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‘... All the places that I lived, there is no place like Columbus’

Sunday Interview: Global War on Terrorism memorial to be built on grounds of the National Infantry Museum

Greg Camp,president of the National Infantry Museum Foundation, talks about the Global War on Terrorism memorial that will be constructed on the grounds of the National Infantry Museum.
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Greg Camp,president of the National Infantry Museum Foundation, talks about the Global War on Terrorism memorial that will be constructed on the grounds of the National Infantry Museum.

It has been a rewarding month for Greg Camp, president and chief operating officer of the National Infantry Museum Foundation.

The National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, which sits in south Columbus on the edge of Fort Benning, was voted the “Best Free Museum” in the nation during a USA Today Readers’ Choice competition.

It is a designation that the organization, under Camp’s leadership, vigorously sought. A retired Army colonel and West Point graduate and a member of the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame, Camp has made Columbus his home.

Recently, he say down with Ledger-Enquirer senior reporter Chuck Williams to talk about the museum, his service, including a tour in Vietnam, and Columbus.

Here are excerpts of that conversation edited for length and clarity.

Q: Congratulations.

A: It was a fabulous month for us, yeah.

Q: Tell me how you all received that designation.

A: As you know, Chuck, there was so many people that supported the voting for that award. We won by such a small margin. At 8 o’clock the morning of the 29th with the competition to end at noon, we were tied with the Cleveland Art Museum. All the votes of the previous month before that got us to the point where we were tied for first, and all the votes from 8 o’clock to noon, kept us in first place. One of the really neat things about this is that all the votes ...

Q: It was people all over town, right?

A: All the votes that everybody did, if they didn’t do those, we wouldn’t have won. Everybody was part of the victory. Every vote mattered. Every vote made a difference. It really did make a difference. Everybody was equally invested in the win. What we try to say is we won, W-O-N, but the W stands for “we.” It was a community win and it was even bigger than our community. It was the community of people that love soldiers and that love this museum because the Army team here, Frank Hanner — they went up through Army channels. They got Brig. Gen. (Pete) Jones. I understand he walked up and down the headquarters of Fort Benning and every person he saw, he said, “Have you voted today? Have you voted today? Have you voted today?” That kind of stuff along with the incredible community support that we have, I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, “I’ve been voting for you every day. I vote for you every day.”

Q: Is this a turning point in community support?

A: You know, I think there is something different about this. I think General Cavezza said it best when we had our little celebration last week, that when people see this building, he wants them to say, “Have you seen my museum?” Or if they’re talking to people from out of town, “Have you been to our museum?” I think people who were truly part of this win feel truly invested in the museum. That’s what we’ve always wanted. We want people to consider this their museum, to take great pride in it. This isn’t the Infantry Foundation’s museum. It’s not even the Army’s Infantry Museum. It belongs to the greater body of infantry, but it also belongs to this community.

Q: What do you do now that you have this label, “Best Free Museum in the Country?”

A: That’s a really good question. We’ve got a year to leverage it. We’ll hold this title for at least a year. We’re not really sure because we haven’t gotten our final paperwork, if you will, from USA Today. It’s important enough for us that we’re thinking very carefully how we leverage it. There’s some easy, low-hanging fruit ways that we think we can leverage this in terms of some of the fundraising things that we’re doing.

We’ve got a couple of major grants pending right now. We’ve got a million-dollar grant pending and a half-million-dollar grant pending from two different organizations that are favorable to us. They solicited our input for these grants. We want to go back to them before they decide on what they’re going to give or how much they might give and say, “Oh, by the way, you would be investing in the best free museum in America if you decided to go forward with these grants.” We think we can do a lot more of that.

We also don’t think we’re so smart that we’ve got every idea. Cyndy Cerbin, our marketing director, is up at the Governor’s Conference right now, and Peter Bowden (CEO and president of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau) is up there as well. They’re putting their heads together and they’re meeting with Kevin Langston, who’s the head of the Economic Development and Tourism for the state of Georgia. We’re probably going to try to partner maybe with a media or ad agency because we’ve got to get the most out of this.

One of our major goals all along has been to be nationally recognized as the best place to honor soldiers for their valor and sacrifice. With a non-profit budget, it’s hard to get that kind of media. With this recognition, along with our Themed Entertainment Award we got back in 2011, and along with the TripAdvisor report, TripAdvisor Hall of Fame, highest-ranked attraction in all the state of Georgia, Top 10 Military Museums — USA Today did that for us a few years back — those sorts of things we think we might be able to leverage. Then, of course going forward, this Global War on Terrorism Memorial is going to be big.

Q: You beat a lot of museums that communities much larger than us take great pride in and have great investment in. This is broader than just military, right?

A: Oh, absolutely. There were two military museums in there. Ours, which is a branch museum — the Infantry is a branch of the Army — and the entire United States Air Force Museum, were the two military museums. Then there were 18 other museums, the vast majority of which were art museums, in Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Washington.

These are some huge cities that have much bigger visitation than we do. In order for us to win that competition, our community had to, first of all, vote and vote every day, which they did, but it had to get much bigger than our community and we did. Everybody, particularly on the Army side, reached out, took various different posts and installations, soldiers that had been through here, family members that had been through here.

Q: Let’s switch gears now. Let’s talk a little bit about the Global War on Terror monument that you’re building. Where does it stand right now?

A: It’s under construction. The Global War on Terrorism Memorial will be dedicated here next year on Sept. 11. We’re three days short of a year away from dedicating that. It will be, in our view, the Vietnam War Memorial for the Global War on Terrorism. It will be the equivalent of the Vietnam War Memorial. The quality of the memorial, the symbology of the memorial and the people who are behind it, I think, will make it that way.

Gen. (John) Abizaid, who is the longest-serving Commander of Central Command, the forces in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan, from 2003 to 2007, stepped up to the plate and said, “Look, I want to do something to honor the soldiers that I was honored to lead.” He also recruited three other leading commanders from the Global War on Terrorism — Gen. (Stanley) McChrystal; Gen. (George) Casey, who was also the Chief of Staff of the Army; and Gen. (Charles) Jacoby, who was the last commander of forces in Iraq. Those four-star generals, all infantry, put their forces together and said, “We’re going to help you design this.”

Q: That’s a pretty powerful force. ...

A: It’s an incredibly powerful force. ... “We’re going to help you design it and we’re going to help you raise the funds necessary to build it.” They’ve done both of those things. We have funding for this and we have a design that we’ve already begun on. The longest lead time of the memorial are the nine bronze statues that represent the infantry squad that will be part of the memorial. Those are already under development. We have a sculptor in Ohio that’s already working on those nine statues. The next longest thing is the granite panels that will have the etched names of the more than 68,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen, and Marines, who have given their life for the Global War on Terrorism.

Q: How much is it going to cost to do it?

A: It’s going to cost between $2 million and $3 million dollars.

Q: How much of it do you have right now?

A: We’ve got it all. The generals have a source that’s guaranteed the funding for it. We may get some more funding for it that will cause the donor, who at this point anyway wishes to remain anonymous, but will have less investment in it than he might otherwise have had. The donor’s willing to fund the entire thing if necessary.

Q: When you say you hope this is the Vietnam Wall of the Global War on Terror, what do you mean?

A: You know, the Vietnam Wall, when it was created 30-some-odd years ago, had an immediate resonance with people. The magnitude of the sacrifice looking at those 58,000 names resonated with people in a way that sometimes monuments and memorials don’t. It was just the sheer magnitude of the sacrifice. In this case, our memorial will also have the names of the fallen, but it will be more interactive in that the names are going to be on panels that are angles with each other and you can walk between. The names will be on both sides, so people can walk in and among these panels, and they can look at the names.

At the center of the memorial will be a bronze statue of a soldier on a Pentagon-shaped pedestal. The soldier will be the likeness of Spc. Ross McGinnis, who was the first posthumous Medal of Honor recipient in the Global War on Terrorism, a young infantryman. The headquarters at Fort Benning, you may know, is named McGinnis-Wickam Hall. Specialist McGinnis’ likeness will be the lead statue of the nine statues that we have there.

Q: How did you all come to choose Specialist McGinnis?

A: Gen. Abizaid did. He said, “I want a Medal of Honor recipient. I want a posthumously (awarded) Medal of Honor recipient to be the lead statue in the infantry squad.” He was our choice. He was General Abizaid’s choice.

As you look at the memorial from the front, that statue will actually be captured between two pillars and a steel beam. The statue will be framed as you look at the memorial, and the two pillars represent the two World Trade Center towers, and they will have an etched narrative on there about those two towers. The beam that goes across the top is the 13-foot steel beam that came from the South Trade Center.

Q: I want to go back to Vietnam. You’re a Vietnam vet, right?

A: Yes.

Q: How many tours?

A: One, ’69-’70.

Q: When you see the Vietnam Wall, you looked at it differently than most that have been there. You probably know some of the names that are on that wall.

A: Yes, I do. Yeah, 20 of my classmates are on that picture right behind you.

Q: Is that part of what you’re drawing upon as you do this global war because you want to make it as powerful as that? Is that what you’re drawing on?

A: Let me just say something. It’s not me. This is General Abizaid’s memorial and it’s his team’s memorial. When we met with him the first time, he said, “OK, here are some of the ground rules.” He said, “You guys have people down there. You’ve been doing a lot of stuff with the museum. I respect your ability to come up with things. Here’s some of the things that the memorial has got to have. It’s got to have every name etched in granite. Period.” Then later he came through and he said, “I want Specialist McGinnis to be the statue in the middle. Period.” Other than that, he’s given us a broad range of guidance to let us design it and then go back and get his approval or edits on it, but the notion that every name would be etched on granite came from John Abizaid.

Q: Why is this the appropriate place?

A: Because this is the place where most of those soldiers came from. Fifty-two percent of the Army soldiers get trained here at Fort Benning. The infantry squad is the heart and soul of the American military. Whether you’re a fighter pilot, whether you have a destroyer or a battleship or an aircraft carrier, no matter what you do, it’s ultimately in support of the infantrymen. ...

Q: You’re an infantryman, right?

A: I am.

Q: How many years?

A: Twenty-eight and a half.

Q: You retired as a colonel in what year?

A: 1996.

Q: When you think of your service, what’s the first thing you think about when you think of your 28-plus years of service?

A: I think I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wouldn’t have traded what I did as a young man for anything else I might have been able to do. I think there’s great value in serving your country. It’s great value in being associated with other men and women who served their country. ...

Q: Did you always know you were going in the Army? You said you were an Army brat.

A: No, I really didn’t. My dad was an anti-aircraft gun sergeant in Pearl Harbor when it was bombed. He spent 40 months in the Pacific. He started World War II as an anti-aircraft gun sergeant, Pearl Harbor. He ended it as an Infantry company commander. All of that was just what that generation did. Never thought anything about it. My dad never pressured me whatsoever to go in the Army. He never said anything to me about going into the Army, but he was such a hero of mine that by the time I was old enough to make rational decisions, maybe my junior year in high school, I said, “I want to be like my dad.” In my case, I end up going to West Point.

Q: How proud was he of you when you got into West Point?

A: He was very proud.

Q: That’s the gold standard of your Army. He didn’t go to West Point.

A: He didn’t go to West Point. I would say that he was proud that I went to West Point. I know he was. He commissioned me. I retired him when he retired five years after I got commissioned. I was a commander of troops in his retirement ceremony. Mostly, I think he was proud that I wanted to follow in his footsteps.

Q: When you went to West Point and when you came into the Army, the ’60s, that couldn’t have been easy time.

A: It wasn’t. When I started West Point in 1964 as a cadet, if we went to a football game in New York City, you couldn’t buy a beer. By the time I graduated in 1968, they were throwing trash and eggs at us. It was a volatile change between 1964 and 1968. It didn’t get any better for quite a while after that. When we got back from Vietnam, we were certainly not treated well compared to the way it should be treated. I mean, really, soldiers that came back from Vietnam simply were either ignored or they were treated poorly.

For somebody like me who stayed in the Army, being a Vietnam veteran was always a plus. Combat veteran in the Army, that’s a plus. I have no complaints, but every soldier in my platoon, every one from my platoon sergeant on down, were either draftees or volunteers, none of which stayed in the Army. All of them came back to civilian life, none of whom were treated like they should have been treated.

Q: What has changed that now you have these soldiers that are fighting the Global War of Terror? They’re treated very differently than you were treated in 1969.

A: I think they’re treated appropriately. I think they’re treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve for having volunteered to serve their nation and to do so in a time of war. I think part of the reason, my opinion, is I think there is a national guilty conscience about how the Vietnam veterans were treated and that (affects) people who weren’t even around then. Young people who weren’t around don’t even really know that, somehow or another that has permeated a couple generations here to where now you find politicians, you find people who are terribly antiwar, but pro-soldiers. That just didn’t exist in the ’60s and ’70s.

Q: They were anti-war and anti-soldier.

A: That’s exactly right, yeah.

Q: Let’s get into a little bit of some personal stuff. You were an athlete at West Point.

A: I was, yeah.

Q: Four years. Did you run track all four years?

A: All four years. I was a half-mile and mile. I ran cross country. I wasn’t particularly good at cross country, but I was pretty good at the middle-distance races.

Q: What was your best time in the mile?

A: 4:03.

Q: That was world-class at that time, right?

A: Well, let me rephrase. I ran 4:05 as a cadet. After I got back from Vietnam, went to Georgia Tech for grad school to get a master’s degree, I ran 4:03. ...

Q: What’s the best part about running?

A: I absolutely loved running. I don’t run anymore, for the last two or three years, and I miss it terribly. There are endorphins that you get from running. When you finish running, you do have a runner’s high, but it also keeps you physically fit. ...

Q: Why did you quit running?

A: It’s not a bad knee, but I’m afraid that if I keep running, it will be a bad knee. It gives me a little bit of a problem. ... I went to see (Dr.) Champ Baker. He looks at me and he says, “You know, I’m not sure running is what you need to do.” I walk three days a week. I work with a personal trainer one day a week, bike one day a week.

Q: You’re still doing your PT?

A: Yeah. I walked four miles this morning.

Q: A few years ago you went into Chattahoochee Valley’s Sports Hall of Fame. What did that mean to you?

A: I was humbled. Here’s Tim Hudson sitting on one side of me. There’s Ben Hardaway who has a lifetime of sporting history. ... You’ve got a legendary all-America football player (Nathan Rustin), posthumously recognized there, was the coach for two of my boys when they played at Pacelli High School. I was incredibly appreciative, but humbled by the award, quite frankly.

Q: Growing up as an Army brat, did you ever think you’d call Columbus, home?

A: You know, it’s funny you should say that because I lived in Columbus. The first time I lived in Columbus, I don’t even remember. I was 3 years old, 2 or 3 years old. My dad was stationed in Fort Benning. Then I was here as a lieutenant. I was here as a captain. That was before I was married. When I came back in 1991, I told Joanie, I said, “I don’t think I want to retire in Columbus,” because my view of Columbus was as a lieutenant or a captain.

When I was at Benning, one year I was part of Leadership Columbus. Every month we would go to some different part of Columbus and I realized I didn’t even know Columbus. I didn’t know the people because I was the only Army guy in this group of great citizens, future leaders of Columbus. I met some neat people and I saw some neat things. I remember going back to Joanie. I said, “Joanie, we’ve got to retire here.”

Q: One final question, if you took Fort Benning out of Columbus, what happens?

A: Wow. That’s like saying if I took one of my kids out of my family, you know? It is a family. I can’t conceive of that. If you took Fort Benning out of Columbus, it would be heartbreaking. ... As an Army brat, as a veteran, I’ve lived outside of a lot of Army posts in 50 years before I made this one my home, and they’re all good... but there is no place like Columbus. I think it would be catastrophic. Devastating.

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams

Greg Camp

Age: 69

Hometown: Army brat who calls Columbus home

Job: President and chief operating officer of the National Infantry Museum Foundation; retired U.S. Army colonel.

Education: Jefferson City (Kan.) High School, through 11th grade; McLean (Va.) High School, 1964; U.S. Military Academy at West Point, general engineering degree, 1968; Georgia Tech, master's degree in applied mathematics, 1975; C.W. Post College, MBA, 1977.

Family: Wife, Joanie; son Scott and his wife, Jessica; son Matthew and his wife, Seema; daughter, Jennifer; three grandchildren and one on the way.