Pvt. London Fripp of Ocala, Fla., arrived by bus at Fort Jackson for basic Army training before dawn on Monday.
Since then, he has been inoculated, had his hair buzzed, been deprived of sleep, frequently chewed out and has eaten nothing that didn’t come out of a Meals Ready to Eat bag or trucked to a training station.
But on Wednesday, he and other members of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment, were marched into a dining hall decorated to the nines and served a feast by battalion officers and senior noncommissioned officers.
“This. Is. Delicious,” 18-year-old Fripp said at a whisper in between bites of prime rib and turkey – then quickly added: “Sir.”
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Over two days, Wednesday and Thursday, 8,596 new soldiers at the nation’s largest training base will consume 7,710 pounds of turkey, 3,300 pounds of ham and 2,144 pounds of prime rib, along with shrimp, fish and all the fixings and desserts.
The staggered holiday meals allow the fort’s eight dining halls enough time to prepare the staggering meals. Cooks start planning weeks in advance. Food preparation begins two days before. And the 2-39th dining hall began cooking the 80 turkeys for Wednesday’s feast at 4 a.m.
In addition to the soldiers, the drill sergeants’ families and invited guests – mostly older veterans – also eat with the soldiers.
The fort’s dining halls compete to see which can out-decorate the others. The 2-39th featured a large table piled with fruit, a pumpkin patch sprinkled with candies and nuts, and a chocolate fountain as a centerpiece.
“It’s for bragging rights,” said kitchen manager Mary Glover. “We just want to lord over Fort Jackson.”
Normally soldiers have 10 minutes to eat, and no talking is allowed. But on Wednesday, that standard was relaxed – slightly.
“We might wait until everybody finishes,” Drill Sgt. Sheliea Smith, originally of Milton, Fla., said without cracking a smile.
Fort Jackson trains more than 45,000 new soldiers a year. And for recruits like Company Alpha, the first few weeks, called Red Phase, are the roughest. It’s where the recruits are broken down from their civilian habits and taught everything anew, from tying their shoes to standing at attention.
So Wednesday’s meal was a welcome respite. And the drill sergeants did let the recruits talk. And they waited for them to finish eating.
Still, the fledgling soldiers seemed nervous that a false move or phrase would bring down their wrath – even with the media present.
“I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do,” said Pvt. Casey O’Brien of Tucson, Ariz. “But this is good. Really good!”
Drill Sgt. Antoine Gore, originally from New York City, stood sternly near the exit door, ensuring that each soldier put his or her tray onto the proper conveyor, in the proper way.
“They’ve never been in here before,” he said. “They’re lost. But that will change. Sir.”