Western Hemisphere Institute at Fort Benning celebrates 13 years

benw@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 21, 2014 

Command staff officers from four U.S. military branches and 10 countries train for an international scenario in which a country has requested assistance to defend itself against an invasion by another country. The training took place at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation on Fort Benning. 03.19.13

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning will mark its 13th anniversary Thursday with a celebration at its new $28 million campus, an official said.

The 9:45 a.m. event will be held in the institute’s auditorium located on Baltzell Avenue on main post. The auditorium is one of five buildings that have been renovated on its campus with eight buildings. The former National Infantry Museum, the main headquarters building, is expected to open in March and two other structures will open next year, said Lee Rials, a public affairs spokesman for the institute.

The institute opened in January 2001 as a Department of Defense education facility after the former School of the Americas closed in December 2000. School of the Americas Watch, a critic of the institute and the former school, said graduates have been linked to human rights abuses in their home countries and has called for its closure in annual protests since 1990.

The institute is projected to train 1,575 students this fiscal year. Currently, the institute has only 62 students in the Command & General Staff Officer Course from Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama and the United States.

A spokesman for SOA Watch said the campus is a waste of money. “The training of repressive forces at the SOA/WHINSEC doesn’t solve the political and social problems in Latin America, but it exasperates the situation and causes more animosity against the United States abroad,” said Hendrik Voss, an SOA Watch organizer. “The millions of dollars that have been wasted by building a new campus for WHINSEC could have been better spent for urgently needed programs here at home.”

The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, the Columbus founder of SOA Watch, pointed to the closure of Marshall Middle School and Edgewood Elementary School last year to save money.

“At what point will people say there might be problems to spend $28 million for these soldiers and law enforcement personnel for places like El Salvador, Colombia and elsewhere, but we don’t have money for our kids to go to schools,” Bourgeois said. “We don’t have money for the homeless in Columbus, Ga. I don’t know when this is going to stop.”

Officials have said the institute promotes democratic values, respect for human rights and an understanding of U.S. customs and traditions.

Rials noted the funding for the campus was in place before the sequester cuts and downturn in the economy. The renovation wasn’t part of the Base Realignment and Closure process. “It was a whole separate activity,” he said.

Some operations of the institute have been using buildings on the new campus since July, Rials said. “I would say WHINSEC is pretty well established in its own right,” he said.

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