North Carolina

Secretary of the Army makes rare visit to Fort Jackson. Here’s why

Fort Jackson: The nation’s largest basic training base

Fort Jackson, which trains nearly 50,000 recruits a year, is the nation's largest basic training base.
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Fort Jackson, which trains nearly 50,000 recruits a year, is the nation's largest basic training base.

Secretary of the Army Mark Esper made a rare visit to Columbia on Tuesday to view the nation’s largest basic training base as the Army plans to grow by 2,000 soldiers a year.

He said it “was a matter of physics” that as the Army expands, the jobs and missions at Fort Jackson would too.

“As we ramp up, it will drive (more soldiers into) our training bases like Fort Jackson,” he said.

Eper’s visit was a highlight in what is a big week for the military in Columbia.

The city is celebrating being named one of only five Great American Defense Communities in the nation.

Also 78 of Esper’s civilian aides to the Secretary of the Army, representing each state, are in town for their national conference. Civilian aides — who have the protocol equivalent of a three-star general — are business and civic leaders with a connection to the military who serve as Army liaisons to their communities.

They help with recruiting, build bonds with the Army National Guard and Reserve and help soldiers transition into civilian life.

“They have a good sense of what is happening in the community,” Esper said. “To get these insights helps me to see the Army better than I would otherwise.”

Esper flew in Tuesday morning and met with post commanders, watched basic training, visited with drill sergeants and others. The former Army Ranger even rappelled with soldiers down Victory Tower.

“They were a little nervous when I first went over, but once I scooted down the wall everything was fine,” he said.

In addition to Esper’s visit, Gov. Henry McMaster, his cabinet and other state dignitaries met the civilian aides at a reception at the Governor’s Mansion to demonstrate South Carolina’s support for the Palmetto State’s military bases and missions.

The civilian aides will be here through Thursday to learn more about Fort Jackson, the Midlands and South Carolina and to hold their annual conference.

Fort Jackson is the world’s largest basic training base, turning out about 40,000 new soldiers each year and providing advanced training to another 23,000 or so soldiers and sailors. That role will likely grow as the Army, which is expected to have 487,000 soldiers this year, works toward its goal of 500,000. But Army recruiters failed to meet their goals in 2019.

To stretch toward that goal the Army has increased the number of recruiters by 800, improved or moved recruiting offices, increased its social media presence and is making a strong push in the nation’s largest 22 cities.

At a meeting Tuesday morning, Esper asked the aides to meet with local officials and urge them to back up those efforts.

On Wednesday, about 160 people — including Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle, Fort Jackson commander, and Maj. Gen. Van McCarty, the state’s adjutant general — will gather to celebrate the Columbia region’s designation as a Great American Defense Community.

It shares that title this year with:

Bay County, Florida, home of Tyndall Air Force Base and Naval Support Activity Panama City;

Middle Georgia, which hosts Robins Air Force Base;

North Country, New York, home to Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division; and,

Clovis, N.M., which has Cannon Air Force Base, home of the 27th Special Operations Wing.

Columbia and its fellow communities will be honored at the Association of Defense Communities National Summit beginning June 10 in Washington, D.C. The meeting is an opportunity for local officials to rub elbows with a host of military and political leaders and argue the region’s case for more missions at Fort Jackson, Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter, and McEntire Joint National Guard Base near Eastover.

Jeff Wilkinson has worked for The State for both too long and not long enough. He’s covered politics, city government, history, business, the military, marijuana and the Iraq War. Jeff knows the weird, wonderful and untold secrets of South Carolina. Buy him a shot and he’ll tell you all about them.
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