By Brig. Gen. Milford H. 'Beags' Beagle Jr.
Fort Jackson Commanding General
For several months now and since COVID-19 showed up at our gates, I have stated “the road ahead of us will be much harder than the road that we have traveled.” In general, most people understand what I mean after providing a few examples of what lies on the road ahead for Fort Jackson. The sweltering summer heat of South Carolina is upon us, a hurricane or two will present itself at any point from now through October, summer training loads are picking up steam as we navigate the “surge,” and yes, we are still in the middle of a pandemic. These are but a few of the potholes, debris and other obstacles that litter the road ahead for Fort Jackson and by default Team Jackson.
When I reference our “road ahead,” my view is tempered with a great deal of reflective pride in our installation’s leaders, civilians, Families and community partners when I consider the road that we have travelled to date. Pre-COVID-19 for Fort Jackson was not a walk in the park, by any means. Training loads were constant across all of our training formations, the 3,000-5,000 visitors per week continued to be a central fact of a ‘normal’ week, and efforts to improve our installation were visible all around Fort Jackson. Then COVID-19 showed up at our gates.
Our actions were swift. Communal compliance was quickly established, followed by continual daily adjustments to advance our ability to protect our workforce, Families and community—all while simultaneously continuing our mission that frankly, positioned Team Jackson ahead of the pandemic. Nonetheless, this did not occur without issue and major concerns as our proactive steps tended to defy logic and, in some cases, made little sense to this same audience. Access to post became limited, restrictions on the purchase of goods were established, and the reducing / closing of key services and programs seemed to make little sense when neither Fort Jackson, Columbia nor our state had experienced perceptible effects of COVID-19.
Nevertheless, we remained vigilant, proactive, and focused on protecting our workforce in order to protect our mission. Many Army senior leaders came to visit Fort Jackson during the months of March and April 2020 to see how the Army’s largest basic training post could continue training under pandemic conditions. Along with the Chief of Staff of the Army—Gen. James McConville—came 60-Minutes to witness first hand “training in the social distance environment,” as it was termed early on. Our installation and our workforce efforts enabled our Army to have a high level of confidence in our ability to continue our mission while much of the world and United States stood on the verge of shut downs and the threat to our “normal” way of life.
Our efforts proved we could safely and effectively continue a host of training missions across Fort Jackson in a COVID-19 environment with little impact on the Army’s readiness. To date, we have shipped well over 9,000 Soldiers and leaders to Advance Individual Training, First Unit of Assignment, and follow- on assignments without skipping a beat. This and much more is a credit to our workforce—our drill sergeants, leaders, civilian and contracted workforce—whose collective efforts kept our mission on the road and moving under less than optimal conditions.
You may ask, if we did so well thus far, why should the road ahead be harder and more difficult for a team that has accomplished so much over the past four months? From my view, several known variables (many out of our control) will make our road ahead over the next six months harder, not easier: the summer heat, increased training loads, transitions of Soldiers and leaders at many levels, hurricanes, and the next flu season are just a few “known knowns.” For many of these variables, we have contingency plans and protocols to address the challenges they will present, but we have never addressed these challenges under pandemic conditions wrought by COVID-19.
It has been a work in progress to properly address COVID-19 while simultaneously continuing our core mission. Maintaining physical and social distance, application of measures to protect our workforce and Families, and continued vigilance have been the cornerstone of our success. The threats that we face over the next 6-months are nothing new to those that have experienced at least a full year at Fort Jackson. However, even for those with experience with the previously mentioned threats, an even larger threat looms over us like a slow moving hurricane. What you may ask is this larger threat? The answer to this question is TIME.
As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, and as case rates increase while every effort to develop a vaccine remain months away, TIME will be our biggest enemy. The ability for us (the collective Team Jackson) to maintain a high level of vigilance, patience, and cooperation over the next six months will be tested in a major way.
Spikes in positive case rates as they relate to holiday weekends, relaxing of restrictions across many states, and the increase of “asymptomatic” cases (people that don’t present symptoms) is testing the resolve, patience, and vigilance of many across our country and many more of our teammates on Fort Jackson. There is evidence of fatigue all around us every day, even after four months of dealing with the pandemic. Continual reminders are being given to maintain physical distance, improper face protection wear, and constant reminders for others to don their face protection—and let’s not even discuss hand washing / sanitizing. These small (but important) indicators are signs that fatigue is setting in and must be re-established. The fact that COVID-19 is invisible wears on an individual’s ability to sustain a heightened level of vigilance for a prolonged period of time against an enemy that can’t be seen.
We (Team Jackson) must re-establish our vigilance and resign ourselves to the fact that relief from COVID-19 is still many months away. Regardless of the measures, signs, or number of town halls we conduct, if our collective video and audio don’t match, we stand to lose the initiative that we worked very hard to establish. We must do the right things on and off duty as well as on and off the installation. The impact of a lack of personal discipline and integrity place our mission and workforce at risk. It will take a collective effort and a deeper understanding of our road ahead to get us to the other side of the COVID-19 mountain.
Now is not the time to become weak and weary of doing the right thing. We must not tire or falter in our efforts. Regardless of your rank, position or status, it must be well understood that COVID-19 is blind to all of those things and more. By protecting ourselves, we protect others. Our plan to Prevent, Detect and Contain COVID-19 at Fort Jackson remains intact and we have demonstrated that we can execute our plan exceptionally well. Going forward, we must execute even better and for a longer duration.
I have faith in everyone’s ability to change their behaviors, attitudes and habits in an effort to protect our workforce, our families and local community. We have set a stellar example and to this end, we must continue to BE the example. Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching. For as long as we are in this pandemic, we must do the right thing when no one is watching, but herein lies the problem; someone is always watching! With this being the case, I ask that you do not become tired, weary or less vigilant in the months ahead. COVID can beat a test, but it can’t beat time. COVID-19 is persistent and will persist in the coming months. We must not enable time to become another threat that we face. We are Team Jackson and we will prevail.