FORT JACKSON, S.C. — Major change has come to the Army’s largest training base over the past two years, and more is in store as the military’s largest service branch faces troop and budget cuts, said the two-star general in charge at Fort Jackson.
Maj. Gen. James Milano hands over command Tuesday at the installation, where he has overseen the start of a $1 billion building boom and transformations in what recruits eat, how they train for combat, and what physical tests they must undergo.
“We’ve had two years of some pretty tough training, under some pretty tough conditions,” Milano said in an interview at his headquarters office. “We’ve kept the training tough, but we also kept it rigorous and we’ve managed to take care of the force while doing that.”
Milano chuckles as recalls that he began his tenure at the installation in June 2010 with a reminder to soldiers: “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevancy even less.” He said the adage was a favorite of the Army’s former chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, who now heads the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“There’s been huge change, especially in the diet. I think they’ve all had a beneficial effect,” the 54-year-old general said. About 60,000 soldiers go through basic and advance training at Fort Jackson every year, and many in the past have headed directly into combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During Milano’s tenure, those recruits have seen:
• Revamped combat training that dropped lunging at dummies with antiquated bayonets in favor of hand-to-hand wrestling and increased rifle marksmanship skills.
• Overhauled menus that threw out most fried foods and sugary drinks in favor of salads, vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals, yogurt and fruits.
• Introduction of new physical tests that dropped old-style sit-ups and a 2-mile run in favor of “combat readiness” tests where soldiers run a shuttle course with weapons, carry ammunition canisters while balancing on a beam and drag a 180-pound weight to mimic dragging a casualty from battle.
• About $1 billion in construction has put more than half the post’s basic training recruits in new or renovated barracks. The rest are to be done by 2017. For military families on the post, there are 610 new houses and 240 renovated housing units.
Milano said change will continue as the Army service adjusts to the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Army leaders have announced that during the next six years, budget-driven cuts will take troop numbers from the current 570,000 to roughly 490,000 soldiers.
Milano said he doesn’t fear the drawdown because the service saw far deeper cuts in the post-Cold War era of the 1990s. The Army had 782,000 soldiers in 1991 and dropped to 484,000 by 1999.
“The Army that was cut in 1999 was the Army that went to war (in Iraq) in 2001. I think we are going to be in great shape when it’s done,” Milano said.
He said he believed Army leaders will avoid having a military force that isn’t well enough equipped, known as a “hollow Army.”
Milano said the Army is recruiting the highest quality soldiers he’s seen in his 33 years in uniform.
However, the past 10 years of warfare have also taken a toll, Milano said. Fort Jackson has responded with training in “resiliency” for families and service members to help them deal with problems.
“We’ve got some very good intervention programs here, with substance abuse counselors, behavioral counselors. We’ve learned a ton of lessons over the last 10 years,” he said.
Milano is handing over command to Brig. Gen. Bryan Roberts, a Hampton, Va., native who has had three tours in Iraq.
He said he and his wife, Kim, are packing for their 22nd move, another adjustment in a long line of changes, he said. He’s still working on exactly what he will do next, he said.
“We’ve seen a lot of change here at Fort Jackson,” he said. “We all have to adapt.”