Colin Powell knows Fort Benning well.
A career that led the retired general to military’s highest ranks and into diplomatic service was forged in the heat and humidity of west Georgia.
When the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff started his speech to officially open the $91 million National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park, Powell paused Friday morning.
“It would not be a certified Fort Benning ceremony if it were not 95 degrees and the troops had to be in the sun,” Powell said. “It had to be this way.”
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What Powell called “the finest tribute to the American soldier anywhere” opened after more than a decade of planning, fundraising and hard work. A crowd estimated at 4,000 attended the museum dedication and basic training graduation that preceded it.
The museum tells the 234-year-old story of the Infantry soldier from the early days of the Revolutionary War to the sands of the Persian Gulf.
“This site is much more than a mere memorial,” Powell said. “The word ‘museum’ is inadequate to describe it.”
And Powell was “the perfect person for the lofty role” of marking the moment, said U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Georgia Democrat who was instrumental in helping the National Infantry Foundation secure the federal funds necessary for building the museum.
Bishop then listed Powell’s accomplishments, which culminated as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War and secretary of state under President George W. Bush.
“But first and foremost,” Bishop said, “he’s an Infantryman.”
Powell said as much as he delivered a 15-minute speech with the “Follow Me” statute and the museum’s entrance just to his left.
“Benning molded me and made me a professional Infantryman,” Powell said.
Then he laughed, rattling off the orders he’d heard as a young officer a half-century ago.
“Lieutenant, don’t stand there with your finger in your ear and your brain in Alabama,” Powell remembered being told more than once.
The lessons he learned as a soldier at Benning were simple and unforgettable, Powell said.
“I learned never to be without a watch, a pencil and a notebook,” he said.
Powell learned not only how to follow orders while stationed at Fort Benning, but also how to lead soliders.
“You know you are a good leader when troops will follow you out of curiosity,” he said.
But in the end, it is not curiosity that defines a leader. It’s something more basic: trust.
“They trust you and you trust them,” he said. “Trust is the essence of the Infantry.”
And the Infantry is the critical element in U.S. military arsenal, Powell said.
He told a war story that’s more than 100 years old to make his point about not only the Infantry’s necessity, but also its primary purpose.
And Powell, noting the irony, said the need for boots on the ground was summed up best by a Navy officer.
During the Spanish-American War in 1898, Adm. George Dewey, then a commander, sailed from China to the Philippines to battle the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. Dewey’s sailors easily defeated the Spanish, sinking the fleet.
The battle was won with no loss of American life.
Dewey proudly sent back word of the conquest.
“The telegram came back, ‘Have you taken Manila?’” Powell said.
Dewey again reported the conquest, and again the question from the higher command was “Have you taken Manila?”
“He sent word back: For tenure of the land you must have the man with a rifle,” Powell said. “Planes fly away, ships sail away, but our mission is to take land.”
The Infantry has taken a 200-acre swath of south Columbus and Fort Benning real estate for a lasting tribute to the soldier.
Perhaps the proudest soldier on that turf Friday was National Infantry Foundation Chairman retired Maj. Gen. Jerry White.
“I have never been more proud,” White said minutes after the museum opened and hundreds of people marched inside for the air conditioning and a tour of the expansive facility and its exhibits and artifacts.
It would have never happened without White’s determination, Columbus Mayor Jim Wetherington said.
“General White saw a need and he said ‘Follow Me,’” Wetherington said.
While White was the driving force behind the public-private partnership, White offered high praise for Bishop. Nearly a third of the $91 million raised so far came from the federal government, and Bishop has been pushing for funds for more than a decade.
“Without him none of what you see today would be possible,” White said. “There has never been a better friend of the soldier and a better friend of Fort Benning than Congressman Sanford Bishop. He worked tirelessly for this project.”
White also thanked the private donors who have given millions to the effort. About a decade ago, he met with retired W.C. Bradley Co. Chairman Bill Turner, who told the general he was not thinking big enough in his plans for the new museum.
The Bradley-Turner Foundation has been the largest private donor to the project.
White looked at Turner, who was one of many private donors at the ceremony, and asked, “Bill, are we thinking big enough today?”
The day was big enough to fill a parking lot that stretches for more than a half-mile in front of the museum. Cars lined Fort Benning Boulevard and South Lumpkin Road.
Veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the two Gulf wars stood and sat in the heat.
Current soldiers dressed in the uniforms of seven conflicts dating back to the Revolutionary War stood guard at the rotunda leading into the museum.
When all the speeches were done, the honor of officially opening the museum fell to Powell and Bishop.
They were given a sword forged for the first fight 234 years ago. Using that symbol of the past, they sliced the red ribbon that was blocking the entrance.
As Bishop held it, he said he felt a great sense of accomplishment.
“I was thinking about how far this project had come,” Bishop said.