FORT JACKSON, SC (WIS) - Every year, more than 60,000 soldiers make their way through the gates of Fort Jackson, transitioning from civilian life to that of a U.S. Army Soldier.
Fort Jackson serves as the largest of four basic training installations in the Army, with more than 1,000 basic combat training soldiers graduating every week.
To reach graduation, trainees endure 10 weeks of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion to prepare them for what lies ahead in their military careers. The 10-week course, known as basic combat training, is organized into three phases, each of which culminates in a tactical field training exercise.
"The Forge" serves as the final field training exercise taking place during the ninth week of training. It consists of 81 hours and requires 45 miles of movement, mostly at night, with only five hours of sleep each day.
Throughout the four day event, trainees use the skills they've honed during training to successfully execute missions, both as individuals and a team.
Exercises include efforts in mass casualty, night infiltration, obstacle courses, medical stations, shooting and hand-to-hand combat.
"It's definitely different than anything I've ever experienced before," Brett Schweitzer, a trainee in the 2nd Battalion, 13th Infantry Regiment, said.
Schweitzer enlisted in the Army National Guard to help pay for college. A native of Kansas City, MO, he plans to return to school to complete his sophomore year before taking part in further training.
"When I first started, I missed my family a lot and I missed my friends but I've gotten more used to that as I've gained some friends here," he said. "Everybody is going through the same thing so that has helped me out through that."
On Wednesday, less than 12 hours before the trainees will take part in a rite of passage known as the Solider Ceremony, their combat skills are put to the test in a hand-to-hand combat tournament. Paired up based on weight class, the trainees battle each other for two minutes, using maneuvers they've learned in the case of being without their weapon in the field.
"This is the final stretch, everyone is super excited and motivated even though the lack of sleep we've got over the last four days we're all pushing," Schweitzer said.
After the drill is over, the trainees march on to their next challenge known as the Fit to Win Obstacle course. The company is split into four platoons and the rules are clear; no one is allowed to move on before the unit finishes as a whole.
Trainees climb over walls, under barbed wire, and through muddy trenches to reach the end of the course. The course, eliciting confidence and inner strength some trainees did not know they had.
"When we get them on day zero, they are definitely lost," Sgt. First Class William Rastellini, a drill sergeant, said. "You just see the confidence from the timid civilian they were to the solider we need them to be and ready to go out and do their job as a soldier so it is definitely amazing."
After completing the course, the sun has set and the trainees move on to what's called the "stress shoot." Trainees have two minutes to hit a series of targets at various distances.
"As they get here, they've been going non-stop, so the stress is induced and we are measuring how the solider can perform, what they learned about firing their weapon under stressful conditions," Cpt. Jay Harris said.
Matthew Hollingsworth, a trainee from Grayson, GA, shot a perfect score during his qualifier.
"I only shot a couple of times prior to joining the Army so I learned most of the fundamentals and shooting here," he said. "I've gained more confidence and discipline for sure and I'm focused on helping everybody and knowing it's not just about yourself, it's about one team and one fight."
As the day begins to break, most of the trainees have reached the near pinnacle of their time at basic training. The "Soldier Ceremony" signifies the transition from trainee to Army Soldier and only trainees who complete The Forge and requirements of basic training earn the right to take part in the ceremony.
For the 2nd Batallion, 13th Infantry Regiment, between 800 and 1,200 trainees make it to the ceremony. Trainees receive a patch and dawn a beret for the first time, an accomplishment that brings many to tears.
"The patch and being able to put that beret on my head symbolized me getting through it and being able to truly call myself a solider," Hassell said.
"I'm very relieved, I'm exhausted, I'm excited at the same time," Schweitzer said. "When my drill sergeant put the patch on me chills just ran through my body."
The soldiers have two weeks remaining before family day and graduation, when they will formally depart basic training camp.