Brig. Gen. Bradley Becker’s favorite day of the week is Wednesday.
Each week on that day, thousands of family members from across the country descend on Fort Jackson in Columbia to spend time with new soldiers before they graduate the following Thursday. Becker, who took command of the nation’s largest military training base three months ago, often crosses the street from his headquarters to the base museum to mingle with those families.
He remembers meeting a grandmother from Detroit who traveled 30 hours by bus to see her granddaughter graduate. And he recalls the Veterans of Foreign Wars members who drove a family from the Midwest to Columbia because the family was too poor and their car too untrustworthy to make it.
“It’s always the same,” he said. The families say, “‘I can’t believe this is the same man or woman we sent you 10 weeks ago’ I wish I could take credit for it. But it’s the drill sergeants.”
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The number of families visiting the fort each week could change in coming years.
The Army is facing $600 billion in budget cuts. In response to that and the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of troops in the service is expected to be reduced to 490,000 from 560,000. Should the fort cut back on training new recruits, that could affect not only staffing at the facility but also the nearly $2 billion per year economic impact of the base in the community.
Becker said he doesn’t expect the present troop drawdown to reduce the number of soldiers trained at the base over the next two years. He predicted that despite a reduction, Fort Jackson will continue to churn out about 63,000 soldiers a year over next two years.
But, he said, if the Army is reduced 450,000 or less, “that could impact us.”
WINNING THE BATTLE
Becker’s comments came during a wide-ranging press conference he called to report on his first 100 days as Fort Jackson’s commander – a critical time which saw a government shutdown, furloughed civilian employees, budget cuts and a changing military landscape.
Such press conferences have been rare for Fort Jackson commanders, who change every two years or so. Becker said he called it to keep the public apprised of how the fort is addressing the training of the nation’s soldiers in the face of these challenges.
Becker, 49, termed Columbia the most military friendly community he has ever lived in. And he said he has genuinely enjoyed his time here, especially his standing in the community.
“I get invited to everything,” he said. “I almost feel like I’m important.”
A Sacramento, Calif., native along with his wife, Sherri, the 27-year Army veteran takes over the reins of the fort at a very important time. The military is in the midst of historic changes.
The war in Iraq has ended and all combat troops are scheduled to be pulled out of Afghanistan by the end of next year.
Becker said that the end of those wars, hallmarked by counter-insurgency tactics, will mean changes in training at the fort, which will provide basic training to about 46,000 new soldiers this year, and advanced individual training to 17,000 more.
There are soldiers today who have never been trained in any tactics but counter-insurgency because of their need to prepare for Iraq and Afghanistan, Becker said. Now, soldiers have to be prepared to confront a potential enemy who would use more traditional tactics in conjunction with unconventional warfare, such as North Korea.
“We have to continue to produce the best soldiers in the world who are capable of winning the first battle of the next war,” he said.
While that training has to be conducted in an era of deep budget cuts, Becker said that the Pentagon considers Fort Jackson essential to the national security.
He noted that while some installations had to furlough most of their civilian workers as “non-essential,” only 10 percent of Fort Jackson’s 3,500 civilian workers had to be furloughed.
He said that is also an indication that Fort Jackson is probably not a target in the next round of base reduction and closures, called BRAC, predicted for 2015 as a result of the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and budget cuts.
“There has been no discussion of Fort Jackson as a BRAC reduction,” he said.
Becker said that in addition to training, leader development, and quality of life for his soldiers, he has added community outreach to his list of priorities.
He has instituted a partnership with the University of South Carolina on sexual abuse issues - “we deal with the same age groups,” he said – and he wants to do more outreach with other schools, universities, veterans groups, hospitals and churches.
Becker said he also wants to get more civilians on the base to see how their soldiers are trained through its “Meet your Army” program.
“We’re doing an OK job, but we could do a lot better,” he said.