Bright headlights lit up the dark roads leading into Fort Benning as hundreds of families waited for the clock to strike midnight Thursday. Wives, fathers, sisters, and other family members lined up in their cars outside the gates of the Georgia military base so they could pick up their soldiers for the holidays.
More than 45,000 soldiers nationwide at 20 different locations will go on holiday block leave, with more than 12,000 soldiers coming from Fort Benning alone. Many of them, who haven't seen their loved ones in months, say they're excited to be reunited with their families after 22 weeks of training.
As for the families, one wife drove over 1,000 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa to pick up her husband, Private Dayton Hiers. Laurel says, "It was nerve-racking. We're like this is going to be long." Hiers' mother joined the long trip, becoming emotional when the priceless reunion finally happened. Tammy Ellis says, "It was absolutely wonderful, priceless, the best gift ever."
Hiers' family is one of hundreds that made the trek to Fort Benning. Destiny Stovall is from Biloxi, Mississippi, and says she made the choice to drive instead of waiting for her husband, Private Aaron Stovall, to fly home because "I couldn't wait. I wanted to see him as soon as I can. So it was a no-brainer."
Stovall says the fact she grew up in Atlanta made the decision even easier. She makes the drive between Biloxi and Atlanta often and says the 5-hour drive to Fort Benning was, "just a skip and a hop for me."
But for other soldiers, their highly anticipated reunion will have to come after a flight. Thousands of soldiers boarded buses early Friday morning at Fort Benning and made their way to the nation's busiest airport.
"Of the 45,000 soldiers, Atlanta is the biggest hub and so most [soldiers] will be departing through here," says Brig. Gen. John D. Kline. He tells us 3,500 soldiers from Fort Benning were picked up by car Thursday with more than 8,000 soldiers flying home Friday. Thousands more will travel through the weekend, making their way to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport from Fort Gordon.
The next two weeks for these soldiers will be filled with family, love, and rest. Drill Sgt. David Latsha says, "It's a great opportunity to recharge and reset; see the family and get your mind right to come back and complete the training is very, very beneficial." Drill Sergeant Latsha is one of many overseeing the trainee soldiers.
Command Sgt. Maj. Derrick Garner directly oversees the drill sergeants and trainees. He says back in 1996 when he joined the army, he did 13 to 14 weeks of training so it "wasn't a big deal." But these trainees are doing 22 weeks. Command Sgt. Maj. Garner says, "You're talking about 22 weeks of being away from the families being away from your wife, your husband, your kids, everything that you've grown up around; your community. It's extremely important to get our troopers back home."
Soldiers will return the first week of January to continue their training at Fort Benning and other installations. Command Sgt. Maj. Garner says he hopes they will be ready to finish what they started.
When asked how he helps get soldiers back into the mindset of training after the holidays, he explains, "A lot of the time when I talk to them, I ask 'Hey, what's your why?' Because we all have a 'why,' our 'why' is our purpose. What I do, is I remind them of what their 'why' is and what their purpose is."