Army, city officials sign covenant

Thursday’s signing of the Army Community Covenant inside Legacy Hall at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts was just short of a black tie affair. The list of signatories was impressive: Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, Fort Benning commander Maj. Gen. Walt Wojdakowski, Sgt. Maj. of the Army

Kenneth Preston and the mayors and chambers of commerce chiefs from Columbus and Phenix City.

The audience, which filled the 450-seat theater, included Pentagon staffers, Fort Benning’s management team and civic and busin e s s l e a d e rs f ro m b o t h communities.

And then there were the Army families, which ideally will benefit from the symbolic covenant which promises that communities will build “partnerships that support the strength, resilience and readiness of soldiers and their families.”

Among those at the signing were Army widow Shelly Hall and her five children, and Sgt. 1st Class Imari Jackson with his wife and son.

“This is so special to me and my family that it’s hard to put into words,” said Jackson, a 13-year Army veteran who serves as a drill sergeant with the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment. “To meet the secretary of the Army and to sign this covenant, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Jackson and his son Damian, a student at Benning’s Faith Middle School, represented all Army families at the signing.

“This community has already been so good to us,” Barbara Jackson said. “It embraced us right from the start. I’m proud to existed between cities and post for the past 90 years.

Geren described the covenant simply as “neighbor helping neighbor.”

“ That’s so important, especially at this time, as we are engaged in the third longest war our country’s ever been in,” he said. “The partnership here is already great. There were times when communities pulled back away from their Army posts.”

The Halls could have pulled away from the Army after 2nd Lt. Kelly Hall was killed in a training accident in Germany several years ago.

But Shelly Hall, who was tasked with raising three girls and two boys on her own, didn’t cut her Army ties. Instead, she embraced them, returning from her Michigan home, with her children, to relocate to Columbus.

“An unbelievable support system exists here,” she said after the hour-long event. “I want to thank the entire community. My kids now consider Columbus home (Kelly Hall was commissioned at Benning after completing Officer Candidate School). Our roots are sunk in pretty deep.”

The kids — Tyler, Tori, Tricia, Tony and Tanner — are unanimous in saying they want to remain in Columbus.

“This is where our friends are,” said Tyler Hall , a sophomore at Columbus High who was 6 when her dad died. “We still have a lot of friends whose dads are in the Army.”

Shelly Hall is a member of the “God Bless Fort Benning” organizing committee, an event that Geren said he will promote on his tour of other Army installations for similar covenant signings.

“That and the ‘House of Heroes’ program are two examples of the local partnership that I’ll be taking with me on my trips,” Geren said. “And may I bring back a few ideas from other places for this group to think about.” The Jacksons have orders for Fort Lewis, Wash., later this summer.

“We’ve been here for three years and have become quite involved in activities in Columbus, especially soccer,” the sergeant said. “This town’s on my short list when it comes to retiring.”

Thursday’s high profile event was the first of its kind between communities and the military installations in their backyards.