The Magazine of South Carolina

Fort Jackson

They Enter as Civilians. They Leave as Soldiers.


In the field

Over the hump

Off the tower

by Daniel E. Harmon

Pvt. Sarah Kielty, a Californian with an Irish face full of ambition and vigor, is just down from the 56-foot "Victory Tower," sweating but exuberant. "Rappelling," she beams, "is the most awesome part of training!"

The tower comes 10 days into basic combat training, and by that time the recruits at Fort Jackson are eager for it. "It’s their first chance to really prove themselves," explains assistant public affairs officer Karen Soule. "They’ve been in classrooms for a week. You can imagine."

Kielty is one of 35,000 trainees a year to "discover" Fort Jackson, the 52,301-acre military complex in Columbia. The fort has been a vital Army base for more than 80 years. Heavy- and light-wheeled mechanics learn their trades here. Army chaplains’ assistants and administrators are assigned here for classes, as are other types of specialists. Jackson is best known, though, as the Army’s largest basic training facility. Fully half of America’s soldiers in basic training—60 percent of the nation’s female recruits—are brought to Columbia to learn the Army’s way of doing things.

It seems deceptively easy, at first. They arrive by bus, usually late at night. The next morning they can sleep til 10. Day three is . . . wow, pay day!

But those are two of the few perks they’ll receive for the next nine weeks. The second morning they’re rousted at 4:30, their new standard wake-up time. After a few days of preliminary processing—orientation, medical checks, uniform fitting, learning the basics of military protocol, an injection of esprit de corps and the importance of teamwork, and (of course!) those quarter-inch haircuts—they begin a regimented blend of classroom instruction, marching and rigorous physical exercise. Soon enough, they’re sent into the field for weapons and combat training.

Soldiers in training at the fort today live in modern "starship" barracks, so-called because of their shape. Each barracks complex houses 1,200 trainees and provides dining and classroom facilities. "They do everything right there, except when they’re out in the field," Soule says.

The food, provided by an outside service contractor, is excellent. Moving through the chow line, the soldiers have a choice of meats and are given as much as they want. They eat plenty—and it does not go to fat. By the end of basic training, most of the young soldiers are in the best physical shape of their lives.

Regular marching to and from training and program sites is the most demanding part of basic training to Pvt. Manise Iraini of Hawaii. Pvt. Joseph Brooks of Alabama says what he dislikes most is "getting smoked"—doing extra pushups.

But the worst part of basic training is neither of those to Pvt. Matthew Dicks of Iowa. It’s "being away from your family."

There’s plenty to keep their minds off the home folks, though. Out of 17 waking hours each day, only an hour and a half is earmarked for personal time. Once past the early training stages, much of the day is spent at the fort’s 20 different rifle marksmanship ranges. Before graduating from basic, each soldier must qualify by hitting at least 23 of 40 random, pop-up targets with an M-16 rifle. "This is the meat and potatoes of basic training," Soule notes. "If you’re going to be a soldier, you have to know how to fire a weapon."

Throughout these rigorous weeks, the Army’s seven "core values" constantly are hammered into the soldiers’ subconsciousness: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Each man and woman memorizes the traits shortly after arriving and encounters reminders at every turn.

"We want them to understand that being a soldier is a profession, and you have to live by these values," explains Col. Larry Keeton, Fort Jackson’s chief of staff. "It’s interesting: South Carolinians are talking about character education these days, and that’s what this is all about. And surprisingly enough, these young men and women want that."

The Sixth National Cantonment, as it was known at the time, was established here in June 1917. Mission: to train combat soldiers for World War I. It was only 1,200 acres, originally. Interestingly, the land was donated to the government by private citizens, setting the tone for an unprecedented spirit of cooperation between the fort and surrounding community that continues today.

"Fort Jackson and Columbia do very well together," Keeton says. "Talk about a marriage between a city and the military community—I’ve been in other places where they were at loggerheads. Not here. Columbia is very supportive, and the fort generates a lot of dollars for the community."

It took about two months at the outset for the Army to convert its parcel of barren, scrub oak sand land into a permanent, bustling military base. The training center soon was named Camp Jackson after South Carolina native Andrew Jackson—who, the Army reminds, was a major general and War of 1812 hero before he was elected president.

More than 45,000 soldiers trained at Camp Jackson and were shipped to France in 1917–18. Between the world wars, the camp remained commissioned but lay virtually dormant, used mainly for sporadic National Guard maneuvers. That status changed radically with Hitler’s alarming invasions in Europe during 1939. Firing ranges were built and more than a hundred miles of roads paved inside the fort. More than half a million American soldiers who served during World War II received at least part of their training in Columbia.

In the ensuing half century, the facilities have been expanded and enhanced. Training focus has shifted from platoon-level instruction to skills development. And gone forever are the days of the mean, spiteful drill sergeant. "The drill sergeant is still the drill sergeant," Keeton says, "but it isn’t the Jack Webb stereotype anymore."

"They’re more like coaches now," Soule adds. "They will yell, though."

Within the U.S. military, Fort Jackson commands respect high and wide. Keeton and the rest of the command are pleased with their record for turning out progressively better soldiers despite nationwide military funding cutbacks. Resources are a constant concern, however. "The problem," Keeton explains, "is that we’re not just posted in Germany and Korea, standing guard. We’re now being used more and more all over the world."

A key to the post staff’s ability to do their job—train soldiers—is the increase in civilian workers to perform tasks soldiers once handled. Civilian employees at the fort today provide a wide range of services, from public safety to fiscal management to weapons and equipment maintenance to transportation to child care.

Civilians on base also have initiated projects that benefit the community directly. Richard Lucas, for example, has won national awards for his advanced recycling program. "We recycle more things than any other recycling center in the state," Lucas says proud-ly. The fort’s recycling center is the only one in South Carolina that accepts glass, for example. Lucas and his staff offer environmental education courses for children and the public.

"The military personnel come and go," Keeton muses. "The civilians make Fort Jackson operate. They’re the people who keep the infrastructure going so we can train quality soldiers."

Soldiers emerging from Fort Jackson these years are not only fit and capable; they’re dedicated young professionals. Perhaps never before have enlistees shown such enthusiasm for the challenges of basic training or pride in their accomplishments in the field.

The best part of every training cycle, to Keeton, is graduation day. Families arrive in town from all over the country. "You really see a mix. It’s America at its best. From the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor, they all have one thing in common. They’re all beaming because their son or daughter is graduating from basic training. It reminds me why I joined."


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