National Infantry Museum is almost ready

The National Infantry Foundation will celebrate a milestone Thursday as major portions of a complex dedicated to the U.S. Army infantrymen — The National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park — opens to the public.

About 140 infantry training soldiers in B Company, 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry Regiment will march into history as the first unit to graduate on the museum’s parade field, upon which soil collected from the battlefield of eight pivotal wars in infantry history will be spread.

“It’s probably the most exciting and emotional time in my life,” said retired Maj. Gen. Jerry White, chairman of the National Infantry Foundation. “I guess I thought this day would come, but, now that it’s here, it’s almost unreal. It’ll be a day of soldiers and a day of honor, so I feel very good about where we are and how it’s all come together.”

The museum’s grand opening event, featuring retired Gen. Colin Powell as guest speaker, will be June 19.

For the soldiers

A Vietnam-era air demonstration by the Sky Soldiers, a team of veteran aviators that uses Hueys, Cobras and other assault helicopters to entertain audiences and salute the military, will start Thursday’s event at 10 a.m.

Next, the Sacred Soil ceremony will feature descendants of notable patriots, such as Alexander Hamilton, Theodore Roosevelt and Alvin York as well as infantry war heroes, such as Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and Command Sgt. Maj. Basil L. Plumley as soil spreaders.

Actor Sam Elliott, who portrayed Plumley in the movie “We Were Soldiers,” will narrate the ceremony. Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, the senior enlisted adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will be the guest speaker for the graduation.

Graduates and their families will be treated to a steak lunch on the museum grounds following the ceremony. They also will be invited to tour World War II Street, which features Gen. George Patton’s sleeping quarters, a WWII-era mess hall and chapel.

The largest individual donor to the museum, Harry Gray, will be on site for the dedication of the 2nd Regiment Gallery and a luncheon — both private affairs.

Visiting Korean dignitaries also will dedicate a gallery at the museum. It will be devoted to America’s role in stabilizing Korea and protecting it from the spread of communism.

White said he is not disappointed the museum’s exhibits won’t be ready for viewing until June 19.

“It’s probably a very positive thing with me because, honestly, I probably bit off more than I could chew,” the retired general said. “I was really fighting very hard to make that happen, but it was a nearly impossible task. We need more time just to make sure it’s absolutely right. And I’m still going to need every minute for the next three months to make sure it’s absolutely right. It’s better this way.”

Between March and June, infantry school graduations will continue on the new parade field every Thursday and Friday. The SoldierCenter — which includes a 292-seat IMAX Theater, the Fife and Drum Restaurant and the Soldier Store — will opento the public Thursday at 5 p.m.

The 185,000-square-foot museum is located on Fort Benning Boulevard on a 200-acre tract linking the Home of the Infantry — Fort Benning — and Columbus.