sergeant School, among other professional development courses, and was distinguished honor graduate and leader award recipient at both. SSG Rostamo has an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Purdue Global University.
MSG Half-Mast: Congratulations on being selected DSOY for 2020. That's quite an accomplishment. To what do you attribute your selection?
SFC Rostamo: Thank you very much. The road to this point wasn’t easy. There are several key factors that I attribute to my selection. First and foremost, my wife, Nicole. Simply being a drill sergeant in and of itself is very taxing on families. Then, when you add studying and preparing for all the drill sergeant competitions along the way, it only adds stress. She buckled down and allowed me to dedicate a lot of what would be family time to prepare.
MSG Half-Mast: Many of us may have a preconceived notion of what a drill sergeant is and what he or she does (mainly a lot of yelling!) How has the drill sergeant role evolved over the years and in what ways has this evolution served to enhance Army readiness?
The second attribution would be to my mentors. For the last two years, I’ve had two first sergeants who’ve taken a keen interest in my personal and professional development. Their constant mentorship and guidance has literally paved the way for something like this to happen.
Lastly, I attribute my internal self. Allow me to explain. Two and half years ago, I was passed up for selection to sergeant first class (E7) on my first look. I wasn’t happy; my ego was shattered. One of those above-mentioned first sergeants pulled me aside, reviewed my record and told me exactly why I wasn’t selected. He said, “Your record is showing that you are meeting the standard…and that’s it. There’s nothing special about Erik Rostamo that would get you selected.” He did what good mentors are supposed to do: be candid. At that moment two-and-half years ago, I ignited a fire in my internal fire pit that ALL Soldiers have within them.
Any Soldier can do what I did with the right amount of effort applied and “gas” poured on their fire pit. It starts with a goal, then an understanding of the kind of effort and dedication this goal needs to be successful and, finally, genuine action. That’s the message: if you have a goal, get after it. It’s one thing to say it; it’s another to believe it, put it into action and make it reality. Soldiers, ignite your fire. If I can do it, you can do it, whatever your goals are.
SFC Rostamo: An excellent question. I’m hoping I can give the answer some justice. Let’s go back to the 1960s and early 70s, back in the draft years. Many of the recruits had no desire to be in the Army. So drill sergeants used intense psychological means to establish compliance early on in training. An example of these methods is what is commonly known as a “Shark Attack,” a technique where drill sergeants start yelling at recruits the minute they step off the bus at their training center.
Methods like these created a popular culture narrative that we would run around with no real goal or objective and just scream at recruits to test their ability to handle stress and weed out undesirables. But this narrative was only partly true and definitely changed with the all-volunteer Army. Today, drill sergeants are more akin to teachers, coaches, and mentors—all three combined—to these all-volunteer, aspiring professionals.
The trainees are proud to be serving and their parents, many of whom had to give their permission for their son or daughter to serve, are entrusting Army leaders to treat their loved one with dignity and respect rather than degrade them. I understand and deeply respect that the bus full of new recruits showing up at our door is a melting pot of sons and daughters of this nation answering the call to service.
It’s my job to communicate to my drill sergeant peers of the return-on-investment when drill sergeants invest more time and effort into their Soldiers. They do this by establishing clear tasks, conditions, and standards; facilitating questions; demonstrating what right looks like; and explaining why their actions are important. Additionally, various military occupational specialties (MOS) one-station unit training units have established a more structured Day Zero that involves unit history, MOS capabilities, team building and, finally, an event that shows recruits what they can aspire to be should they graduate successfully. In the first phase of training, the objectives are—and always will—be to instill discipline, establish standards, and inculcate an understanding of and adherence to our Army values and the culture that flows from them.
: What are some of the specific readiness challenges you see with new Soldiers, and how is initial military training working to address these challenges?
SFC Rostamo: Readiness is a big challenge for trainees. Many trainees who arrive at training are used to a sedentary lifestyle. The Army, after years of research, has implemented Holistic Health and Fitness (HF2), which includes the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT). These efforts are integral for the Army to change the culture of fitness.
In the past, it was relatively easy for a drill sergeant to gain new recruits and train them in nine weeks for push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run. The new ACFT is different in that it works to prepare Soldiers for the actual demands of combat by balancing and developing muscular strength, speed, agility, coordination, reaction time and aerobic capacity. These physical aspects are further complemented with a non-physical aspects, such as rest, recovery and mental and spiritual wellness.
Drill sergeants have had to adapt physical readiness training to build this new culture of fitness (COVID-19 has only added extra difficulty to this challenge). Requiring drill sergeants to get innovative with their physical training plans for their trainees has broadened the opportunities for Soldier fitness. Fortunately there is ample guidance available. The Center for Initial Military Training (CIMT), Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) recently published the new version of our fitness field manual (FM), FM 7-22, Holistic Health and Fitness (Oct 20).
: As you mentioned, the Army has just released the newest version of FM 7-22. In your role as an adviser to other drill sergeants and IMT cadre, what guidance and insights do you believe should be stressed when it comes to H2F?
SFC Rostamo: First, actually read the manual. FM 7-22 Holistic Health and Fitness does what all Army FMs do: establish a standard and guidance on how to do the things we need to do to accomplish the mission.
I work very closely with the authors and designers of FM 7-22. Let me start by briefly explaining the difference between the old fitness regulation and H2F. The old FM was one-dimensional. Basically, it was a one-size-fits-all approach to physical fitness. It was almost exclusively focused on the physical. The new FM establishes a multi-domain, sports performance, total or holistic approach to fitness of both mind and body. The five-domain approach includes physical readiness, mental readiness, nutrition readiness, sleep readiness, and spiritual readiness.
This new FM enables unit leaders to approach total fitness with each individual Soldier in mind. While it can have collective aspects, it’s more tailored to the needs of each Soldier. Whenever I’m able, I pose this question to drill sergeants across the enterprise: Does PT need to be conducted as an organic company or platoon? The answer is no, it doesn’t.
Once a baseline has been established, i.e. the trainee’s initial ACFT, we can now break down the company into several different fitness demographics, such as specific ACFT event-deficiencies. For example, trainees who need to lose weight, those who struggle with running, and Soldiers who experience little athletic difficulty and want to improve their personal best. The list can go on.
H2F allows commanders and their performance teams to develop a more individualized program tailored to that group’s need. These individualized programs will also focus on the non-physical domains like nutrition and spiritual and mental wellness to care for the whole Soldier. Drill sergeants can now get into FM 7-22’s nutrition chapter and talk that piece with their trainees, providing them nutrition education and guiding their choices in the mess hall.
The spiritual domain can be difficult to fully understand and explain. I like to describe it as a Soldier’s “inner warrior” or internal “why” factor. Drill sergeants need to assist trainees with discovering their inner warrior and help guide them in finding their purpose or their why. When an individual has discovered this inner warrior, they’re unstoppable. If leaders and drill sergeants aren’t putting together “cookie cutter” PT plans for their companies/platoons, then they’re already on their way in implementing H2F into your organization.
: What advice would you give junior Soldiers about their personal responsibility to maintain their individual readiness, as well as working with their peers to advance team and unit readiness?
SFC Rostamo: First, understand that we’re in a profession of arms in which individual lethality matters. Increasing your level of holistic fitness, discipline and training and staying on top of your medical readiness contribute directly to your individual readiness and lethality. Individual readiness also boosts self-confidence.
When you’re in a constant state of high readiness, you feel inside like you’ve a purpose and that you’re valued. Both generally lead to higher happiness when a Soldier has that feeling of self-worth, and I think that’s really important in today's Army. What happens when an entire squad increases their individual lethality? Collective task proficiency skyrockets, creating a more motivated and cohesive team.
I’ll add to that point with something I used to say to my Soldiers when I was a squad leader, before I was a drill sergeant: If I lose just one of you, our cohesive team and training suffers. Not only do I lose you, I also lose the equipment you bring to the fight. This diminishes training value and combat power for the platoon leader and company commander.
To really put it into perspective, individual readiness goes hand-in-hand with the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Top 3 priorities as well. Every single Soldier is vitally important to mission success. We can’t afford to lose a Soldier for any reason. Beyond loss from physical injury, loss includes that of a Soldier’s trust due to experiencing sexual assault/harassment, suicide or racism/extremism.
I’ve had the privilege of caring for and training Soldiers, America’s sons and daughters. Their commitment to serve must be met with an equal commitment to watch over them and protect them from harm. I’m committed to keeping our Army culture strong by strengthening the culture of trust between myself and the Soldiers and families I serve.
SFC Rostamo oversees basic trainees learning individual movement techniques