A walking cane in his left hand, a Cavalry Stetson adorned with three stars atop his head, retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore walked.
An 87-year-old battle-scarred soldier in his dress blue uniform, Moore experienced “The Last 100 Yards,” the signature exhibit of the new National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park on Thursday night.
On the eve of the grand opening, about 175 military leaders, past and present, including former Secretary of State and retired Gen. Colin Powell and Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, gathered for a formal dinner and tour of the facility. The gathering included philanthropists from Columbus and throughout the country who helped make the museum possible.
On this night, Moore walked through the American Revolution, into the Civil War, into two World Wars and through Korea.
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All along the way, he stopped and dutifully read the markers describing each battle depicted.
He walked slowly, but he walked with purpose.
As Moore neared the top of the ramp, he stopped.
Vietnam. Air Assault at Landing Zone X-Ray.
“I am familiar with this one,” he said as he marched toward the marker.
He stopped. Got as close to the words describing battle as his eyes would allow. He squinted. And he read every single word.
As he read, his face was a portrait of concentration, lips pursed.
He walked up to the helicopter, a video screen playing on the inside. The grass moved as if the chopper was landing.
It was all too real.
He looked into the face of one of the soldiers captured in a large photo inside the exhibit.
“That was one of my men,” Moore said.
These were Moore’s men, this was his fight.
What happened on that field in Southeast Asia was first a book, “We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young,” written by Moore and journalist Joe Galloway, and then a major Hollywood movie.
As Moore walked out the Vietnam War and onto the desert sands of the most recent wars, he stopped and looked back.
“It felt like I was going backward in time and memories,” Moore said while standing on the 100-yard ramp.
His words were choked with emotion.
Moore’s friend Toby Warren put the experience into words the lieutenant general could not.
“He will not sleep tonight,” Warren said. “This reconnected him to his heart, all that his life has been about.”
Moore’s wife, Julie Compton Moore, a soldier of a different kind on the home front during those trying times, is buried just up the hill in Fort Benning Main Post Cemetery. She died five years ago.
The walk through the historic battles helped Moore put his place in history into perspective.
“He told me the book was for the men; the movie was for the men,” Warren said of Moore. “But walking through there it was not just for his men, but for all of the dead of this country including his men.”
Moore stopped as he got to the top of the ramp.
He simply said, “I’m speechless.”
Aflac Chairman Dan Amos walked the ramp, too, as soldiers — past and present — and those who made the $91 million museum a reality gathered for a meal before today’s dedication.
“I have seen a lot of people tonight who are speechless,” Amos said.
Retired Columbus businessman Benjamin Hardaway III gave the museum his seal of approval. Hardaway, a World War II veteran who landed at Omaha Beach, was one of the many donors who made the museum possible.
“This is above my expectations — and they were high to start with,” he said. “I can’t see one thing that I would criticize.”
Powell walked the ramp shortly after Moore. He will be the keynote speaker at today’s dedication.
As Powell got to the top of the ramp, National Infantry Foundation Chairman Jerry White, a retired major general and former Fort Benning commander, was explaining the symbolism of the American flag on a large video screen with soldiers marching out of the desert and into future battles.
Powell just nodded.
“Now that I have seen it, this is a remarkable tribute to the Infantry, the Infantry School and, frankly, the community that has supported it for so long,” Powell said.
For some old warriors, the museum was an important trip into the past.
“I think this will help close a chapter in his life,” Moore’s friend Warren said. “This was a very serious trip.”