COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — Fort Benning commander Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe’s message to a Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce gathering Friday morning was simple.
“Fort Benning is back,” Donahoe said. “We are coming out of COVID and we are coming out of COVID quickly.”
In March 2020, COVID shut down the bulk of the nation. Fort Benning was no exception. For the last 15 months, post officials have concentrated on Fort Benning’s critical mission — training soldiers for the U.S. Army.
To ensure than could be done in a pandemic, there have been nine General Orders issued limiting the activity of those who train and work on post. In recent weeks those restrictions, which have included everything from travel to eating and exercising in establishments off post, have been eased.
A sure sign, that while not completely back to normal, was Friday morning at the National Infantry Museum. A basic training graduation was held on the parade field. While not open to the general public, each graduate was able to have family and friends in the stadium.
“This morning alone, we are going to have a graduation out at the National Infantry Museum,” Donahoe said. “And we have folks coming in from all over the country to come to do that. We have had our first reunion back on the post since COVID began. We have the 1st Battalion of the 50th Infantry and whole group of Vietnam veterans. About 60 of them here on post this week.”
And it is not lost on the commander the economic impact of opening back up has on Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley region.
“We know how important the interaction of Fort Benning is with our Chattahoochee Valley partners,” Donahoe said. “And this is all part of us ensuring that we have got a pathway back not only for the families and soldiers on Fort Benning but for those who come from around the world to visit soldiers on Fort Benning.”
The economic impact to Bi-State area is $4.75 billion dollars per year, according to the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
Having Fort Benning back to normal — or close — is critical, says state Rep. Calvin Smyre.
“A very profound statement and very accurate,” Smyre said. “Fort Benning is one of the anchors of our Tri-City. And Fort Benning is an economic factor here in Columbus. … Having Fort Benning healthy and prosperous is a good thing. And it bodes well for our region.”
But Donahoe says that Fort Benning will not be fully back until more people in the region are vaccinated.
“We had to do some pretty Draconian things as a country and as an installation to protect the force,” Donahoe said. “The biggest thing we are doing right now is encouraging soldiers to get vaccinated. The vaccine is not mandatory for soldiers but it is critically important for soldiers to not only to protect themselves but to protect the team, which enables us to protect the mission.”