Families attend Airborne School graduation at Fort Benning for first time since the pandemic began
FORT BENNING, Ga. — Tim and Jolie Tallant knew they would not be able to speak face-to-face with their son Friday, but that did not stop them from making the hourslong drive to watch him graduate from the Army’s Basic Airborne Course.
They cheered from the stands as an instructor pinned airborne wings on Army Pvt. Jacob Tallant. It was the first moment of the 20-year-old’s Army career that his parents were allowed to witness in person, since he shipped to Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, S.C., in October amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Fort Benning’s Basic Airborne Course on Friday held its first public graduation ceremony since public activities were shut down military-wide last March as the pandemic spread around the globe.
“You could tell all along the Army was trying really hard to make it as good an experience as it can for the parents under the circumstances,” Tim Tallant of Monroe, Ga., said after the graduation ceremony. He and Jolie had to watch Jacob graduate from basic and Advanced Individual Training via livestream on Facebook. “But this, today — you can see it in every one of [the soldiers’] faces, that they get to see their people [and] how important that is to them. I know I could see it in his.”
It was also an important milestone for the Airborne Course cadre, said Army Lt. Col. Isaac Henderson, the commander of 1st Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which is in charge of the Airborne Course. Since Henderson took command just eight months ago, airborne graduations have been informal events, with graduates receiving their wings with little fanfare.
Now, as more Americans have been vaccinated and coronavirus infection rates fall nationally and locally in the area around Fort Benning, officials this month made the call to open graduation ceremonies to soldiers’ loved ones. Last week, Fort Benning held its first public Basic Combat Training graduation in more than a year, and other military installations in the Army and Marine Corps have opened some military ceremonies to the public in recent weeks. Military officials said other installations and services are considering opening up their graduation ceremonies in the coming months.
The Fort Benning ceremony on Friday was not a full return to normal. Civilian attendees had to show proof of coronavirus vaccination or a negative coronavirus test within the last three days before they were allowed into the stadium seating to view the ceremony.
Traditionally, family members pin airborne wings onto the graduate’s uniform, but the graduating class members had to remain in coronavirus-imposed restrictions until they leave Fort Benning, which meant those who attended could not directly interact with their loved ones, Henderson said.
Airborne Course attendees must arrive at Fort Benning two weeks before their scheduled three-week class to quarantine. They spend the entire class restricted to post and interact only with their classmates and cadre to limit their potential exposure to the deadly virus.
Henderson said he could not guess Friday how long it would be until all coronavirus-related restrictions were fully lifted. But Friday's ceremony marked a big step forward, he said.
“This has come a long way, and I'm really happy things are moving back toward some normalcy,” he said. “Right now, we're just going to have to wait and see what happens, and when we get the green light, we'll have parents and wives and children back out their pinning the wings on their soldiers, and that's going to be another really good day.”
For the Tallants, Friday marked a great day for their family, as they watched Jacob and 369 others graduate the Airborne Course.
“We’ll take anything we can get,” Tim Tallant said. “We’ve never been so proud as right now. [Jacob] was down a little bit that we couldn’t attend [graduation] after boot camp, but now with this one, he is extremely excited. So, it’s a huge moral boost for him and, I’d guess, for all these others here too.”
Jacob, a wheeled vehicle mechanic, will soon go to Fort Campbell, Ky., for his first duty assignment. Jolie Tallant said she had already noted it was about a five-hour drive from their home east of Atlanta.
“So, not to bad. I've already got it planned out,” she said. “We've got it, and as soon as they say we can come see him, we’ll be on the road again.”