Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook didn’t mince words about the emotions he felt when he first got word Thursday morning that a Fort Jackson trainee with a rifle had hijacked a bus full of elementary school children in Columbia.
“I don’t think there could be anything more frightening than when that came to us (Thursday),” Holbrook told The State. “A man with an assault weapon seizing a bus with children on it. There is probably no more difficult situation, tactically, to deal with. ... A moving bus, with kids on it and somebody armed, it could be catastrophic.”
Thankfully, catastrophe was avoided. No one was physically harmed in the incident that touched off early Thursday morning.
The bus hijacking is the second off-base incident involving someone from Fort Jackson in recent weeks to make headlines. In April, a white Army sergeant was charged with assault after shoving a Black man during a heated exchange on the sidewalk in the Summit neighborhood. That incident was captured on video and went viral.
But despite the recent incidents, Columbia officials say their confidence in the city’s relationship with Fort Jackson is not shaken. Fort Jackson is the nation’s largest military basic training base with more than 50,000 recruits assigned there each year, and a key driver in Columbia’s economy.
Holbrook said the Columbia Police Department’s relationship with the fort, particularly its law enforcement arm, is “exceptional.”
“It’s as close to a closed base as you can have,” Holbrook said. “The majority of their folks are training, and they are housed there, with the exception of instructors and drill sergeants and staff, many of whom live off-base. But the recruits are there. In a lot of military towns, you see soldiers in uniform throughout town. You really don’t see that much here.
“They don’t create any strain for us, and I think they are an excellent compliment to law enforcement and city operations.”
The chief said Thursday’s bus hijacking was an “outlying, unfortunate event.”
Other functions located at Fort Jackson are the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School; the U.S. Army’s Drill Sergeant Academy; and the U.S. Army’s Soldier Support Institute, which includes the adjutant general school, the financial management school, the Noncommissioned Officers Academy and the Army School of Music.
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles Executive Director Kevin Shwedo is a former deputy commanding officer at Fort Jackson. He was quick to point out that, balanced against the many thousands of soldiers who come through the fort each year, incidents off-base are quite rare.
“The fort graduates about 50,000 basic combat training soldiers a year,” Shwedo said. “Soldiers have had weapons in their possession for years. If you just look at the last 10 years, you’ve got a half a million soldiers that have graduated without incident, along those lines. From my perspective, (Thursday’s incident) is a statistical anomaly.”
Shwedo said he is certain Fort Jackson leaders will learn from the incident.
“Not every organization is perfect and not every organization should be defined by a single incident,” Shwedo said. “What organizations should be defined by is, ‘What do we do to react to the incident to prevent it from happening again?’”
At-large City Councilman Howard Duvall, an Air Force veteran, said he recalls very few off-base incidents at Fort Jackson in recent years, and certainly none as potentially dangerous as Thursday’s alleged school bus hijacking.
Duvall said his overall feelings about the fort are unchanged.
“I am confident in the commanding staff at Fort Jackson in maintaining discipline and safety for the city,” the at-large Councilman told The State. “You have tens of thousands of trainees go through there every year, and we have had very few incidents.”
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said there are “enduring ties” between Fort Jackson and the community.
“When you do have these very difficult and complex situations, the channels of discussion and dialogue are open, and we can have them,” the mayor told The State. “A friend of the community is what Fort Jackson is.”
The mayor added he was grateful that Thursday’s incident ended with no one being physically harmed.
At the same time, Benjamin said he couldn’t help but note that Thursday’s incident involving a gun came just days after a state judge ruled that three Columbia gun control laws enacted in 2019 are invalid. Judge Jocelyn Newman ruled in favor of the state attorney general’s office, which had sued the city over the gun laws, on Tuesday.
“This (bus incident) brings into clarity that we must all understand the gravity of doing what we can to ensure the best interests of public safety,” Benjamin said.
Fort Jackson apologized to the community for the bus incident on Thursday afternoon. Beagle said at a news conference that he believed the 23-year-old trainee from New Jersey did not intend to harm anyone and was trying to go home.
“There is nothing that leads us to believe through his counseling, through anything in his screening records coming in that this had anything to do with harming others, harming himself, or anything that links to any other type nefarious activity,” Beagle said. “Three weeks in, we do experience several soldiers that over the course of their initial stages just have that desire, that anxiety due to separation from their families to get home. We think that was truly that was his intent and nothing beyond that.”