PHENIX CITY, Ala. (WRBL) — The East Alabama Chamber of Commerce hosted its Military/Legislative Luncheon on Tuesday at the East Alabama Board of Realtors building in Phenix City. Various local and state level elected officials, members of the Fort Benning Command Staff and representatives from the East Alabama Chamber Board of Directors were present.

Lunch began late in the morning, and a few people gave speeches starting a little after noon. The main speakers included Alabama Military Family Liaison Jennifer Holliday of the Heroes Welcome Initiative; Col. Robert Ryan, director of Robotics Requirements Maneuver Capabilities Development Integration Directorate, U.S. Army Futures Command; Ted Maciuba, deputy director of the same program as Ryan and Major General Curtis A. Buzzard, the commanding general of the United States Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning

The lunch was provided by Lisa Sandt, the executive director of the Lee-Russell Council of Governments.

“We are one of 12 regional councils in the state of Alabama,” Sandt said. “We serve five member governments and provide programs for them and their citizens, and that is Lee County, Russell County, City of Phenix City, City of Auburn and City of Opelika.”

Sandt said Lee-Russell Council of Governments serves its region with over 80 programs.

The first of the main guest speakers to speak was Holliday. The Heroes Welcome Initiative she’s a part of aims to improve “quality of life for military spouses and families moving to and living in Alabama,” in the words of a slide in Holliday’s presentation.

“I work with the Alabama Military Stability Foundation, which is a nonprofit arm of the Alabama Military Stability Commission that’s chaired by Lt. Gov. Ainsworth,” Holliday said. “… I work directly in support of Lt. Gov. Ainsworth and his vision to make Alabama the most military friendly state in the entire country.”

The Heroes Welcome Initiative website can be found at https://www.heroeswelcome.alabama.gov and helps military families find the resources they need in Alabama.

In the words of a slide in Holliday’s presentation, Holliday has these goals:

  • Increase military spouse awareness of available resources across all outlets on and off local DOD [Department of Defense] installations, statewide and national
  • Increase engagement between military spouses and their local defense communities
  • Initiate and contribute to the development of new programs and resources to support military spouses and families moving to Alabama

Holliday explained recent legislation that has helped increase the quality of life for Alabama military families.  

“In 2021, we have what I like to call the baker’s dozen,” she said. “Unfortunately, the six pieces of legislation in 2020 had been postponed. But we had six in 2020… six in 2021 and then a unique resolution. So in that set of 13 actions, just a snippet of those, we had three interstate compacts for psychology, physical therapy and audiology and speech language pathology.”

Holliday said the interstate compacts are established to help military spouses who have worked in licensed fields be able to work in different states as they move with their enlisted spouses.

The slide Holliday was on showed that legislation in 2021 had allowed for the creation of charter schools on or near military installations “with a focus on serving military dependents” as well as allowed for “alternative teaching certificates authorized for qualified former members of Armed Forces.” For 2022, it showed licensure interstate compacts for professional counseling and occupational therapy, and it showed “advanced enrollment for public schools prior to proof of residency for military families moving to Alabama on PCS orders.”

Holliday said improving the quality of life of military families in Alabama encourages them to retire there.

Col. Ryan gave a brief speech about robotics in the military before he let Maciuba take over.

“The decision is on the verge of being made to make General Buzzard the Army proponent of robotics in the same way that he is the proponent for maneuver … The proponency now means that he and we as the executive agent for robotics will be harmonizing the effort across the Army,” Maciuba said. “Now, the fact that the Army has more robots than the rest of the services put together is also interesting. And so, the direction that we go will determine the direction that we’re going for for the rest of DOD [Department of Defense], especially in the smaller, lighter, cheaper robots like the robotic dog that Col. Ryan talked about.”

Maciuba asked what could be done to make local STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] graduates stay in the Chattahoochee Valley. He said the average salary in Muscogee County [and probably also Phenix City] is much lower than it is for STEM workers elsewhere.

“I think we can build a robotic development center that can put the students who are coming out of our STEM universities, our top tier schools,” he said. “We can put them to work locally, here. We can give them a reason to stay closer to home for those of you who have children who go off to school and then never come back because they prefer to be in urban areas.”

Buzzard thanked those responsible for inviting him to the luncheon. One of the things he talked about was the fact that it has become a lot more difficult to recruit young people into the U.S. Army.

“If you look at the 18 to 23-year-old demographic, only 23% of those are even eligible to serve in the U.S. Army,” he said. “That’s because, you know, the level of physical fitness isn’t there. They’re overweight. They haven’t done well enough academically on the entrance exam. They have a criminal record, and there’s mental health… a variety of things, which is kind of, you know, hard to believe.”

Out of the 23% of young adults who are eligible to serve in the Army, Buzzard said only 9% have a propensity to serve.

“Now, part of this is driven by COVID and some of the impacts of being at home and our recruiters not being out and about in the same way,” he said. “But that mission has become a mission for everybody in uniform right now.”

Buzzard said an important part of recruiting is educating young adults on all that the military offers. He said the Army offers everything Generation Z wants as a demographic such as a sense of purpose, the opportunity to improve their skills and educational opportunities.

He called the recruiting issue a national security problem as well as a local economic one, since it prevents young people and their families from spending money in the area.