FORT JACKSON, S.C. — Before third-week trainee Jovan Collazo allegedly used his M4 carbine to hijack a bus full of schoolchildren in May, a perfect storm of events had to occur.

Since then, Collazo has been in the custody of the Richland County Sheriff’s Office, awaiting civilian trial on dozens of charges, including 19 counts of kidnapping and charges related to purported escape attempts from jail.

While that process unfolded, the Army conducted an AR 15-6 investigation of its own to determine how Collazo made off with his weapon and to provide recommendations on how to prevent similar — if not worse — incidents from occurring in the future.

The Army investigation is complete, said Fort Jackson spokesperson LA Sully. Multiple media outlets have requested it through the Freedom of Information Act, and the request is currently pending with the Office of the Judge Advocate General, according to Sully.

Army Times spoke with Sully and other senior Fort Jackson officials in charge of law enforcement and training to reconstruct those events and learn more about how the Army’s largest basic training installation has adjusted its policies and procedures in the wake of the hijacking.

New details on the escape

On the morning of May 6, the soldiers of Company A, 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry regiment, were washing up and putting on their combat uniforms after a physical training session.

Army officials have previously acknowledged that Collazo grabbed his unloaded rifle and slipped away from his unit at around 7 a.m.

But Collazo didn’t escape undetected, according to Maj. John Ferrell, who is Fort Jackson’s provost marshal and director of law enforcement.

“He was actually chased by drill sergeants on foot,” Ferrell told Army Times.

Ferrell said drill sergeants “immediately” knew Collazo’s intent after they tried to flag him down “and he took off, just flat out running, and cleared the fence.”

After scrambling over the fence with his rifle, Collazo ran across nearby Interstate 77′s six lanes.

Ferrell said that his staff believes Collazo is the only trainee known to have “jumped the fence with a weapon” in the past 20 years. The fence at basic training-focused installations like Fort Jackson is lower than those at installations with sensitive equipment because their primary purpose is to keep people out, not in.

The trainee ran toward nearby surface streets after failing to flag down vehicles on the highway, civilian law enforcement officials previously stated.

Collazo got on the bus at a stop near Percival Road for students who attend Forest Lake Elementary in Richland School District Two, according to Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. He told the driver he didn’t want to hurt anyone, but he wanted to be taken to the next town.

Soon, Collazo became flustered and released the driver and children. A few miles later, he abandoned both the rifle and the bus. Police found him and he was arrested without incident.

“We immediately called [local civilian authorities, and they started rolling people [out there],” Ferrell explained. “We got 911 calls — ‘Hey, a soldier just crossed I-77 with a rifle,’ and then one call from a drill sergeant at their home saying that a trainee with a rifle just got on the bus.”

The senior law enforcement officer credited long-standing relationships with local authorities for enabling a rapid response. Fort Jackson often collaborates with the Columbia Police Department and the local sheriff’s office to investigate crimes and locate AWOL soldiers.

What’s changing at Fort Jackson

One of the impacts of the Collazo incident, Ferrell said, is an increase in frequency for missing and AWOL soldier drills.

“We’ve done more rehearsals…[including] unit-specific rehearsals,” said the provost marshal. “[The units] rehearse their accountability processes and we rehearse how we respond. Because when we do [respond], everybody that has a gun and a badge and a car will go out and scan on the roads and work to find [the soldier].”

Ferrell’s office also conducted a “deep dive” into physical security on the installation alongside the investigating officer for the AR 15-6

“Fort Jackson’s perimeter meets all Army standards for fencing,” he said. “We did a very thorough review of it… [and] we do check the perimeter regularly for irregularities in the fence.”

Army Times also spoke with Col. Mark Huhtanen, who commands one of the installation’s two basic combat training brigades, about how training has changed since the incident.

Huhtanen confirmed that the “pause” in weapons immersion training will stay in place for the foreseeable future.

Before the hijacking, trainees received their weapons early in the training cycle and were responsible for them 24-hours-a-day. Trainees would only receive ammunition when they were on firing ranges, though. Collazo’s unit had not yet been to a range.

Now, trainees must draw their M4s from the unit arms room before doing any weapons training.

The 193rd Infantry Brigade commander argued that the change “is a good thing” and has paradoxically improved the quality of weapons training — and the performance of his trainees on the range.

“While we’ve removed [weapons immersion] out of the instruction period, what we haven’t done is remove the amount of time they have [on the range],” Huhtanen explained. “We’ve seen a slight increase on marksmanship skills [since the incident].”

“I would argue that weapons immersion ... probably didn’t make us as good as we have been,” he said. “Because if you’ve never touched a weapon before, just carrying it doesn’t make you familiar with it. It’s doing the drills.”

Huhtanen said that previously, skills like magazine changes and weapons malfunction drills were primarily addressed in lower-quality “hip pocket training” during down time. “Hip pocket training isn’t always the best training that we can do in the Army,” he added.

“We’re better trainers now because we have to think about when we are going to pull the weapon out, and how we’re going to do that,” he said, pointing to a perfect safety record since May and the qualification score increases as evidence that better quality training is occurring.

Another shift in focus since the Collazo incident has been a renewed emphasis on constant personnel accountability for drill sergeants, Huhtanen said.

More mental health resources

In the wake of Collazo’s alleged attempts to escape from jail, his attorney raised concerns about his mental health at the time of the hijacking.

The Post and Courier, a local newspaper, also reported that in Collazo’s preliminary court hearing in June, investigators detailed significant stressors in the trainee’s life, including purported threats to his family back in New Jersey.

In a program that was slated to begin even before the hijacking, Huhtanen’s brigade piloted an Army Training and Doctrine Command initiative to provide more medical providers to basic combat training brigades. The new providers include a dedicated behavioral health officer for the unit.

Previously, the only way for trainees to receive mental health assistance and treatment was “to evacuate them and get them out of training,” Huhtanen explained. “Now I’ve got the resource inside the brigade where the drill sergeant can pick up the phone and call straight to the behavioral health officer.”

The new medical force structure will soon extend beyond just his brigade, according to Huhtanen.

“We actually had a soldier this week that had an incident out in the Forge,” BCT’s culminating field exercise, Huhtanen said. “[Our behavioral health officer] put on her camo and went out into the field to talk to the soldier, got him straight, and he [went on and] did the night infiltration course.”

Ultimately, the brigade commander said, basic training is still the same experience even after the changes and adjustments.

“I don’t think for the average soldier that the experience has changed,” he said. “I think the incident has made us better here at Fort Jackson.”

Davis Winkie is a staff reporter covering the Army. He originally joined Military Times as a reporting intern in 2020. Before journalism, Davis worked as a military historian. He is also a human resources officer in the Army National Guard.

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