Thousands of trainees head home for holidays on annual block leave
By DAN STOUTAMIRE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 21, 2017
Thousands of U.S. Army basic trainees will experience the shock this holiday season of shifting from their regimented lives in the crucible of training to the comfort and familiarity of home and family.
It’s time for the annual holiday block leave, when more than 41,000 trainees from across U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command installations will be spending the next two weeks with a welcome respite from a stressful training environment.
It’s something that trainees have been looking forward to for months.
“I’m going to be giving my whole family hugs, my mom, my dad, my brothers ... hugs all around,” said Spc. Danielle Burton, who recently graduated from basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., and will be heading in January to advanced individual training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. “I want to plan a girl day with my mom, and spend some time with my dog for sure.”
The block leave is the culmination of a massive commandwide effort to ensure that soldiers are able to spend the holidays with their loved ones. Planning at Fort Jackson began in August and had trickled down to the company level by early October.
“My commander and I, we spent countless hours — through the rehearsals, the planning process and the actual walkthroughs,” said First Sgt. Paul Volino of Company D, 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry Regiment. “In total we had 29 cadre (members) assigned to this mission, so you’re talking about a lot of hours going into this.”
The roughly 7,000 troops at the South Carolina base all headed home on Monday with staggered timelines, Volino said.
There are risks involved. With the Army ceding control of these soldiers — many of them young and away from their hometowns for the first time — accidents, including deaths, do happen, though there were no fatalities among its trainees on block leave last year, according to TRADOC.
There is also the risk that some soldiers might fail to report back, something the command seeks to mitigate by informing trainees of the consequences of going AWOL or committing violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“We give them safety briefings before they leave our company and at the airport,” said Staff Sgt. Amanda Moncada, a drill sergeant with the 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry Regiment. “We encourage them not to drink when they’re on leave, not to drive because they haven’t been behind the wheel for a long time. We encourage them – whatever environment they’ve left to come to basic training — don’t go back to that environment if that will get you in trouble.”
There’s also the chance that the relatively long time away from mandatory physical training and the temptations of holiday food and drink could set back their efforts to get fit.
“It’s going to be a bit of a shock coming back, especially for the trainees who just entered basic training,” Moncada said. “I give them a couple of days, about 48 hours, and then it sinks back in for them, ‘I’m here, this is what we have to do.’”
Trainees stand in line for processing at the Solomon Center at Fort Jackson, S.C., on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017, as they prepare for Victory Block Leave. Rougly 6,000 trainees from Fort Jackson will be traveling home for the holidays before coming back to their post to continue training.
ROBERT TIMMONS/U.S. ARMY