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Fort Jackson commander looks to bolster trust, community bond following bus hijacking

By CHRIS TRAINOR | The State | Published: May 7, 2021

COLUMBIA, S.C. (Tribune News Service) — Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle Jr. knows the meaning of trust.

The commanding general of Columbia's Fort Jackson U.S. Army installation has spent more than 30 years working to build trust with fellow soldiers up and down the ranks.

It's a bond he works to extend beyond the gates of the fort and into the community that surrounds it. Following a shocking incident involving a trainee from Fort Jackson on Thursday, he's endeavoring to make sure those community ties stay strong.

On Thursday, a 23-year-old Army trainee from New Jersey, Jovan Collazo, ran away from his unit on the army installation in the morning, armed with an unloaded M-4 rifle, and began trying to get rides from cars on Interstate 77, authorities said. He eventually made his way to Percival Road and boarded a school bus bound for Forest Lake Elementary, according to the Richland County Sheriff's Department. Collazo ordered the driver, at gunpoint, to drive. Several minutes later, the trainee let the 18 elementary school students and the driver off the bus and drove away.

He eventually abandoned the bus and was later arrested by law enforcement. The Richland County Sheriff's Department has charged Collazo with 19 counts of kidnapping and a host of other offenses. Beagle said Thursday he believed the trainee did not intend to hurt anyone, he just wanted to go back home.

In a one-on-one interview with The State on Friday at Fort Jackson, Beagle said that in the early moments Thursday when he learned that a trainee had left base with an unloaded weapon, he was immediately concerned for the safety of the community and the trainee.

"My initial inclination, once I learned that he had a weapon, was the safety of where he was at, knowing he was going to be in the community," Beagle said in the interview, which had been scheduled before Thursday's bus hijacking. "That was the first thought, 'Do no harm when you are there.' And also, 'Do no harm to him,' knowing that the weapon that had no ammunition in it. I'm talking to Sheriff (Leon) Lott, and I made it very clear to him, 'He has no ammunition.' That's going to be hard for anyone to believe, because he has a real weapon.

"So, the safety is both ways. You are always concerned about both sides of it."

Beagle has been reaching out to a number of community members since Thursday's incident, including the school bus driver. The Fort Jackson commanding general had a phone conversation with the driver on Friday morning.

"You want to speak to as many people as you can speak to," Beagle said. "It's like I told the driver, I probably can't get through all 18 kids or their parents, but if I could, I would, without a doubt. ... I'm the face of the post, so as for a connection with Fort Jackson, I'm the person to make that connection to express sympathy and empathy and letting them know and reassuring them, whether they live close to the gates or not, that this (incident) is not your Army, your Army is much better than this."

The bus hijacking is the second off-base incident involving someone from Fort Jackson to make headlines in recent weeks. In April, a white Army sergeant was charged with assault after shoving a Black man during a heated exchange on the sidewalk in the Summit neighborhood. That incident was captured on video and went viral.

Beagle said one of the first objectives when an off-base, high-profile event happens is to quickly reassure the community that the Army will work to make sure it doesn't happen again. He said it's critical to make sure the bond between the base and the Columbia area is not broken.

"Really, my start point is trust, and that's what gets me to react in a time frame," Beagle said. "You only have a small window, if a little bit of trust is broken, to seal that gap back up. You never want to lose it. I don't want the installation to ever be in that position."

Fort Jackson is the nation's largest military basic training base with more than 50,000 recruits assigned there each year, and a key driver in Columbia's economy.

Beagle, a South Carolina native and a graduate of S.C. State University, has served as Fort Jackson commander since 2018. In February, the Department of Defense announced he will become the commanding general of the 10th Mountain Division (Light) at Fort Drum in New York, according to the Pentagon.

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