Service and Sacrifice at Fort Jackson A new crop of soldiers at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., is undergoing basic training. With many facing deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, the price of freedom is on everyone's mind.
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Service and Sacrifice at Fort Jackson

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Service and Sacrifice at Fort Jackson

Service and Sacrifice at Fort Jackson

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

This month two of our reporters are on the road, crossing the country. Jeff Brady started off in Oregon. Andrea Seabrook began in South Carolina. Later this month they'll meet up at Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Along the way, they're talking to people about their relationship with the government, how it affects their lives and what, if anything, government should be doing differently. We'll hear about a variety of issues from a variety of perspectives and a variety of communities; today a report from an Army base in Columbia, South Carolina. Here's Andrea Seabrook.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

I decided to come here, because there is no closer bond between citizens and their government than in the military. There are many reasons why people join the armed forces, but ultimately it comes down to representing their country. And in today's military, that could mean fighting and dying.

It's 6 AM, still dark out, and time for physical training for the soldiers at Ft. Jackson Army Base.

Unidentified Man #1: Get ready!

Group of Soldiers: (In unison) Fall in! Ready!

Unidentified Man #1: ...(Unintelligible) up!

Group of Soldiers: (In unison) ...(Unintelligible)!

Unidentified Man #1: Down!

Group of Soldiers: (In unison) One!

Unidentified Man #1: Up!

Group of Soldiers: (In unison) One time!

Unidentified Man #1: Down!

Group of Soldiers: (In unison) Down!

Unidentified Man #1: Up!

SEABROOK: The grassy field is wet from last night's rain as hundreds of brand-new soldiers count their pushups. They've been here barely a week, and some are having a rough go of it. A few collapse. One field over another unit is jogging in a wide circle. Among them is a young woman with strawberry-blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun. Her name is Melissa Hunt from Orlando, Florida, and she knows why she's here.

(Soundbite of whistle)

Ms. MELISSA HUNT (Recruit): Ever since, like, 9/11, it's just that really made me mad. And it's just ever since then, I've always wanted to be a part of that. I just wanted to help out the United States and win.

SEABROOK: After boot camp Hunt is off to learn signal operation; that's radio, GPS and radar skills. In just six weeks she could be in Iraq or Afghanistan. Another young soldier in the unit, Jeremy Brown, has buzzed hair and jug-handle hears. His job--or in Army speak, his military occupational specialty--is...

Mr. JEREMY BROWN (Recruit): My MOS is 92 Golf(ph), which is food services, otherwise known as a cook. And I'm a cook, but, you know, I can also--if I have to, I'll hold a gun and defend our country just as well.

SEABROOK: And it's a scary time to join up, says Brown.

Mr. BROWN: My mom tried to talk me out of joining the military 'cause she don't want me getting shipped off to Iraq. But I just kind of feel like, you know, in my heart that that's where I'm supposed to be, fighting for my country. And if I'm going to die for anything, I might as well die for something that has purpose.

SEABROOK: Both Brown and Hunt graduated from high school just two months ago. They say they rarely thought about the government or its policies. But here they are ready to represent the United States even if it means risking their lives. Both say they were drawn to the Army because they want to defend the freedoms Americans have.

Keeping a sharp eye on these young soldiers is First Lieutenant Quincy Springs, their company commander. He says running basic training is like baking cookies batch after batch. And for Springs, what these soldiers will defend is more than simply government policy. He cares about what the country was founded on.

First Lieutenant QUINCY SPRINGS (Company Commander): I appreciate it's attempts to accomplish the ideals, which are very difficult when you're dealing with human beings and their personal desires and wants and needs. I think about our Constitution, Declaration of Independence, all those things, Bill of Rights. Those are the types of things that are ideals that we aspire to achieve, and there's no other country like that.

SEABROOK: In my conversations with the new recruits here at Ft. Jackson, I understand that they all have a deep sense of patriotism. What they learned from boot camp day one is that defending the US is a dangerous job, even for a medic or a mechanic. Over the last 18 months the Army has overhauled basic training. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Ryan is a battalion commander. He says the changes started with seemingly little things, like the camouflaged helmet and body armor he wears.

Lieutenant Colonel MIKE RYAN (Battalion Commander): A year ago soldiers were not wearing this all the time. Soldiers wear this almost every single day in basic training. Soldiers, as you see as they walk by us right now, as they're carrying their weapons, they carry it we call the low ready, just like they do on patrol in Iraq or Afghanistan. And it's more of a mind set from day one we try to imbue in them of being a warrior first, a rifleman, and trying to make things relevant for what we're doing today in fighting the global war on terrorism.

SEABROOK: And now all soldiers in boot camp take a whole new training operation called Convoy Life-fire.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

SEABROOK: From the back of moving trucks, young soldiers in body armor shoot their M-16s with live ammunition at the body-shaped targets that pop out of the ground. Their convoy then pulls up to a road, where junked cars are up on their sides. Barrels and tires lie around on the ground. Here, they experience their very first improvised explosive device.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Unidentified Man #2: Drop it down! Fire! Fire! Fire!

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #2: Fire!

(Soundbite of gunfire)

SEABROOK: Half the soldiers jump off the trucks, falling into shooting positions on the ground to cover for the others. When they've fired all their rounds, the soldiers are marched over the hill for an after-action report, feedback on how they can better protect themselves and each other. When asked how they feel about their government, their new employer, and what they're fighting to protect, many say they see it through new eyes. Stephen Hill is from Whitefish, Montana.

Mr. STEPHEN HILL (Recruit): Like any type of government anywhere in the world, you're going to have, you know, faults, as we all are human. But we are doing a very good job, I believe, as a whole to make things happen for the civilian people to remain free.

Mr. STEVEN BALLOU (Recruit): I love my freedom, and I like to be able to speak, you know, what's on my mind. I like to be able to walk down the street and not have to worry about getting shot. As far as my government, I think they're doing a really good job.

HEATHER BRAYDON(ph) (Recruit): I think it's a privilege to be here. You look at the people in Iraq. They don't have many freedoms. They're taken from them.

Mr. HILL: And so I just want to say to everybody out there in America that we're here for you, and we've given up a lot of our freedoms for you. And at first it was rough, but I think we're all starting to adapt.

SEABROOK: Hill is 25 years old. Twenty-eight-year-old Steven Ballou is from Derby, Kansas. And Heather Braydon is from Gainesville, Tennessee. She's 17.

With war staring these young soldiers in the face, they don't appear discouraged. If anything, it seems that their connection to their country and their government is stronger. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.

BLOCK: Andrea's next report will be from Tennessee. Jeff Brady, who began his journey on the West Coast, will be reporting from Nevada. You can keep track of both of their trips and read their road diaries at our Web site, npr.org.

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