For many Columbia-area residents, Fort Jackson is the biggest local community that they’ve never seen.
Most public awareness of the fort in recent years has come in the form of concern about how the consolidation of military installations around the country would impact our area. That talk is active once again as the Department of Defense scales back following the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
It’s uncertain how Fort Jackson will fare in this latest round of defense cuts, though the fort has weathered similar issues numerous times in the past (see “Fort Jackson History” ). The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce has launched a petition drive to show public support for keeping the fort intact (see “What Could Base Cuts Mean?”).
As these issues play out, Free Times decided to take a look at what goes on behind the fences. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, once wide-open military posts now have restricted access. Therefore, much of the growth at Fort Jackson over the past decade-and-a-half has gone largely unseen by the civilian population.
Seen or not, though, Fort Jackson is not only a major economic force in the region, but also is a hub of enormous activity — some of it open to a generally unaware public.
Writer Salley McAden McInerney grew up in Columbia long before the 9/11 era and recently returned. Free Times sent her on a reconnaissance mission to scout what Fort Jackson is today and how Midlands residents can take advantage of its presence. — Charlie Nutt
Soldiers engaged in battle drills near Hilton Field on Fort Jackson.
One of the clearest memories I have of Fort Jackson as a kid growing up in the early ’60s among the scrub oaks and sandy soil of suburban Forest Acres is short, literally, and sort of sweet.
My neighborhood buddies Charlie and Bill, whose father served in the military, got buzz cuts once a month at the fort. They would come back home from these excursions with blond hair shorn so short that the tops of their heads felt like stiff bristle pads. And when the wind was blowing in the right direction, deep-throated booms of artillery rumbled through our neighborhood. If you lived any closer to the fort — say, near Lake Katherine — the cadenced thumps of soldier’s boots hitting the ground in early morning marches wasn’t uncommon.
On occasion, when I did go out to the fort — which seemed like a far-flung outpost — I recall seeing the simple white, wooden buildings that served as barracks. Dating back to World War II, the structures were hastily built to accommodate the urgency of housing many soldiers in training. They were eventually sold off to anyone who wanted to move and resettle one somewhere in the countryside. In their place today are brick, multi-storied barracks that look like apartment complexes.
A recent tour of the fort revealed not only the change in barracks, but also just how much the military installation has changed over the years. It might still carry the whiff of an elusive citadel to those who haven’t visited it, but once on base visitors can see that “the fort” — as Columbians like to call it — has become a bustling municipality within the greater Columbia community.
A city within a city, if you will.
Occupying 82 square miles of real estate, the fort has all the bells and whistles of civilian life: a hospital, hotels, churches, museums, elementary schools, car washes, grocery stores, a mini mall, golf courses, bowling alleys, a dog park, fitness centers, neighborhoods, a newspaper, fast food joints, ATM machines, movie theaters, a veterinary clinic, a miniature golf course, parks with picnic tables, swimming holes, camping grounds, a library, police and fire departments, an EMS station, an exclusive zip code (29207) — and yes, even a waterpark.
All of that activity has a big impact on the city of Columbia. The fort contributes $2.6 billion per year to the local economy, according to the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, Every year, 47,000 soldiers go through basic training at the fort and 200,000 visitors come through its gates.
And while much of that activity goes unnoticed in the broader community, it does not go unnoticed by city and state politicians and business leaders, who are keen to protect the status of an installation that carries more than half of the U.S. Army’s basic training load and houses such key institutions as the Armed Forces Army Chaplaincy Center and School, the Army’s Drill Sergeant School and the National Center for Credibility Assessment.
Soldiers at Fort Jackson enjoy a light moment during Family Day. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
Entering the Fort
The fort’s main gate — Gate 2 — anchors the eastern end of Forest Drive. It is a five-lane affair, replete with guards, red and green lights, and a feeling you’re entering a mammoth business and commercial complex. Relatively speaking, the old main Gate 1, at the end of Jackson Boulevard, is poised like a quiet gateway into a shady neighborhood.
On a recent Wednesday morning, I made my way toward Gate 2 and joined a throng of cars bearing license plates from throughout the country. (What a great place for bored-in-the-back-seat kids to play the license-plate game.) To enter, you must have a valid reason and show a government-issued photo ID along with vehicle registration and proof of insurance.
The congestion was the consequence of Family Day, which is the start of a two-day celebration, occurring every week, wherein thousands of people — family and friends — arrive at the fort to celebrate the graduation of “their” soldiers from a 10-week basic combat training course, otherwise known as boot camp.
Some graduations are larger than others, but the average number of newly minted soldiers being turned out on a weekly basis is 1,000. The graduation ceremony is an impressive event. It will raise your patriotic hairs as the troops, in their dress uniforms (white shirts with awards, blue trousers and black berets) perform a longstanding military tradition — pass in review —whereby they are reviewed for their battle readiness.
“There are 10,000 recruits on the base at any given time,” says Patrick Jones, garrison public affairs officer. “The majority of these recruits have never held a weapon. When recruits come in here, they can’t march in unison. Our mission is to train them. At graduation, there’s a lot of precision that goes on ... you’ve got an entire battalion in step.”
In short, you’ve got soldiers.
But save for a few days each year when the fort invites the public in to see them in training — a seven-hour tour called “Come See Your Army” — basic combat instruction is a private affair, so to speak.
“We want to be as community-friendly as we can,” Jones says, “but the Army is not a spectator sport.”
Families are relieved to see their soldiers for the first time after Basic Training.
More Open Than You Might Think
While there are lots of off-limit activities at the fort, there’s also plenty for the public to participate in.
Graduation is one. Then there’s a 16.2-mile portion of the statewide Palmetto Trail for hiking and mountain biking that rolls through the fort. One trailhead can be reached by going through Gate 1, following a traffic circle to Ewell Road and staying right until you see a parking area on your right.
I talk to a local mountain biker about the trail. She says it’s fun, but hardly a “bike” in the park.
“It’s best to ride the trail after a rainfall, which helps pack down the sandy soil on the trail,” she says. “Otherwise, your wheels are going to be digging down deep.”
Another thing to keep in mind is not straying from the prescribed path. The fort has a list of trail rules and No. 2 is enough to keep you on the straight and narrow.
“Don’t wander into impact areas or ranges,” read the guidelines. “You may encounter unexploded munitions.”
Yes, you are on a military base.
The mountain biker says the fort’s many miles of roads are popular among road bikers.
“But,” she adds, “you need to make sure you stop at the stop signs or you’ll get a ticket.”
Speaking of tickets: When you’re on base, you’ll need to follow its rules on cell phones and driving — which are stricter than they are off-base. Not only is it illegal to text and drive on the base, it’s illegal to talk and drive, too. You could also get ticketed for walking along the side of the road with earphones plugged in.
One more rule: It’s frowned upon to mess with the geese that inhabit the fort’s environs. On the day I visited, a gaggle of them were hanging out just behind the Ernie Pyle Media Center and another beaked brigade halted traffic as its members meandered across a busy thoroughfare.
So, make sure you don’t give the geese any trouble, but do make sure you visit the fort’s museums. There are four of them: the U.S. Army Basic Combat Training Museum; the Finance Corps Museum; the Adjutant General Museum; and the Chaplain Museum, which I had a chance to see.
It’s a well-presented and touching place offering up the history and evolution of the military chaplaincy.
“Every army, since the beginning of time, has had some kind of priest praying before they go into battle,” museum technician Tim Taylor tells me.
At the museum, you’ll see a display of the only chaplain flag still left from World War I. You’ll see an altar set made and used by soldiers on the island of New Guinea in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The soldiers created the altar from found objects: several small 40 mm shells serve as candleholders, two sizable 90 mm shells serves as legs for the altar, and a drape behind the altar is made from parachute cloth. Another altar set is constructed from ammunition crates.
And don’t miss the 75-pound field organ, which “folds up like a suitcase,” Taylor says. It was the musical workhorse of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Local history also abounds at the fort. A 2007 article written by the Army News Service tells the story of Hood Street Elementary School, which was built at the fort in 1963.
The school “was considered one of the first permanent structures at Fort Jackson, and it was also the first public school in Columbia to integrate students during the civil rights movement,” according to the article. Historian Andrew H. Myers writes that the fort was integrated by its commander in 1950, two years before President Truman’s order on military integration.
Hood Street now serves as a child development center. There are two elementary schools on base; older students head to town for their middle and high school educations.
Soldiers get to smile and relax for a few hours on Family Day.
On Chaplains, Drill Sergeants and Golf
Other schools also operate at the fort.
The Armed Forces Chaplaincy Center is the country’s base operation for training chaplains and chaplains’ assistants for all branches of the military.
“The chaplains are already ordained when they get here,” Jones says. “They are here to learn the ways of the military. I mean, how many civilian priests are faced with a soldier who’s facing getting shot at? Part of the curriculum is notifying next of kin. A chaplain and another officer will do that.”
The fort is also home to the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant School, where, at any given time, 500 soldiers are in training as drill sergeant candidates.
Naive as a Gomer Pyle private, I ask a real-life sergeant if you simply sign up for this school.
“No,” comes her stern response. “It’s by invitation.”
What’s also by invitation only — as in, you have to be the guest of someone who’s in the military — is play on the fort’s two 18-hole golf courses, Wild Cat and Old Hickory.
Fort Jackson Golf Club is, according to golf pro Michael Casto, “almost like a country club. We are known as one of the Army’s best golf facilities.”
Casto says that between the two courses, the golf club logged 67,000 “starts” in 2013. That means 67,000 people teed off for either a nine-hole or 18-hole round.
Discerning golfers who’ve got a buddy in the military will want to know: Which course? Old Hickory or Wild Cat?
Well, you can read between the lines in the descriptions of the two courses found in a Fort Jackson guide.
“The Wildcat Course has generous fairways through rolling terrain. The Old Hickory Course is routed around several lakes and wetland areas.”
My duffer money’s on Wildcat, where “generous fairways” mean there’s some room for pulls and shanks, as opposed to Old Hickory, where those “lakes and wetland areas” are bound to be ball magnets.
“It’s a different atmosphere out here,” Casto says. “We don’t have any houses on the course.”
Which leads to the subject of base housing. In military lingo, soldiers’ homes are called “quarters.” There are five neighborhoods on the base and accoutrements of family life proliferate: barbecue grills, tomato planters, swing sets, small plastic pools, kids’ bikes and sand boxes.
The neighborhoods are “arranged according to rank,” Jones says.
Mabry Manor, where some backyards belly up to the shoreline of Semmes Lake, is where the top brass live.
“The generals get to overlook the water,” Jones quips.
A Popular Base Destination — Palmetto Falls Water Park
Speaking of water, one part of the base many civilians are familiar with is Palmetto Falls Water Park. The waterpark includes a 10,000-square-foot pool, five water slides, a “river” stretching 800 linear feet, a spray park and a snack bar.
“It’s a DFMWR facility,” Jones says.
“A morale, welfare and recreation facility,” Jones explains.
DFMWR stands for Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Programs. Army acronyms can be wearing for the uninitiated.
“Tax dollars are not spent on it,” Jones continues. “It must be self-supporting.”
That means the public pays a fee to come in and play at the waterpark.
All those civilians coming through begs the question: What about security on the base?
Post-9/11 Security and ‘Acceptable Risk’
As far as that’s concerned, Jones says, “There are those folks who don’t like [public access] at all, but a lot of our facilities were built pre-9/11. If we want to keep these facilities here and open, we have to let people in to use them. It all comes down to acceptable risk.”
Post 9/11, the threat of terrorism is a part of life on any military base. To that end, there’s a sign just to the left of the main gates that can give a person pause.
In large letters, it says: CURRENT FORCE PROTECTION CONDITION. The day I visited, the condition was ALPHA — on the low end of the spectrum compared to DELTA, when, according to Jones, “they lock down the fort and nobody’s coming in and nobody’s going out.”
But on this day, the fort seemed like any community going about its business.
My last piece of business was to visit Tank Hill, where a huge water tank sits atop the highest point on the base — and where the skyline of Columbia shimmers in the distance.
On a clear-sky day, the short view from Tank Hill shows a military base where more than half the Army’s soldiers are trained for combat. But look a little longer and a little harder and you will see another view.
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