WASHINGTON — Thousands of Soldiers and their families are traveling home for the holidays, including about 44,000 trainees and cadre from initial-entry training centers.
The Soldiers are participating in a two-week Holiday Block Leave beginning Dec. 18, said Michael Brown, a training analyst at the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training‘s Initial Entry Division.
These Soldiers are in various training sites across the U.S., going through Basic Combat Training, One Station Unit Training, Advanced Individual Training, the Basic Officer Leadership Course and Warrant Officer Basic Course, he said.
Normally, about 3 to 5 percent of these Soldiers choose to remain at their installation and not travel home, he added. For those who stay behind, units coordinate several Morale, Welfare and Recreation activities for them, to include attending professional sporting events.
Maj. Gen. Pete Johnson, commander, U.S. Army Training Center and Fort Jackson, South Carolina, was at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina Monday morning, granting media interviews about the holiday travel. Around him were thousands of Soldiers in training awaiting flights.
Holiday Block Leave gives Soldiers a chance to reconnect with their families, he said. About 7,000 Soldiers in training were traveling out of Fort Jackson Monday, “by trains, planes and automobiles,” and by buses too, he added.
Planning for this mass exodus is like planning for the D-Day landings, he added, describing the logistical challenges of packing them all out, giving them their safety and Army Values briefings and getting them to their preferred modes of transportation.
Most of those Soldiers will be telling the Army story back home, he said, and some will even have “embellished war stories.”
Most of them are young, as young as 17, he noted, but sprinkled among them are “elder statesmen,” some as old as 39. They are from every state in the Union.
Johnson praised the volunteers at the airport’s USO lounge who are particularly busy this time of year giving Soldiers a place to relax while awaiting their flights.
Pvt. Seth Akavickas was at the airport in Charlotte Dec. 18, waiting for a flight to take him home to Wausau, Wisconsin.
Soldiers in training at Fort Jackson were given personalized assistance getting home by ticket vendors, Akavickas said. His ticket vendor got him discounted round-trip tickets for $480, which was a good deal, he noted.
Feb. 28 is when Akavickas began his Basic Combat Training, so he’s experienced life in the Army for some time now. Currently, he is in Advanced Individual Training and will graduate Feb. 1.
Akavickas said he has mixed feelings about Holiday Block Leave. On the one hand, he’ll be able to spend time with his family over the holidays. But on the other hand, he said he’d kind of like to stay and get training over with.
However, he added, the vast majority of Soldiers in training whom he’s spoken with are delighted for the break.
After AIT, Akavickas will return to Wisconsin to work as a human resource specialist in the National Guard. He said he plans to attend college through the ROTC program and then try to get commissioned in four years. He wants to make a career in the Army.
Pfc. Madeline Sallee was also at the Charlotte airport Dec. 18. She was heading home to Minnesota, on leave from Basic Combat Training and very happy to see her friends and family.
Sallee said the rest will be very good, particularly after some arduous training that included a 15-kilometer rucksack march and a lot of other physical activity.
The hardest part of training, she said, was spending the night outside when the temperature got down to 16F. “We were all shivering,” she added, despite being used to cold in her home state.
Sallee will graduate Feb. 1 and will become a logistical specialist. She said one of the cool things about basic was making a lot of new friends.
Staff Sgt. Domenic Buscemi, a drill sergeant from Fort Jackson, was also at the airport in Charlotte Monday. He said drill sergeants accompany their Soldiers to help facilitate movement through the airport and to ensure standards of discipline are adhered to at all times.
Soldiers in training are required to travel in uniform, which means they are still representing the Army even while they are away, he said.
Holiday Block Leave has some benefits, he said. It serves to boost morale and motivation and gives Soldiers a chance to recharge.
It also gives them time to reflect on their experiences and spread their short-but-memorable Army story back in their communities, he said.
When the Soldiers return, Jan. 3, they will have retained about 70 percent of their basic military knowledge, so there will be some re-learning, he said, along with re-establishing their military discipline.
Soldiers don’t get to travel home in the middle of their training cycle during the rest of the year, he noted. On Thanksgiving, they’re given one day off, but that’s not time enough to travel home for most.
Fifteen years ago, Buscemi was a Soldier in training at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was summer and it was hot, he said, much tougher than winter training weather-wise.
Buscemi said he’ll return to Fort Jackson today, take a day of rest, then pile into the car with his wife and drive to her family’s home in Oklahoma where they will spend the holidays.
Brown admitted that the break in the training cycle is tough on drill sergeants, who have to re-teach numerous tasks, including discipline and customs and courtesies, when the Soldiers return from leave.
However, he said “the break is also good for trainees who come back with a little more pride about training to be a Soldier.”
He added that as part of their leave departure briefing, “we ingrain into the trainees that they are a part of the Army Family now, and represent us all in everything they do while they are on leave.”
Holiday Block Leave for this time of year is automatically granted annually, Brown said, per Army Regulation 600-8-8.
Brown said the program is a success in that “99.9 percent” of the trainees will choose to return, most eager to resume their training and reach their graduation dates.
(Follow David Vergun on Twitter: @vergunARNEWS)