Retired Maj. Gen. Jerry White wanted to honor them. The grateful, proud and generous rallied to his cause.

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJune 14, 2009 

It stands as a winding, uphill symbol of wars past and great sacrifices.

The last 100 yards.

The Infantry, the motto goes, owns it. And to enter the signature exhibit at the new National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park, you have to walk it, feel it, witness it.

Starting with the Revolutionary War, through the Civil War battle at Antietam, into World War I, then World War II, Korea, Vietnam and finally the sands of the Persian Gulf, you march.

Each step takes you deeper into battle.

“The infantry soldier wants you to go with him through history,” said retired Maj. Gen. Jerry White, president and chairman of the National Infantry Foundation.

Even after more than a decade of planning, fundraising and execution, White gets emotional when he stands on the 100-yard ramp.

Today, he stands in the middle of a new chapter of infantry history. This isn’t a battle on a far away field, but an effort by old soldiers, civilians and state and federal governments to make sure those who fought are remembered and honored.

“The Last 100 Yards” is the centerpiece exhibit of the new museum.

It also symbolizes the public-private partnership to build a lasting monument to the infantryman.

A monumental effort is clearly in its last 100 yards.

Off Fort Benning Boulevard near Fort Benning, long the home of the Infantry, sits a $53 million brick and concrete structure that houses the museum and U.S. Army artifacts from 235 years of battle.

It officially opens Friday.

The $91 million project includes a parade field where soldiers completing basic training will march into the Army.

There is a restaurant, IMAX theater and souvenir store.

“It’s unbelievable,” said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who signed on four years ago to help lead the Washington, D.C., portion of the capital campaign. “World class.”

And still a work in progress.

Recently, White stood inside the museum’s IMAX theater and admitted there is still work to do, including completing the fundraising efforts.

“We still have a war to win,” White said. “We’ve won the battle.”

The last 100 yards is a fitting analogy, said retired Lt. Gen. Carmen Cavezza, a former Fort Benning commander now working at Columbus State University.

“The museum is an emotional thing; the infantry is an emotional thing,” Cavezza said. “The last 100 yards, you better be going 90 miles per hour — emotion and enthusiasm are what get you there. It’s not the time to be analytical. If you don’t have a plan and a vision in place, you’re in trouble.”

The beginning

The first shot in the war was fired by White in 1993 when he was Fort Benning’s commanding general.

The old World War II era buildings on post were scheduled for demolition. Included were officer’s quarters once used by Gen. George Patton.

About that time, the National Infantry Association was formed with the idea of saving those buildings and constructing a World War II street behind the existing museum on post.

Those buildings now comprise World War II Street, an immersive exhibit that sits behind the new museum.

Fifteen years ago, White could not have imagined this.

“I would like to say I did,” he said. “But I didn’t.”

The National Infantry Association — spearheaded by White, retired Maj. Gen. Ken Leuer and retired Col. Biff Hadden — was the forerunner to the National Infantry Foundation, organized in 1998 and the driving force behind the project.

The foundation, shortly after its founding, commissioned a feasibility study for a possible museum.

The Army mandates a museum as part of its training and teaching. But the Army doesn’t mandate or fully fund a $91 million project that also promises to be the economic engine to help revitalize South Columbus.

That would require significant contributions from the private sector.

In 1998, White was out of the Army and back in Columbus as the executive director of the United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley.

Still at the helm of the National Infantry Association, he began to talk about a new museum.

In the afterglow of Columbus’ successful hosting of the Olympic softball competition, White met with business and civic leaders with the idea of renovating the old main post hospital that was being used as a museum.

Bill Turner, retired W.C. Bradley Co. chairman, challenged White to think bigger and bolder.

The initial idea centered around a $20 million project.

But it was all talk and no plan.

That is when a consultant was hired to bring focus to the effort.

“One suggestion was to put it in the empty Eagle & Phenix mill downtown, another was to put it in a string of buildings connected by a trolley,” National Infantry Foundation Executive Director Ben Williams said. “But as the information kept coming back, the consensus was to put it as close to Fort Benning as possible.”

The goal was to get it off post, but that alone created a host of governmental and Department of Defense issues, not the least of which was that almost every artifact to be displayed was owned by the Army and the museum was, in large part, a private effort.

“The museum is on private property, not government property, so we had to get the Army to agree to move the artifacts off post,” White said. “Not only did we have to build it, we had to prove we could secure it.”

A three-way memorandum of understanding between the foundation, Fort Benning and the Center of Military History in October 2000 paved the way for a museum to be located off post.

A site in South Columbus near the Chattahoochee Riverwalk was selected after the agreement was reached.

A 200-acre chunk of land owned by the city of Columbus and Fort Benning was the logical spot to put the museum. The land, 90 acres of which was a lightly used city park, was located between South Lumpkin Road and Benning Drive, once the main road entering the post.

The challenges

There were significant hurdles in all directions — not the least of which were money and perception.

“There were a lot of non-believers who did not think we could pull this off,” White said. “Fortunately for us, they were not the ones with the wherewithal to help us.”

One reason for the lack of faith was the price tag. After the initial consultants got through, it was estimated to cost about $70 million.

As the plans were being formulated and put in place from 1999 to 2002, the nonprofit National Infantry Foundation had one employee — Williams, a retired Columbus Bank & Trust Co. executive.

In August 2002, the foundation leased office space at Corporate Center downtown and turned its attention to fundraising.

About that time, White left United Way and became the full-time face of the project. Greg Camp, a retired Army colonel, left a job at TSYS to join the team.

Williams was assigned the red tape, working out all the agreements and financing needed to keep the project rolling.

White and Camp directed the fundraising efforts.

They began working their considerable Army contacts for help. That included some top brass.

McCaffrey, a retired four-star general, was one of the big guns recruited to solicit contributions, as were other high-profile military leaders, including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

“Every time Jerry White or Greg Camp called, I did what they asked me to,” McCaffrey said. “I am involved in a lot of things, but this is the best managed and most successful, spectacular outcome of anything I have seen.”

Camp also turned over rocks looking for money. That’s how he discovered Gordon Cain, a Houston businessman and philanthropist.

By the time Camp heard of him, Cain had been dead for several years, but the Gordon A. Cain Foundation was very much alive.

One night, Camp was watching CNN when he saw a scroll across the bottom about a $100 million donation to the University of North Carolina.

Camp went to the computer and his research led him to a book written by Cain called “Everybody Wins.”

Camp ordered it.

In the book, Cain talked about business success and attributed it to the principles and values he learned as an Army officer. Several times in the book, Fort Benning was mentioned.

White wrote a letter to Jim Weaver, Cain’s stepson who directs the foundation.

That led to a face-to-face meeting and a $1 million contribution.

“Jim is still helping us today to try and secure donors,” Camp said.

About $90 million has been pledged to the foundation, with $75 million already collected. It has come from foundations, private individuals and, in the case of South Korea, foreign governments. The fundraising goal is $105 million, which leaves the foundation about $15 million short.

As the foundation was looking for major donors, the tack shifted.

“We first started finding people with military connections and seeing if they were rich,” Camp said. “Then we started to look for people who were rich and see if they have connections to the military.”

At present, the contributions to the museum can roughly be divided into three parts. About a third of the money has come from the federal government and allies such as Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, an Army World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient. Another third has been raised locally in Columbus, where the largest contributor has been the Bradley-Turner Foundation. The final third of the money has come from foundations and individuals outside of Columbus.

With significant money still to raise, retired Gen. Ed Burba, chairman of the Infantry Foundation Advisory Committee and an assistant commandant and commander at Fort Benning in the 1980s, said it will be difficult, but this project could run counter to conventional wisdom.

“The experts in fundraising say once it’s on the ground and open, it will be more difficult,” Burba said. “I am not ready to sign up for that.”

The reason is the emotional attachment of the men and women who fought, and those who support them.

“You know, that may be the case in the vast majority of museums, community and national projects,” Burba said. “But this is such a special project. I don’t think it is going to be hard. I think it will be easier once everyone sees it and wants to be a part of it. It’s a remarkable monument to the Infantry soldier.”

As the Infantry Foundation’s offices have moved from downtown to the new museum, White said it has brought a new reality to the situation.

“When we were at the Corporate Center, it was just a dream,” White said. “Once we got out here it was real.”

The commitment

At the core of that team has been Williams, the businessman, and White and Camp, the general and the colonel.

“Greg goes back and breathes life into the people I kill along the way,” White said of Camp.

Throughout the process, White has demanded full commitment from those who worked on the project.

Brent Johnson, the senior exhibit designer out of Boston, had just finished working on several projects, including the United States Institute of Peace museum in Washington when he signed up for the infantry museum.

In 2004, Johnson and his team were in Columbus to meet with White. The general wanted them to taste what it meant to be Army strong.

“We had just finished our meeting and went to our posh hotel,” Johnson recalled. “We were going to get up about 9 and take a leisurely drive out to Fort Benning.”

The plan was to learn a little about basic training.

Shortly after 5 the next morning, a drill sergeant called from the hotel lobby.

Johnson doesn’t remember the whole conversation, but he does remember the part about “get your sorry butts up.”

Johnson hung up on him.

On the third call, hanging up wasn’t an option.

The civilians were put through a simulated basic training. It was then, Johnson said, that he began to realize this project was different from the others he had worked on.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Johnson said.

And it showed the level of commitment White was demanding of those working on the project.

“You don’t want to disappoint the man,” Johnson said. “You realize how hard he has worked on this for 10-plus years. Besides, you don’t want to tick off a general.”

At one point during the project, White ordered Johnson to start doing push-ups.

“I have never done that for a client before,” Johnson said.

Since then, an army of construction and exhibit workers has spent more than two years hammering, sawing, painting and carefully putting artifacts in place.

White calls these workers his soldiers.

“If I am upstairs and I get a little uptight, I come down here and talk to my boys,” he said.

White has been essential to the project.

“Jerry is in every brick, mortar, window, display and artifact,” Burba said. “It’s his heart and soul beautifully reflected. He’s not one to ask for a lot of credit. His design was to honor the infantry soldier who has given so much — some of them the ultimate sacrifice.”

Cavezza puts it this way: “Jerry is the man. He made it happen.”

The impact

Just what White and the National Infantry Foundation have made happen, no one is sure yet.

McCaffrey believes that as word spreads of the museum’s quality, people from all walks of life will appear in large numbers.

A 2005 Columbus State University study estimated that as many as 500,000 people could visit the museum each year, and that the economic impact could reach $50 million and create 400 new jobs.

“The military history buffs of America are going to Columbus to see that museum, as are the veterans of our wars,” McCaffrey said.

There will likely be other pieces to the sprawling complex. When the Armor Division moves to Fort Benning in the next two years, an armor museum will have to be planned and executed.

“We are not done with it,” McCaffrey said. “The armor museum is vitally important. And it is more sensitive than just the nature of the curriculum. The armor community wants to make sure their wartime efforts are honored as well.”

But the bar has been set high by the new infantry museum.

And it has been built in the right place, Burba said.

“I can’t imagine any other location in the country that would be able to generate this magnificent monument to the American soldier than Columbus,” Burba said. “In my judgment, it is the strongest military community in the nation. It’s almost like the entire Columbus populace is part of the infantry. They pull together with us like they are soldiers.”

And White, like Burba, believes the final financial pieces will fall neatly into place over the coming months.

“We cannot fail,” White said. “This is not just a business venture. Sure, I understand the economic development aspect of this. But this is about honoring the soldiers. Failure is not an option, and has not been since Day One.”

ContactChuck Williams at 706-320-4485

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