Commentary: Stand back and marvel at the National Infantry Museum

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJune 14, 2009 

Stand in front of the National Infantry Museum and look at it.

You don’t have to go inside. Just stand in the parking lot that stretches for more than a half-mile between South Lumpkin Road and Fort Benning Boulevard.

Look at the “Follow Me” statue, right arm raised, weapon clutched in its left hand. The bronze-plated soldier is perched atop a granite pedestal, underneath a magnificent dome.

Just stand there for a minute and look at it all — the statue, the massive red brick building, the manicured lawn leading to a grand parade field where soldiers will march out of training and into service, the restored World War II-era barracks and buildings.

Before you know it, you’ve spent 30 minutes standing, staring and thinking.

“It’s a stunning statement,” Columbus State University President Tim Mescon said after a recent visit to the $91 million project.

Don’t just take the word of an academic.

Ask a business leader.

“It’s the vehicle that will allow South Columbus to take flight,” said Bob Koon, a retired Columbus textile executive and civic leader.

But it’s about more than business. It’s about the soldier, and the soldier’s rich history.

Ask one. He’ll tell you.

“This museum becomes a teaching tool,” said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a decorated military leader who has been involved in the fundraising for the complex.

The National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park officially opens Friday morning. After more than a decade of planning and two years of construction, the museum will be available to anyone who wants to visit. And the National Infantry Foundation is counting on almost 400,000 people — more than twice the population of Columbus — to visit annually.

In recent weeks, some have been getting sneak peeks at the museum, including “The Last 100 Yards,” its signature exhibit showcasing the Infantry’s key battles.

Mescon admits he’s a sample of one, but he’s one who is mighty impressed.

“That 100-yard walk may be among the most emotional journeys I have taken personally,” he said. “It’s a testimony to the founding principles of this country and the whole concept — for right or wrong — that it takes a strong fighting army to assure our position in the world.”

It will be a place where the past meets the future. And the museum becomes an interactive classroom for future soldiers, McCaffrey said.

“Fort Benning is one of the most important institutions in the nation, more so than a Harvard or a Stanford,” McCaffrey said. “The survival of our nation depends on institutions like Quantico, Fort Benning, Fort Sill, Fort Knox and others. This museum becomes a teaching tool. The veterans who come home to Fort Benning will intersect with the 18-year-olds who have stepped forward to defend us.”

Ask another soldier. Retired Gen. Ed Burba spent four years at Fort Benning in the mid-1980s, first as deputy commander, then commander.

“There are bonding agents in the military that are incomparable to anything in the civilian sector,” Burba said. “This museum has been able to capture the essence of those bonding agents. It is a truly remarkable museum that tells that ethos and history of the sacrifices made by soldiers throughout the history of our country.”

As you go inside and look at the past, you can stop at a window at the back of the museum and see the future.

That is one of the things that struck Mescon.

“Can you imagine being in the back of that museum and looking out and watching a graduation ceremony?” Mescon asked.

As Fort Benning transforms from the Home of the Infantry into the Maneuver Center of Excellence, bringing the Armor School into the fold, the museum will be an important link to the past.

Just ask retired Lt. Gen. Carmen Cavezza, a former Fort Benning commander employed at Columbus State University.

“With the Maneuver Center coming in, we are going to lose the Infantry mystique,” Cavezza said. “People will see in time that the Maneuver Center is the right answer. The museum will support and prepare that heritage. The Infantry Museum will be the focal point for the Infantry, where in the past it was just a depository.”

The new museum is more than a depository.

It’s a story line into the history of the nation. Each time you walk the 100 yards, you will notice something different. The first time you walk it, you will probably be in awe. The second time, you may notice the difference in the weapons carried by the soldier mannequins that bring historic battles to life. The third time, it may be the progression of uniforms.

Who knows what it will be after that. But here’s the bet it will be something.

“I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but this could be in any world-class city and that city would be honored and thrilled to have it,” Mescon said. “If the name of the game is economic development, it should be for Georgia and this region a thriving incubator for economic development. It should be the gift that keeps on giving.”

Just go look at it.

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