A 23-year-old Army recruit from Fort Jackson, S.C., who shocked the local community Thursday by hijacking a school bus with 18 children onboard had no ammunition in his service rifle and was just trying to get back to his home, the training base commander said.
In a news conference Thursday afternoon, Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle Jr. said the yet-to-be-named recruit could face military charges, including absence without leave and theft of government property. Sheriff's officials have said he will be charged with multiple counts of kidnapping.
"A trainee jumped our fence line with his issued weapon and made his way into the community," Beagle said.
Beagle said the recruit, who was wearing physical training gear, boarded the bus full of children and told the driver he didn't want to hurt anyone; he just wanted a ride to the next town. The recruit had only been in training for three weeks and hadn't even made it far enough in training to be issued ammunition, Beagle said.
"He was very quiet, a very quiet individual, hailed from New Jersey, one relative that we knew of," he said. "And so we assessed that he was just trying to make an attempt to go back home."
The driver eventually pulled the bus over and got off with all the children onboard, according to statements from local law enforcement officials. After attempting without much success to drive the bus, the recruit got off, leaving his weapon behind. He was quickly arrested by police. The whole episode lasted about one hour.
"There is nothing that leads us to believe, through his counselings or 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 of 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, and due to separation from their families, to get home. And we think that was truly his intent, and nothing beyond that."
Beagle said the incident represented a failure in accountability processes that he planned to fix, but added that not all of the fence line on Fort Jackson's 52,000 acres was monitored or patrolled. In his nearly three years commanding the base, he said, several recruits had tried to make an escape over the fence, including some who were already pending separation. But before now, he said, no one had gotten outside the base with a weapon.
It took about 30 minutes for fellow recruits to notice the escaped recruit was missing and notify drill sergeants, Beagle said.
"As soon as they reported it, there was immediate pursuit," he said.
Training at Fort Jackson, he said, had been briefly suspended to assure accountability for all weapons and assess any other security gaps. The recruit now remains in the custody of the Richland County Sheriff's Department.
"I do want to express a great deal of sympathy to those parents, for the bus driver, to our community," Beagle said. "We are part of our great community here. And we take that to heart every single day … The outcome could have been much worse. Thankfully, it was not."
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.