FORT BENNING, Ga. — Fort Benning and Columbus not only dodged a bullet Tuesday, with the U.S. Department of Army announcing long-awaited troop and unit cuts. But the installation looks to actually pick up about 76 jobs after the smoke settles.
At stake after several months of intense scrutiny was the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team and its 3,850 soldiers, along with 3,200 civilian workers. Nearly 7,100 jobs in all on post were potentially on the chopping block as the drama unfolded.
“We never went in there and said this will have a tremendous economic impact, please don’t do that,” said Gary Jones, an economic development and military affairs executive at the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, describing the strategy taken by local city leaders in meeting Army officials.
Instead, the group laid out how U.S. taxpayers and the local community had invested so heavily in Fort Benning during the last Base Realignment and Closure process, including new rail heads and the moving the U.S. Armor School here from Fort Knox, Ky. And it showed how the military could remain fine-tuned for future world conflicts, while growing the troop numbers here.
“We actually laid out a program to show if they had to take a brigade from the 3rd Infantry Division, that if they took the brigade from the Fort Stewart main body, it would minimize the impact,” said Jones, noting the chamber and Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson had the chance to meet face-on-face with the Army team studying the cuts.
In the end, Jones said, Fort Stewart, Ga., home to the 3rd Infantry Division, the 3rd Brigade’s parent unit, will lose one of its three brigades there. But the remaining two brigade’s at that post will each pick up a new “maneuver” battalion, just as the Fort Benning brigade will as part of the Army’s goal of reducing its overall number, while streamlining its force.
Jones, a retired Army colonel, estimated as the transformation occurs over the next four years, the 3rd Brigade will lose some of its elements. But with the new maneuver battalion being added, it will grow from 3,850 individuals to a troop strength of as many as 4,600. The 3rd Brigade currently has six battalions.
Fort Stewart, meanwhile, will only lose about 1,800 troops, with the 2,000 or so soldiers in the two new battalions there offsetting the deactivation of the 3,800-person brigade.
Adding the “maneuver battalions” is meant to streamline the brigades, with fewer headquarters and support personnel, but making them very efficient, fast and lethal as they respond to future crises. The 3rd Infantry Division, and Fort Benning’s 3rd Brigade specifically, was one of the most deployed Army units during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Army itself is downsizing from a war-time high of 570,000 troops to about 490,000 active-duty soldiers as the U.S. exits those conflicts and repositions itself to post-war military levels to save money. The process includes slicing the Army’s combat brigades from 45 to 33.
Aside from Fort Stewart, the Army said Tuesday it is eliminating combat brigades at Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Carson, Colo.; Fort Drum, N.Y.; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Knox, Ky.; Fort Riley, Kansas; and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. Two combat brigades in Baumholder and Grafenwoehr, Germany, will deactivate this year.
Becoming a survivor in a battle of budgetary attrition generated a huge sigh of relief from the ranks of Columbus-area leadership fighting to keep the 3rd Brigade alive and well at Fort Benning’s Maneuver Center of Excellence.
“The possibility of losing a brigade from Fort Benning was real, and I thank the Columbus community, including the chamber, on all its efforts in averting an adverse conclusion,” U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Georgia congressman who represents the post, said in a statement. “I stood with the city in our advocacy for Columbus and now stand with the city in thanking Army Leadership for the particularly positive outcome of their decision.”
In a quickly called news conference Tuesday afternoon at the chamber of commerce, a beaming Mayor Tomlinson expressed thanks for all who contributed to the effort that stemmed losses at Fort Benning.
“I have a prized T-shirt that says, “Hooah! It’s an Army thing,” she said before thanking Jones and his team for the work they did in stating the city’s case.
“United States taxpayers have invested over $3.5 billion in Fort Benning with the recent BRAC growth, and that is an investment and an asset that should be optimized,” Tomlinson said. “As we continue on over the next months, and perhaps years, with sequester talk, we certainly hope that that investment and resource continues to be valued.”
Chamber President Mike Gaymon called the saga involving Fort Benning “the most important economic development opportunity facing our whole region,” while chamber chair Jacki Lowe said it was exciting to see the “greatest economic engine” in the area not only staying strong, but growing.
Columbus Development Authority chair Dick Ellis also pointed out how a recent analysis done by the chamber had added up 11,000 jobs created locally over the past decade in the community. The loss of 7,100 jobs would have been extremely painful, he said.
“It would have almost wiped out 10 years of work that everybody has done,” he said.
In fact, had possible cuts discussed in the military’s study, “Programmatic Environmental Assessment for Army 2020 Force Restructuring,” been fully implemented locally, the damage to the economy could have been brutal.
Aside from the 7,100 military and civilian job cuts at Fort Benning, the impact would have rippled into the surrounding Columbus-Phenix City area. That would have hurt housing, retail and service businesses. The study suggested the metro area’s population could have declined by as many as 17,800 people.
Instead, numbers released Tuesday by the Army indicate Fort Benning’s active-duty personnel number should be about 13,100 by the year 2019. That’s higher than the 10,600 active personnel in 2001, prior to the Sept. 11 terroristic attacks.
“You put a smile on my face,” retired Army Lt. Gen. R.L. “Sam” Wetzel, former Fort Benning commander, said when told Tuesday that Fort Benning had been spared the budget ax. He personally participated in the public forums earlier this year. “I was sweating that baby out, I’ll tell you. You never know what’s going on with the people in Washington.”
Wetzel believes having Lawson Army Airfield at Fort Benning was one of the major selling points.
“The brigade is able to rapidly deploy,” he aid. “It makes sense not to move them out in the center of nowhere or disband them.” Adolph McLendon, mayor of Richland, Ga., just south of the 182,000-acre military installation founded in 1918, said he was pleased to see the budget cutting resolved.
“We are not Columbus here, but it means just as much,” he said. “I think it will make a lot of difference for all of us.”
While local city leaders received word of the Army’s downsizing reprieve around lunchtime Tuesday, it wasn’t until late afternoon that Fort Benning got official notice, said post spokeswoman Monica Manganaro.
Staff writer Ben Wright contributed to this report.