Later this month, the Army will begin requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination from family members of Fort Jackson, South Carolina, basic combat training graduates who want to access the installation for family day and graduation ceremonies.
The requirement will come into force for the graduation of basic training soldiers from 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment, on Aug. 26, according to LA Sully, a Fort Jackson spokesperson. Children under the age of 16 are exempt from the vaccination requirement, but there are no religious or medical exceptions to the policy.
“I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear,” said Fort Jackson commanding general Brig. Gen. Patrick Michaelis in a Facebook video message posted Wednesday discussing the restrictions. “However, the health and protection of our soldiers is critical to our Army’s mission.”
Graduations scheduled prior to Aug. 26 will proceed as planned, Sully told Army Times — open to family members with universal mask-wearing regardless of vaccination status. Social distancing will also be enforced for unvaccinated people, even at the outdoor graduation venue.
The change in graduation attendance policy comes in the wake of the surging Delta variant of COVID-19, according to Michaelis.
“Over the last week, we’ve learned a lot more about the transmissibility of the Delta variant,” Michaelis said. “It drives me as the senior commander here on Fort Jackson to put in place more stringent protocols.”
In addition to the change to graduation policy, Michaelis issued additional mitigation orders for the installation, including universal indoor masking, a 50-mile leave and pass radius for unvaccinated troops except when authorized by him, and mandatory government transportation for BCT graduates moving forward to their next round of training.
The commander of the affected training unit, Lt. Col. Mike O’Donnell, first informed families of the vaccination restriction on Monday, more than two weeks before the graduation ceremony.
In a Facebook post, O’Donnell acknowledged the situation was “not ideal, and not what we have been publishing for the past eight weeks.” The post also offered information on the “one option” for guests who wished to become fully vaccinated in order to attend the event — they had until Thursday to receive the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine, O’Donnell said.
Some commenters welcomed the news.
“Thank you for the timely information, wife and I were able to get the J&J shots today,” commented one Facebook user. “We both had COVID so had put off the vaccine, but we are good to go now.”
Several family members commented that they had been reluctant to get the vaccine, but that they were willing to do anything to make sure they were present for the graduation event.
Other commenters expressed frustration, saying they had made non-refundable travel plans and did not wish to receive the vaccine.
When asked about families who may have made travel arrangements, Sully said that Army Training Center officials always encourage family members to hold off on booking non-refundable travel until the week before graduation in case their trainee does not finish on time.
Both Sully and Michaelis emphasized that the situation is subject to change based on key COVID-19 indicators in the Columbia, South Carolina, metropolitan area, where Fort Jackson is located.
“Every day I look at the numbers and every day I look at the transmissibility rates,” Michaelis said. “As conditions change here on the ground, I will also change the conditions, and I want to thank you all for your patience and your understanding as we protect the force to also protect the mission.”
Hospitals in the area are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, according to local newspaper The State, and Fort Jackson officials are taking that fact and others into consideration in restricting graduation attendance.
“We have to look at what’s going on around us, around Fort Jackson,” Sully explained. “[The Delta variant] is surging for us, and we have 75 percent of the people who work at Fort Jackson live off post...so we consider what’s going on off-post, because we’re affecting them and they’re affecting us.”
“We can’t answer” questions about future graduations, she said, because “we’re assessing this daily.”
Sully said that parents and family members who want to track the status of future graduation attendance policies should monitor the frequently asked questions on their training unit’s webpages and Facebook pages.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.