GREAT LAKES (NNS) -- Thick, acrid smoke chokes a compartment, diminishing recruits' visibility and confidence in equal measure.
Blinding lights pulse irregularly, blending with a relentless and unnerving soundtrack of a ship in distress. A sensory overload raises the tension and confusion brought on by a long night of physical exertion and mental stress.
Out of the darkness comes an assured and urgent voice, "His life is in your hands; you need to hurry up!"
The recruits at Recruit Training Command are participating in Battle Stations 21 training simulator aboard the USS Trayer (BST-21). Recruit divisions work through a 12-hour experience as a comprehensive test of the skills and teamwork learned during their eight weeks of basic training.
The commanding voice belongs to Aviation Structural Mechanic (Equipment) 1st Class Christopher Collins, a BST-21 facilitator who has been in his position for the past seven months of his more than 14-year Navy career.
Collins is one of approximately three dozen BST-21 facilitators who evaluate as many as 16 divisions a week. On any given night, as many as 352 recruits face the ultimate test of what they've learned over the course of their training. About 30,000 to 40,000 recruits participate in Battle Stations annually before graduating from RTC and beginning their Navy careers.
On this night, Collins is assessing a group of 10 recruits as they advance through 17 scenarios, some modeled after real-life events faced by Sailors aboard the USS Cole, USS Tripoli, USS Forestall and USS Stark.
Each scenario begins with a 5-10 minute briefing, in which recruits are given objectives and, if they're paying enough attention, will provide details and answers to help them achieve those objectives.
"Imagine you're taking a test, its 70 degrees, you have a nice glass of water, there's no ambient noise. You're probably going to do real well on that test you studied for," Collins said. "Now let's flip it. It's hot, you're in coveralls, and you have somebody in your face yelling, stressing you out a little bit more."
Collins explains that seeing how recruits respond and perform in stressful situations is a critical part of the assessment.
"Not everything in life is going to be perfect," Collins said. "That's what we want to show them, this event might happen. It might go 100 percent smooth, but now here's a curveball. Let's see what you can do under stress. We don't want someone in a training environment who locks up to go out to the fleet. That's where we see the true character."
That true character is put to the test aboard the USS Trayer, a 2/3-scale, 210-foot long mockup of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer enclosed within a 90,000-gallon pool in a 157,000-square-foot building on board RTC. The trainer uses Hollywood-style special effects to create challenging and realistic training scenarios. More than 5,000 pieces used aboard USS Trayer are donated from decommissioned ships.
Collins remembers his first night aboard USS Trayer.
"I wandered around like a chicken without a head. All the other facilitators are just calm and collected and I don't know what's happening next," he said. "Everything's on a timeline and you don't know that timeline at first. Now, it's very familiar. I know at 2100 I have to be here, and at 2156 I have to be here and at 2236 ..."
Before recruits graduate from boot camp, they spend a night aboard USS Trayer, loading stores, getting underway, handling mooring lines, standing watches, manning general quarter stations, stopping floods and combating shipboard fires. It is as close to being underway as a recruit can get before they receive their orders to their first ship.
"Battle Stations facilitators, as well as the Battle Stations events, play a significant role for recruits as they complete their training here," Chief Warrant Officer Trevor Davis, Battle Stations 21 division officer, said. "This is the time where all that they have learned comes together and they get to have a first-hand, immersive experience to show the relevance and importance of everything they've learned during boot camp."
Collins, 33, joined the Navy after high school and 'celebrated' his 19th birthday just three days before his boot camp graduation. He was assigned to RTC as a recruit division officer in January 2015, graduating four divisions before moving to his hold position at Battle Stations. He's gaining a different perspective as a facilitator, one that will benefit him when he returns to being an RDC next summer.
"Those that are on the streets and pushing, we don't know what's going on," Collins said. "And now that I've seen the inner workings of it, it kind of makes sense why it's so secretive and why it's a big ordeal."
Having completed boot camp in 2003, Collins said he had no experience aboard the USS Trayer from which to draw from.
"My recruits would ask, 'What are we getting into?' and I would say, 'I have no idea,'" Collins said. "Now that I see it, it's an eye-opening experience. I like it. It gives the normalcy of what day-to-day ship life would be. But then we throw in the curveballs and general quarters and everything like that."
The 'curveballs' are mostly thrown by Fidelity Technology engineers, who run and operate the trainer, co-ordinate scenarios, communicate with facilitators via PDAs, monitor recruit safety and oversee computer operations. It's been said that recruits are trying to save a ship that engineers are trying to sink. So where does that leave the role of facilitators?
"Going that route, I'd be the Wizard in 'The Wizard of Oz,'" Collins said. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I'm here to brief you and watch you. I'd be on the side that's helping to save the ship, but not actually get my hands dirty doing it."
Each night of Battle Stations brings its own challenges according to Collins.
"With 80 different personalities, you have to find 80 different motivators sometimes," he said. "The big picture is, they need this to become a Sailor, to complete the contract. They've done eight weeks of, what in their mind, is probably hell and this is the final stepping stone to get to that."
Throughout the night, Collins challenges, questions and pushes recruits to face tough - and sometimes very personal - moral choices. It fits in well with the Battle Stations mandate of giving recruits a taste of the life and death decisions Sailors in the fleet have faced.
So what attributes make a recruit successful at Battle Stations?
"Listening and comprehension," Collins said. "You can be a leader all you want, you can be an alpha type all you want, but if you're not willing to sit there and listen to what we have to say as facilitators, as far as what's going on with the briefs and what is expected of you as a recruit in that scenario, then you're probably going to do everything wrong because you think you know what's going on."
An ever-rising combination of stress and fatigue gradually raise the stakes throughout the night.
"That's where the teamwork comes into play," Collins said. "He might catch step 1, she might catch step 2, someone else might catch step 4, 5 and 6 but nobody caught step 3. But they can figure it out together via context if they come together as a team."
Setting the example of how the sum can be greater than the parts is the Battle Stations 21 staff. In addition to the facilitators, there are more than a dozen others who work behind the scenes as the Battle Stations Training Team, and four rotating night check chiefs. The facilitators report any issues to the BSTT members and the BSTT members, many of whom are also qualified facilitators, resolve the issues and brief the night check chief as needed.
Machinist's Mate 1st Class Steve Welch said it won't be long before Collins advances and joins him as a qualified night check chief.
"(Collins) is hard-working, determined and smart," Welch said. "I cannot stress that enough, He is a very smart individual and he's moving up the chain pretty quickly because he's very motivated and involved. He definitely brings up the house when he's here."
Collins said job satisfaction also comes from seeing recruits transform into Sailors.
"As RDCs, you push them, you push them, and you push them, and then they're off for graduation," he said. "You see them hug their families and march on the drill deck, and you know you taught them all of that. I got that gratification from that side of the job aspect, but knowing that RDCs are bringing them to me for their final test, and I'm giving them back as Sailors, that would be the gratification of this side of it."
As late night turns to early morning, recruits and staff alike look forward the capping ceremony, where recruits for the first time have earned the right to replace the ball cap that identifies them as a recruit with one that reads Navy. Collins has witnessed his share of capping ceremonies, but each one brings its own sense of fulfillment.
"You see the recruits with the smiles on their face and the tears in their eyes and they thank you," Collins said. "You can just hear it and feel that it's sincere. In knowing that, whether it's an eye-opening experience, an 'a-ha' moment or an 'OK, now I know what I'm getting myself into,' they're grateful for the experience that you've lead them through that night, to transition into Sailors. I'd say that's the best story I could give - watching them take the recruit ball cap off in the morning and putting the Navy ball cap on shortly after."
Boot camp is approximately eight weeks and all enlistees into the U.S. Navy begin their careers at the command. Training includes physical fitness, seamanship, firearms, firefighting and shipboard damage control along with lessons in Navy heritage and core values, teamwork and discipline. About 30,000 to 40,000 recruits graduate annually from RTC and begin their Navy careers.
For more news from Recruit Training Command, visit www.navy.mil/local/rtc/.
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