COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — On Friday when Fort Benning graduated 215 Basic Training soldiers.
For much of the last two years, graduations have been a tightly controlled exercise because of the Covid pandemic.
You could feel the Covid thaw Friday morning. After more than two years, the stands at Inouye Field were full of family and friends.
It felt so normal.
As these freshly minted U.S. Army Infantry soldiers marched in review, the stands at Inouye Field were full of family and friends Friday morning.
“The graduations are at full force,” said Col. Jimmy Hathaway, commander of 198th Infantry Brigade. “Not only are the families coming but to encourage everybody in the community to come out. They are our family, too. They are their kids. … You saw the pride today and how they were reacting to everybody walking across the field. And I think it’s something for everybody to see.”
They are back, taking pictures and sharing a moment of pride that was 22 weeks in the making.
Thomas Gulley was one of those in the stands this damp morning. The 54-year-old retired sergeant major was part of a reunion group of soldiers who once did basic training at Harmony Church.
The new soldiers are now trained on Sand Hill.
The Tulsa, Oklahoma resident is three and a half decades removed from his introduction to the Army.
“It’s always good to see the next generation of soldiers, airmen, marines – whatever the branch – seeing how they mature, shall we say ripe to mature in their training as they go into units. It’s a nice thing to see,” Gulley said. “They grow a lot when they are here. Especially now that it’s 22 weeks. That’s a long time to be here and a lot of training you get under your belt.”
And for those soldiers, most of them had seen their families once in the last five months.
And Pete Jones, the president of the National Infantry Museum Foundation has loved watching the soldiers and families reunite. That critical element was missing during the pandemic.
“It’s good to see families here mixing with soldiers without any Covid restrictions whatsoever,” Jones said. “And I think that’s the best part, reuniting families to celebrate a great milestone in their soldiers’ lives.”
And while those families are here, it is a chance to show them what the Army and its rich history is all about.
“Look at taking the uniforms back from the George Washington days, into the Civil War, or to World War I, World War II really showing our history,” Hathaway said. “And connection the history not only to the soldiers, the brand new soldiers on the field, the brand new Infantrymen but to their families so they can connect that, too. I think that’s important.”
That’s important, Gulley said.
“I would say for 90 percent of the people who were here today, it is the first time they have ever seen any or had any exposure to the military,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of veterans here, but for families, it’s the first time they get any kind of exposure. Period. And it’s something they need to see and it gives them a degree of understanding. And a degree of what their you soldier has gone through.”
One of the lessons is demonstrating what a nine-person Infantry rifle squad looks like.
Coming out of the smoke, it’s a dramatic way of showing these families what their soldiers’ chosen profession calls for.
“It gives these families a chance to see that their sons are daughters are in something bigger than themselves,” Jones said.
And they can learn more about the history and how it fits into the future at the National Infantry Museum. It is now fully open and operational after Covid forced a shutdown and reduced hours.
Fort Benning is in the business of training soldiers. And the start of that training is basic courses for Infantry and Armor.
Friday morning, a little rain cooled down the graduation.
“That was the best part,” Hathaway said. “We’re Infantrymen. If it’s not raining, we are not training. But to have a little bit of rain cool it down a little bit. And to show that we are still out here. The only bad part about the rain is the Silver Wings were scheduled to jump in. And they couldn’t jump due to the low ceiling. But in the future, we will have them out here, too.”
There are graduations at Inouye Field on Thursday and Friday mornings. You can check the National Infantry Museum website to see the schedule.
The Armor School holds its graduations, but they are on post and require you to go through a military checkpoint. There is no military checkpoint required for the Infantry graduations at the NIM.