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Despite the pandemic, Army training marches on at Fort Jackson

Sgt. 1st Class Michael Gulley, a drill sergeant with 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment, explains to a trainee what changes need to be made in order to zero her weapon Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, during group zero training at Fort Jackson.

ROBERT TIMMONS/U.S. ARMY

By LUCAS DAPRILE | The State | Published: September 10, 2020

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (Tribune News Service) — In the last 72 hours, Fort Jackson recruits had marched 10 miles into the woods, slept outside in muddy holes, ate only prepackaged military food, crawled under live machine gun fire and were tested on nearly everything they learned since arriving for Army basic training.

Early Thursday morning, about 800 stood in Hilton Field preparing to be officially named soldiers. They were dirty, tired and probably covered in mosquito bites — and of course, socially distanced and clad in COVID-19 masks.

The Soldiers Ceremony comes at the end of official training, and it’s when trainees officially become soldiers, signified by them receiving an army patch and a black beret.

“Some will get very emotional and some will start crying because two weeks ago, they may not have been sure they could do it,” said Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle, the commanding general at Fort Jackson.

But even amid a ceremony where everyone wears the same uniform, serves the same military, endures the same training, coronavirus left an unmistakable mark on the weeks-long process of becoming a soldier.

“What they’re doing today is a lot harder than what I did 16 years ago,” said Tori Evans, who graduated from basic training at Fort Jackson on the same date in 2004 and now volunteers as a photographer documenting soldiers’ basic training.

Though Evans isn’t getting shouted at by drill sergeants or running through obstacle courses, she’s still running to keep up with trainees to get photos of them. While she and the trainees are doing physical training, the mask makes one out of breath faster.

Though it’s different from when she graduated, she’s still nostalgic.

“It still brings me to tears because I remember what I went through,” Evans said.

The raw emotion of the Soldiers Ceremony hides behind camouflage masks; the basic training graduation ceremony — which happens a week after the Soldiers Ceremony — is bereft of parents and live-streamed instead because of coronavirus.

On Thursday, the under secretary of the Army, James E. McPherson, spoke at the basic training graduation for soldiers who completed Soldiers Ceremony a week before.

“You had a chance to see the pride in their eyes — you couldn’t see it in their mouths because they were covered — but you saw the pride in their eyes. If their families were here you’d see the pride in their families’ eyes as well,” McPherson said.

“This is for many of them, this is the most significant accomplishment of their lives so far,” said McPherson, who noted the virus has affected the lives of many graduates this year. “For many of these kids ... they didn’t get a high school graduation ceremony because many of them graduated last June.”

©2020 The State (Columbia, S.C.)
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