I spent more than half of Thursday on a tour, sponsored by the Greater Columbia Chamber, of Fort Jackson. It was kind of weird that I’d never done this. I’ve been to Fort Jackson more times than I can count, but had never seen much more than the golf course and the other more public facilities. Even though I’ve always known what Fort Jackson is for, as the Army’s largest basic training base — I had never actually witnessed any of the training. About the closest I had ever com was hearing automatic weapons fired in the distance while I was playing golf.
On Thursday, I saw a lot, and it was impressive. The basic outline of our tour:
- We heard remarks from Maj. Gen. James Milano. He gave us the overview about what they do at the place where 50 percent of all U.S. soldiers, and 60 percent of the females, receive initial training. Just one interesting factoid: Only one in four recruits measures up. “That’s a national crisis,” said the general. The biggest disqualifying factor? Obesity, and just generally being out of shape. Young people today just aren’t as physically active as earlier generations, and too many have grown up on junk food. A lot of what they do at the Fort is help soldiers who do get in make it in this regard, from sophisticated physical training and injury treatment to making sure they eat right for a change. The nutritious food is “a shock” to many, but “It they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat it.”
- Graduation. We had been told it would be an inspiring ceremony, and it was. I was sufficiently struck with awe that I suppressed my natural inclination to say, “Where is Sgt. Hulka’s platoon?” My favorite part was when PFC Joshua Hinton was honored for being the best marksman in his training company. He’s from Jackson, TN, which is one of my hometowns (my wife and three of my kids were born there; I worked at the paper there for 10 years).
- We visited a recently remodeled barracks.
- We climbed the Victory Tower, which is recruits’ first big test of courage and confidence. That is to say, we climbed it by the stairs. Two of our number signed the necessary waivers and tried their hands (successfully, fortunately) at rappelling. I did not. I was afraid. Of my wife. If I had even slightly injured myself right after spending 400 bucks on a shot of cortisone next to my spine, she would never, ever have let me forget it.
- Chow time! At the mess hall, I had a revelation: I always assumed that even if they had let in guys with asthma when I was young, I would have starved to death because of my food allergies. But thanks to the new, healthy menu, I had a great meal — baked salmon, rice, pinto beans, Brussels sprouts and jello. (By the way, the irony is that my allergies cause me to eat healthier than most people, and I was reasonably athletic when I was draft age, so I would probably have been in better shape than most guys who enter the Army.) We entered the mess hall early, but hundreds of soldiers came in after us — all with their rifles.
- We visited an area where soldiers are taught about teamwork (as opposed to the Victory Tower, which was more about individual achievement via such means as the “quicksand” exercise — they had to work together to cross a wide expanse without touching the ground, using only two or three wooden planks. We watched a couple of groups doing it — each group worked it out slightly differently. I kept thinking about the Twins’ favorite TV show, Wonder Pets, with its song, “What’s gonna work — TEAMwork!”
- Then, we saw a particularly intense exercise in which armed recruits came upon three soldiers — two real, one of them a sophisticated mannequin that could move and bleed copiously — whose humvee had just been blown up by an IED. They had to secure the area and stabilize the wounded to prepare them for evacuation, with the particular challenge being to apply tourniquets successfully to the mannequin, which had just lost both legs.
A full day, even though we were done by 2 p.m.
Below are a few of the pictures I took. Here’s a key to understanding what you’re looking at, left to right, top to bottom:
- I’m sorry I missed when these soldiers’ names were announced at the start of the graduation program, but I liked the picture anyway. They were receiving a huge ovation from the crowd in the reviewing stands, right after we heard about their service in combat zones.
- The five companies graduating pass before the reviewing stand. There was no Sgt. Hulka’s platoon, but they all seemed to be go-getters.
- You don’t see many pay phones these days, but there were six outside the barracks we visited. Recruits are not allowed to keep cell phones.
- While phoning home, the troops can continue their training by studying the chain of command, located above the phones. They are expected to know the chain of command, but they tend to have trouble with the middle parts of the chain. Few have trouble with the top or the bottom: They know who President Obama is, and they will never forget their drill instructor for the rest of their lives. I was struck by how the most faded photo was that of Sec. Gates. But then I realized, he’s had his job longer than any of the others.
- The barracks. I think they told us this room was for female soldiers, but that doesn’t sound right. I looked at some of those boots atop the lockers, and they were way too big for any of the women in our tour group, near as I could tell. In the shower area (not pictured), the colonel guiding us noted that there’s not much privacy. Well… there was more privacy than in the shower room in the Honeycombs when I was at USC.
- Soldiers at the Victory Tower had to stack arms before climbing.
- You’re looking at soldiers atop the tower, about to rappel down a sheer 60-foot wall. I liked listening to the female instructor with the dark hair and wearing the cap, sitting right at the edge and speaking to the bareheaded soldier holding his hands up. With each recruit, she said, “Are you scared?” If they said “no,” she would say, “Well, I would be.” And then she gave them a calming spiel about how to make it through this challenge. And then they went over.
- Capt. LeMay was our guide at the Victory Tower and elsewhere on our tour. I finally had to ask him. Turns out that yes, he’s the great-grandnephew of Gen. Curtis LeMay. Small world. He gets asked that a lot.
- After you climb the “ladder” at right (partly seen), you rappel down the wall. I managed to suppress the temptation to take part.
- Our bus was held up briefly as we waited for this armed column to pass out of our way, en route to the mess hall.
- At the team training area, we walked past a company-sized group eating MREs among the trees. When next I looked that way, they were all in the prone firing position with their rifles pointing outward from their large defensive circle. I suggested that we go back another way, in case we had offended them somehow.
- Gear piled up outside the building where the troops engaged in the exercises dealing with the aftermath of IED explosions.
- Soldiers secure the area around a crippled humvee, while some of them try to help the wounded. The “blood” is made of corn syrup and food coloring, I believe. But it was pretty realistic, though. After they had dragged the wounded out of there and tracked it all over, it was hard to get out of the room without walking through it.
- A soldier comes bursting out of the building ahead of his comrades trying to evacuate the “wounded.” I had noticed that soldiers had their names written on tape on the butts of their rifles. I didn’t notice until I was editing these photos that this guys’ said “The Situation.”
- The squad awaits evac outside the building.
I’ve got video of that exercise, by the way, complete with the sound of canned gunfire to add to the soldiers’ stress level. I’ll try to post it later. We were in the room, right on top of them. Capt. Collins, who was guiding this part of the tour, told us that the Army had learned some things about staging such exercises from Hollywood. He had been through a similar exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin. It turned out to be a little too intense for some of the combat veterans who went through it. They had to take a break afterwards. It had been too much like what they had actually experienced in combat.
By the way, before that exercise, a sergeant demonstrated for us how to apply the high-tech tourniquets that all soldiers carry. He told us that we probably would have had as many killed in Iraq and Afghanistan the past decade as we lost in Vietnam, if not for what has been learned about treating wounds since then. If we had known then what we know today, Staff Sgt. Cheadle said, that memorial wall in Washington would be a lot smaller.