Most Americans can look forward to taking a little time off around Christmas, and that includes tens of thousands of future soldiers in the midst of basic training.
Fort Jackson, South Carolina, the Army’s biggest basic training post, had several thousand of its own to ship off for Victory Block Leave a week before the holiday, set to return on Jan. 3.
To do that, drill sergeants and other leadership helped organize the recruits and send them home through the airport and train station near the post in Columbia, South Carolina, as well as bus them off to the airports in Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina.
One soldier, who made her way from Charlotte to her Redding, California, hometown on Monday, told Army Times she was delighted to find out that though she’d be in a winter training cycle, she wouldn’t have to spend Christmas in training.
“I was actually shocked and very surprised, and grateful that we get to go home for the Christmas break,” said Pvt. Emily Haddleton, 24. “It does make sense, though, because I don’t think the drill sergeants want to be here, training us on Christmas day, either.”
The process started weeks ago, one drill sergeant told Army Times, with trips to the ticketing office on post. Before sending them off, drill sergeants sat down with recruits for some holiday safety briefs.
“They have to make sure they maintain good physical fitness,” Staff Sgt. Domenic Buscemi said. “And we try to prevent, or try to talk them out, of using illicit substances.”
Recruits are officially not allowed to drink, Haddleton said, “but unfortunately, drill sergeants know they can’t stop everyone.”
Safety briefs mostly focus on safe driving, she said.
“Because if you get home or you get a ticket or traffic violation, or you get caught drunk driving, it can ruin your military career,” she said. “So, go home and have fun over the holidays, but make sure that you’re safe.”
At the Charlotte airport, about 7,000 recruits were greeted by USO of North Carolina volunteers who worked through the night, communications director Margaret Clevenger told Army Times.
Volunteers led soldiers through the check-in process and then provided food, coffee and snacks at the lounge.
“There’s even Monster out there,” Clevenger said.
There was also entertainment on hand for soldiers with a long wait until boarding, on top of Xbox and TVs.
“We actually had some of the Top Cat cheerleaders,” Clevenger said. “They’re the cheerleaders for the Carolina Panthers. Sir Purr, the Panthers’ mascot, was there.”
Recruits will have a couple of days to reintegrate when they return in early January, before finishing out their training. Haddleton’s company will be two weeks away from graduation, she said, while others are only a couple of weeks in.
“They did warn us that right when we get back, we’ll be taking a urinalysis,” Haddleton added.
Drill sergeants will be prepared to re-soldierize them, if necessary.
“They go away and they forget some of that stuff, and they forget that they are a soldier. But generally, they retain a lot of the stuff,” Buscemi said. “You see a pretty good success rate of them going and then coming back recharged.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.