Fort Benning commander Maj. Gen. Eric J. Wesley was straightforward Tuesday afternoon as he addressed business and civic leaders in the Chattahoochee Valley community about the state of Fort Benning.
Wesley talked in blunt terms about the threats to national security and the role that Fort Benning, and by connection Columbus and the region, will play in coming years.
"What I don't want you to walk away from this is because the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have waned, that things have slowed down in the military," Wesley said at the event hosted by the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. "We have 180,000-plus soldiers deployed 'round the world in 140 countries. At any given time, the tempo has remained and we still recover for those 15 years. This all affects our game plan and it reflects our relationship with you."
To make his point, Wesley showed the group a nearly 10-minute film that was first shown last month at the Maneuver Warfighter Conference at Fort Benning. The film, in sober terms, addressed the threat to national security, touching heavily on China and calling Russia the greatest threat.
"Right now our nation is at a reflection point," Wesley said. "Although we are fixated --and when I say 'we' I mean politicians or even the media -- on things like ISIL or maybe even urban strife or an interesting election. Although that is where the focus has been on our nightly news, I have to tell you folks, we have a much bigger challenge on the horizon that we have to be focused on."
And with that threat, there could be opportunity for Fort Benning, a post that increases and decreases in size with the ebb and flow of conflicts. Though Fort Benning lost the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division last year in the Army's downsizing, Wesley encouraged the community to be prepared for a possible buildup of force.
"We will posture Fort Benning to be able to receive an Armored Brigade Combat team by 2022 or even prior," Wesley said.
When the 3rd Brigade departed, Army officials made a decision to mothball Kelly Hill at a cost of $3.8 million and $300,000 annual upkeep, Wesley said.
"What we didn't do was expand back into it and use that as office space," Wesley said.
And there is a reason, he noted.
"What I told the team was, 'We are not going to protect what we got, we are going to plan for success,'" Wesley said. "I will tell you, we are going to grow this Army one day. It's going to happen, probably faster than most people are comfortable with. So plan to bring an ABC (Armored Brigade Combat) team back to Fort Benning. I can't make that decision, but we should posture ourselves so we can be a turn-key operation. We can say, 'Send it here, we are all set up for it.'"
State Sen. Ed Harbison, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran, praised the general for his candor.
"I think he is laying the cards on the table and not talking between the lines," Harbison said. "I have heard him do that before and it reinvigorates me to understand how much we need to support the military and rebuild our forces."
But it also comes with a strong warning, Harbison said.
"I hear an alarm in there that we should all hear," Harbison said. "We should be motivated to get our army up to snuff so we can fight the war."
Georgia Congressman Sanford Bishop, who represents Fort Benning, also noted the general's bluntness.
"He was to the point," Bishop said. "But that is who he is."
Wesley also focused on the nearly century-old relationship between Fort Benning and Columbus. And he focused on the legacy.
Wesley said he talked to two former Fort Benning commanders, Gen. Bob Brown and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, before he took command of the Maneuver Center of Excellence in March.
"The first thing that they talked to me about, with enthusiasm, was Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley," Wesley told the nearly 150 people at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. "What they wanted to talk about was you. Isn't that interesting? ... This is not surprising given the special relationship that Fort Benning and the community have."