3rd Brigade soldiers, families prepare to depart amid holidays as units inactivate

ROBIN TRIMARCHI rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com 
 Chaplain Loren Hutsell addresses the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team soldiers gathered for the 9/11 Memorial Service wreath presentation at the Fallen Heroes Memorial on Kelley Hill in September 2014. The 80 names of 3rd Brigade soldiers who have been killed in the post-9/11 war in Iraq are engraved on the memorial: 45 on the wall, and 35 on the central pillar. 09.11.14
ROBIN TRIMARCHI rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Chaplain Loren Hutsell addresses the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team soldiers gathered for the 9/11 Memorial Service wreath presentation at the Fallen Heroes Memorial on Kelley Hill in September 2014. The 80 names of 3rd Brigade soldiers who have been killed in the post-9/11 war in Iraq are engraved on the memorial: 45 on the wall, and 35 on the central pillar. 09.11.14 rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

A wave of soldiers and family members are preparing to leave Fort Benning heading into the Christmas holidays as the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team begins inactivating several battalions over the next couple of weeks.

Col. Michael Simmering, commander of the 3rd Brigade, which is part of the 3rd Infantry Division headquartered at Fort Stewart, Ga., said Friday between 2,200 and 2,300 soldiers are scheduled to depart the installation for good by next April as part of the Army's downsizing.

But many of those with the inactivated battalions -- units within the brigade -- have orders for other U.S. military installations and will likely move over the holidays to get their spouses and children in place by January to attend schools elsewhere, Simmering said.

"What we've attempted to do is align the movement times for these soldiers with the normal move times for military families, which are typically holidays and summers, to make the transition as easy as possible," he said.

The 3rd Brigade is among the combat brigades caught up in the Army's downsizing from 570,000 troops to 450,000 in two phases. Fort Benning gained 400 troops in the initial cuts of about 80,000 Army-wide, but it was tagged to lose 3,402 positions in the second round, with the 3rd Brigade told over the summer that it was being deactivated.

The actual number of filled soldier positions being eliminated has fallen to 2,200 or so due to normal attrition and the Army deciding not to staff yet another battalion that it planned to activate.

"The majority of the soldiers that we have will be departing and moving on to other military posts," Simmering said. "They'll be continuing their military careers. We do have, I'm guessing, about 400 or so that will ETS (leave the service) just out of a result of normal attrition from the Army. But there's not a big push of shoving soldiers out of the Army. That's a misconception by a lot of people."

'A very light lick'

The Army has said it is reducing its number of combat brigades from 45 to 30 in order to save money and to adopt a strategy of using rapid-response task forces. In fact, one such 1,050-soldier task force has been assembled at Fort Benning and will soon be activated on Kelley Hill, the area of the post that has served as the 3rd Brigade's home for decades.

"That task force is fully formed on Kelley Hill at this point and it's prepared to begin training," the colonel said. "We used personnel from within the brigade to form the task force and we utilized soldiers sent from elsewhere in the Army over the last few months. But the vast majority of them came from units throughout the brigade."

Simmering said soldiers needing additional leadership development are remaining at Fort Benning with the task force. The installation is home to the Army's infantry and armor schools. Those deemed leadership-ready were given the go-ahead to move on to other bases.

"It wasn't completely voluntary," he said. "It was making sure we put the right soldier in the right job at the right time. That was sort of our mantra we used."

The 3rd Brigade's various battalions cover the spectrum of a combat force -- infantry, armor, cavalry, field artillery, engineer and support. While the battalions will retire, or case, their unit flags in the coming days and weeks, the brigade headquarters is expected to do so by mid-April.

Following the 2,200 to 2,300 soldiers away from Fort Benning and the Columbus area will be about 4,400 family members, Simmering said. That was the number of dependents calculated by the unit as it began outprocessing troops for changes in duty stations in October.

"About 60 percent of our soldiers are married, and we have probably about half of those to 60 percent that reside off post," the brigade commander said. "The rest are soldiers that live in the barracks, that have to live on post."

That will put the total population loss from the brigade's departure by next spring at more than 6,600. The Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce estimates the departing soldiers alone earn a combined $150 million a year, meaning their buying power disappears. That will also leave a $130 million hole in sales for the region, it said.

The economic impact will ripple throughout the area with fewer home sales, apartment dwellers, restaurant sales, groceries and clothing sold, service industry revenues and other elements of spending on everyday life.

Still, Gary Jones, executive vice president of military affairs at the chamber, insists the impact from the current downsizing isn't as bad as it would first appear. Out of the 120,000 soldiers cut from the Army, Fort Benning lost 1.8 percent of that number.

"When the Army draws down 120,000 and our part is just 2,200, we have a great success story," he said. "That says, 'OK, did we take a disproportionate lick? Did we take a light lick? Did we take a heavy lick?' We took a very light lick because you had some places that have lost more than brigades."

Moving forward

Instead of mourning the current lost personnel, Jones said the chamber is looking ahead to future budget cuts and rounds of base realignment and closure. U.S. lawmakers recently passed legislation extending the federal budget for two years, past the upcoming presidential and congressional elections.

"Sequestration is not going away. It's just looming," Jones said. "And the minute that you relax and forget about sequestration and the impacts of it, all of a sudden it's going to be there, and you'll ask how did it happen and we didn't know what was going on."

The chamber plans to lobby heavily over the next two years, he said, getting the word out to elected leaders and anyone else who will listen that Fort Benning is a vital necessity to the defense of the nation, and that it has extra infrastructure in place to absorb other units and missions.

Simmering said his brigade expects to return the keys to well over 100 buildings to Fort Benning's garrison command as the units inactivate and clear out at Kelley Hill. That ranges from large barrack complexes to small office buildings, with motor pools and other facilities tossed into the mix.

He said it's up to Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, commander of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, and his top military and civilian staff to decide what to do with the structures.

The colonel said the brigade's go-to-war equipment, such as Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, artillery pieces and personnel carriers -- if not needed by the newly formed task force -- are being shipped to other units throughout the Army where they are needed to create the best-equipped units possible.

"The (Army) chief of staff has said readiness is one of his top concerns, so that's how we're trying to help is to make sure that we're giving them good equipment in the right condition, that they can use as soon as it arrives there," Simmering said. "Much of it's staying in the active Army. Some of it will go to our brothers and sisters over in the National Guard to help them as well."

The 3rd Brigade's roots can be traced loosely to 1917, with the founding of its parent unit, the 3rd Division during World War I, followed by its redesignation to 3rd Infantry Division during World War II.

It was in 1962 that the 197th Separate Infantry Brigade, known as the "Sledgehammer Brigade," was formed at Fort Benning. That unit fought during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, returning to be reflagged the 3rd Brigade, 24th Infantry Division, and eventually part of the 3rd Infantry Division. It has deployed several times during the Global War on Terror, with the unit last year commemorating at its Fallen Heroes Memorial the 80 brigade soldiers killed during the ongoing conflict.

Simmering said he has been pondering that illustrious combat history and the prospect of furling up the brigade's flag for good next spring. He called the overall feeling bittersweet.

"The best way to look at this is that we're proud of our lineage, we're proud of our soldiers. But the fact of the matter is the needs of the Army and the nation come first. They always have and they always will," the commander said. "So the way we're attacking it is this brigade's been given one last mission here at Fort Benning. Just like every other mission we've gotten, we're going to execute it to the best of our ability. My goal has been to do that while doing everything we can to make sure we're taking care of the soldiers and their families at the same."