They were neighbors on Arrowhead Road, young officers with young families, embarking on Army careers that would take them to war and put stars on their shoulders.
Gen. Colin Powell and retired Maj. Gen. Jerry White return to Fort Benning today for an event neither could have imagined 50 years ago. Together they open a museum that honors the generations of Infantrymen who came before them and the ones who have followed.
The retired generals aren’t young anymore and active duty is behind them, but they’re forever linked to their chosen branch and to an Army post that honed them.
How fitting it is for Powell to be the primary speaker at today’s opening of the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park. For like so many others, the foundation of his career was built here.
White will be at his side. This former post commander has been the single-minded force behind this remarkable project nestled in the woods near Fort Benning’s main gate.
Like them, we’ve followed the museum from conception to reality. As its doors open, remember the winding path that brought these Infantrymen to this day, a path I encountered researching and writing “Home of the Infantry.”
Powell was introduced to Fort Benning in 1959 as a student at the Officer’s Basic Course. He graduated Top 10 in his class. He went to Ranger School and returned in 1966 as a member of the faculty at the Infantry School.
Life wasn’t always as successful. In his memoirs, Powell remembered that in this segregated time he could shop at Woolworth’s but couldn’t use their men’s room.
“I felt anger,” he recalled. “But most of all I felt challenged. I’ll show you.”
As a soldier, his three weeks at the Infantry School’s Instruction’s Course were pivotal.
“We were peer-evaluated, merit-boarded, scored, graded and critiqued to death,” Powell noted. He was first in the class.
As Secretary of State during a time of war, Powell often turned to another Benning graduate who went from the military into diplomacy. In his office was a portrait of George C. Marshall — a personal hero.
“When I’m sitting in my office and I’m dealing with the most difficult problems — I look straight at George,” Powell said.
White can’t escape the shadows of the jump towers either.
He was post commander when the last Huey helicopter flew its final mission in 1994. He was in charge when the post was designated as the Best Army Installation in the Army and the Best Large Installation in the Continental United States. With money from such awards, White made improvements all over the post.
When White retired, Gen. Frederick Franks called him a soldier with a “Follow Me” spirit. He also talked about the role of the men and women who served.
“When it’s all said and done, regardless of the technology, there’s going to be another dark night, and some soldier’s going to have to work through the mud and pull out his bayonet and take an objective.”
That’s Jerry White.
Ask the contractors on the museum project. They will tell you how well that fits. He has overlooked construction with the will of a general.
Powell and White represent the Infantry. They also represent the contributions the Army and Fort Benning continue to make — to the world and to our community. Today the two old soldiers turn the lock on a facility that honors those contributions.
And they also honor Arrowhead Road.
Richard Hyatt is also found at www.richardhyattcolumbus.com