As a bulldozer clawed Monday at the charred remains of what was once Fort Benning’s Judge Advocate General’s office following a suspected arson Friday night, post officials scrambled to ensure a new legal services center would be open for business this morning.
Col. Tracy Barnes, staff judge advocate and senior lawyer for Fort Benning, said the entire military community has been pitching in to temporarily relocate basic legal services to the Spouse Training Center, Building 359, 7021 Ingersoll Street. There, soldiers, their families and military retirees can receive assistance with personal legal issues such as filing claims and preparing wills and powers of attorney. The administrative office as well as civil and criminal law will move to the fourth floor of Building 4, Infantry Hall.
Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has taken the lead on the arson investigation and is working with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command. They are offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the apprehension and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the blaze. Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call 706-545-8915 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re disappointed and we certainly want to see whoever’s responsible for this prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but right now we’re focused on reestablishing our legal services for the Fort Benning community and that’s our primary effort right now,” Barnes said.
Former staff judge advocate and Columbus attorney Bob Poydasheff said he’s heartbroken over the loss of the historic structure. “It was the second oldest building at Fort Benning with history upon history upon history,” Poydasheff said Monday. “When I saw it go up in flames I was absolutely devastated.”
The Judge Advocate General’s building was home to a law library containing priceless pieces of military history, Poydasheff said. Also destroyed was the courtroom in which William Calley was convicted of the 1968 murder of 22 Vietnamese citizens at My Lai. His conviction was overturned in 1974 in federal court in Columbus.
“It was all held here,” Poydasheff said of the Calley trial. “The courtroom. My God, do you all realize the history of the courtroom?”
Barnes said he too is upset over the historic loss.
“The SJA office has been in Building 5 for I think over 50 years and it’s a loss not only for my office but for the Fort Benning community,” Barnes said. “It was a historic property, so I think we’re feeling kind of like everyone else does, disappointed and sad about losing the building.”
There was no evidence from pending criminal cases inside the Judge Advocate General’s office, Barnes said, so none of those cases is in jeopardy. That includes approximately 28 pending courts martial. However, copies of clients’ legal documents such as wills, claims and powers of attorney were likely lost in the fire. Barnes advised clients who have recently filed documents to visit the new office on Ingersoll with their original paperwork in hand.
“Building 5 is a crime scene right now,” Barnes said. “You can see evidence tape around the building, so once the crime scene investigation is completed we hope to be able to grab the server which contained all the electronic files for the building and recover information from that server. We’re also trying to recover data from our computers. Some data has been backed up through Web-based applications or e-mail, and of course we make copies of everything we do. I think we’re going to be in pretty good shape as far as recovering all the files that we’ve lost.”
Friday’s fire was reported at 8:50 p.m. Firefighters from Columbus and Fort Benning had it under control by 1 a.m. Saturday. The only reported injury was to a military police officer who was hospitalized for smoke inhalation, though investigators believe the arsonist or arsonists may have received burns or other injuries.
The Judge Advocate General is charged with the defense and prosecution of military law as well as advising soldiers, their families and military retirees on legal issues.
Basic services resume at 9 a.m. today at the Spouse Training Center. Clients with questions can call 706-626-1245.