The way Brian Anderson sees it, now is not a moment for taking a deep breath after learning that the U.S. Army is eliminating a combat brigade at Fort Benning, costing the post 3,400 soldiers and the surrounding community valuable jobs.
“I guess I learned in my history coming from the carpet capital of the world, is what you’re allowed today can literally be taken from right out under you,” said the new president and chief executive officer of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. Anderson was in charge of the chamber of commerce in Dalton, Ga., as the carpet-manufacturing hub there convulsed from layoffs and plant closures during the Great Recession.
On Monday, the Columbus chamber said it is launching immediately an aggressive campaign to protect Fort Benning and the surrounding region from future federal budget cuts, especially those that could occur as part of mandated “sequestration” reductions in federal spending, which would force the Army to downsize even more.
Terming the effort a “battle” against sequestration, the organization said it will include a range of activities — public service ads on TV, radio and billboards, a website that will have updates, articles and videos, and an online petition calling for the defense of Fort Benning. As of late Monday afternoon, the petition at www.growbenning.com had more 400 electronic signatures.
Anderson said the campaign is aimed at driving home the fact that the local military post is not just any installation, and needs consideration for growth in missions and personnel during any future Base Realignment and Closure processes considered by U.S. military and political leaders.
“It’s a crucial base that has, really, the fulcrum of our Army might, with the training brigades being here and the 75th Ranger Regiment (troops), who basically are the first responders to a worldwide conflict if there ever is one,” Anderson said of his message to federal budget decision-makers. “It’s critical to the security of our nation ... Don’t let this artificial knee-jerk (sequestration) procedure stay in place. Do the responsible thing and reform the federal budget adequately that allows us also to be safe and secure.”
The local media campaign follows the Army’s announcement last Friday that the military branch is cutting its active-duty force from 490,000 to 450,000 soldiers by the end of the federal fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017. Future sequestration cuts could reduce the Army to 420,000 troops.
Former Fort Benning commander, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (then a major general), threw out the 420,000 number during a Columbus leadership forum speech nearly two years ago, and he didn’t mince words.
“This will be the smallest Army we’ve had since 1939. I think it’s a risk considering what’s taking place around the world,” he said before tossing in a bit of a barb that the American public gets the “Army you’re willing to pay for.”
The current Army cuts of 40,000 soldiers will bring the number of troops from a peak Iraq-Afghanistan wartime level of 570,000 down to 450,000. There also will be about 17,000 civilian employees Army-wide impacted by the current round, although specific numbers connected to Fort Benning and other installations have yet to be released.
Fort Benning’s 4,000-person 3rd Armored Brigade combat team, part of the 3rd Infantry Division headquartered at Fort Stewart in southeast Georgia, is being replaced with a battalion task force of 1,050 individuals. The smaller unit will be capable of expanding to create a combat team if the military needs to do that.
Once the current reductions are in place, the Army will have reduced its total number of brigade combat teams from 45 to 30.
Last week, Fort Benning said the cuts just announced will cut $229 million from the local economy in lost sales and overall spending, with lost annual income amounting to $198 million. The chamber’s numbers are lower, but still steep, with an estimated regional annual buying power/salary loss of $139 million.
Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said the odds of Fort Benning losing the 3rd Brigade had been growing through the years. But the fact that it was the only loss suffered in the latest cutbacks, to her, sends a good message and will help in the fight against future sequestration cuts.
“I think it sends a message to the Department of Defense that we have state-of-the-art facilities with additional capacity,” she said. “And, given that, we need to be a recipient of your next BRAC. So the fact that they just adjusted the 3rd Brigade, I think it shows they’re getting our house in order for the next BRAC, and I really like our odds in the next BRAC.”