As in years past, the 2008 Infantry Warfighting Conference has drawn some of the Army's top brass to the area. Unlike previous years, however, these leaders aren't gathering on Fort Benning for the three-day event.
Instead, due to anticipated renovations to Infantry Hall, this year's expo and lecture series is being held in the spacious corridors and meeting rooms of the at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. Tuesday marked the conference's kick-off.
From 8 a.m. to about 4 p.m., Army leaders past and present mingled with some 3,000 uniformed Benning soldiers, all of whom were encouraged to peruse the wares from more than 160 vendors and listen in on to presentations and lectures discussing such topics as raining and weapons systems.
A standing-room-only audience of about 2,200 gathered in the center's main auditorium at 8:30 a.m. to hear and see Fort Benning Post Commander Maj. Gen. Walt Wojdakowski's opening remarks and his "State of the Infantry" address. Keynote speaker Gen. Charles C. Campbell, the 17th Commanding General of United States Armed Forces Command, was also there Tuesday to give attendees an update on Army Force Generation. Sgt. Maj. of the Army, Kenneth O. Preston, also a keynote speaker, was asked to give the "State of the Army" address.
There to speak about the marriage of the Infantry and Armor schools and development of the Maneuver Center of Excellence was the 42nd Chief of Armor for the United States Army Armor School and Fort Knox Brig. Gen. Donald M. Campbell Jr.
In addition to the many lectures and breakout sessions, the day boasted a wide variety of vendors, displaying everything from knives to hydration systems to anti-tank weaponry to robots.
One of the highlights of the annual Infantry Warfighting Conference is always the presentation of the Doughboy awards, given each year by the Cchief of Infantry on behalf of the Infantry community.
This year's awards went to retired Gen. Henry H. Shelton of Tarboro, N.C., and retired Command Sgt. Maj. Gary L. Littrell, of Henderson, Ky. They were honored at the Doughboy Dinner held Tuesday evening at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center for their lifelong contributions to the Infantry.
Shelton, the 14th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, humbly accepted his award on the 45th anniversary of the beginning of his military career, which started at Fort Benning. The date is also significant in that because Shelton and his wife, Carolyn Shelton, were married 45 years ago Tuesday. "Fort Benning, of course, is the home of the Infantry and it's always great to get back here as an infantryman," Shelton said.
H. Ross Perot, former 1992 presidential candidate, friend of Shelton's and a former Doughboy award recipient, flew in Tuesday from his home in Texas to watch his friend receive his Doughboy award.
"General Shelton is a legendary member of the Special Forces," Perot said. "These are the patriots that give us the freedom that, unfortunately, some of us take for granted."
Retired Maj. Gen. Jerry White and retired Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley, another Doughboy award recipient, also attended the the Doughboy Dinner.
Throughout his military career and beyond it, Shelton tirelessly crusaded for his fellow soldiers and infantrymen. It's on their behalf that he accepted his Doughboy award.
While still on active duty, he pushed for the passing of a number of quality-of-life initiatives such as the largest military pay raise in 18 years and improvements in retirement and health care programs.
His advice to infantrymen?
"Well, being in the Infantry is a tough life, it's a challenging life but it's very, very rewarding because, basically, the rest of the U.S. Army, the rest of our military focuses around what the Infantry does. And so my advice to them is it's a wonderful career, a very rewarding profession taking care of our great American citizens and being on the front lines of wherever the action is."
Littrell received his Medal of Honor for his courage and leadership during the Vietnam War. Looking back on a 22-year career in the Infantry, he noted what an honor it is to be among the few chosen for the prestigious Doughboy award.
"Infantry has been my whole life," Littrell said. "Since I was 9 years old, I knew what I wanted to be and I stayed in the Infantry my entire career. And it's indeed an honor and privilege to be selected by my fellow infantryman to receive the Doughboy award."
Once a year, Littrell visits troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to stay connected to with his brothers in arms and pass on his stories and lessons from his many years serving in the Army. "I'm really proud of the young men and women that are wearing our uniform today," Littrell said. "They're doing an outstanding job, and it's a pleasure anytime I get to be in the presence of an Infantryman."