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Experience inspires civilian leaders, students

What does a Soldier do? Hundreds of businessmen, educators, academic leaders and students from across the country got an up-close look Thursday, converging on Fort Benning for a day of activities centered on teaching the public about the military.

The Army Strong Experience brings together “centers of influence and shows them what the Army is about,” said Col. Fred Johnson, commander of the Army Accessions Support Brigade at Fort Knox, Ky.

The event was organized by the brigade’s U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, in conjunction with youth sporting events over the weekend drawing in students from colleges across the country.

“We wanted to provide an opportunity where they can learn more about the options, opportunities, education and leadership the Army provides, and there’s no better way to do that than to see our Soldiers in action,” said Lt. Col. Dan Hodne, commander of the USAMU. “They’re coming to the home of Infantry, home of Armor, home of Cavalry they will see real Soldiers. It’s a tremendous opportunity to connect America’s Army with America’s people.”

The event kicked off with a Rangers in Action demonstration at Hurley Hill, where Rangers showcased their knowledge by detonating explosives, jumping from helicopters into water, rappelling from towers, racing down zip lines and performing hand-to-hand combat.

The audience moved to the USAMU’s Hook Range for a shotgun demonstration by current men’s double trap world champion and frontrunner for an Olympic berth, Staff Sgt. Josh Richmond, and skeet shooter Staff Sgt. Mark Weeks.

The “Army Adventure” semi-truck and trailer were set up for students to explore. The inside of the 18-wheeler features an Apache helicopter cockpit, the driver’s seat of an M1A2 Abrams tank and a gaming station. The trailer has a marksmanship pistol trainer, Connect Xbox gaming area and an Army leadership challenge station.

The semi-truck is one of five themed trucks owned by the support brigade’s Mission Support Battalion, which provides mobile and fixed assets that travel the country supporting local recruiters in telling the Army story, said battalion commander Lt. Col. Dave Stewart.

The battalion also has interactive semi-trucks and customized humvees known as multi-exhibit vehicles.

“We want to teach them something new and break down some of those barriers,” Stewart said. “(I’ve heard) moms say ‘my son’s in the Army but I don’t necessarily know what he does.’ We can show them, let them put on some of the equipment.”

The third event of the day was the “Airborne 5000,” a demonstration of what students learn in Airborne School, kicked off by members of the Silver Wings, Fort Benning’s command exhibition parachute team, skydiving onto Eubanks Field and landing feet away from the audience.

A hands-on training exercise at Red Cloud Range rounded out the day. From packed stands overlooking the range, hundreds watched as the Army’s mechanized forces teamed up for a firepower demonstration. Fighters from the Army Combatives School demonstrated techniques and treated the audience to brief bouts of hand-to-hand combat.

Jeanie Gardiner said the experience answered some of her questions about what happens at Fort Benning.

“I didn’t know what kind of training they actually did here,” said Gardiner, whose husband serves as pastor to a largely military audience.

The pair said they believe it will help them understand their congregation more and grasp where their tax dollars are going.

Retired 1st Sgt. Willie Sutton brought his Harris County High School Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadets to the event, saying it was a can’t-miss opportunity with Fort Benning so close.

He said he hopes it gave his students a better idea of what Soldier life is like.

“If these cadets can walk away with an appreciation for what our men and women do, the detail and commitment it takes, I’ll be more than happy. And they should take away that it’s serious stuff and be grateful for what our Soldiers do so our country can remain free.”

The Army Strong Experience dates back to April 2008, when the event was first held at Fort Benning. In past years, the event used capabilities solely within the U.S. Army Accessions Command, which includes the Golden Knights skydiving team, USAMU and the Mobile Support Battalion. Thursday’s event was the first to draw in outside units.