HOME FRONT: COLUMBUS, GA. BACKGROUNDER
DECEMBER 13, 1995
Columbus, Georgia, a town with strong ties to the U.S. Army, is the focus of a special segment about how "people back home" feel about sending troops to Bosnia. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Christmas is always a time for joy at the Edgewood Baptist Church in Columbus, Georgia, but this year it's also a time for prayerful concern.
PASTOR DAVID HOWELL, Edgewood Baptist Church: Right now, here all among our own fellowship and among those who live closeby are those who are preparing to make their way to Bosnia. We do pray for those whose lives will be so disrupted by right here at Christmas season loved ones having to make their journey overseas to an uncertain situation.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Churches in Columbus are used to praying for troops being sent off to foreign shores. For the past 75 years, this one sleepy little mill town has been defined by its close proximity to Fort Benning, one of the largest infantry centers in the world. Billy Winn was born and raised in Columbus. As editorial page editor for the local newspaper, he's watched the military presence here grow and make his hometown flourish.
BILLY WINN, Newspaper Editor: The "Post" came here in 1918, and it has had a tremendous influence on the town's growth and development. Otherwise, I think Columbus would have been for most of its existence a very quiet textile mill town.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today, the area is home to the U.S. Army's First Infantry. It was a major staging area for soldiers going to Vietnam in the 1960s. It's also been home to some of the most famous military figures in history. Gen. George Patton, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower, and recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, were all posted here. The area has also experienced tragedy. Young Patrick McKenna, a native of Columbus, was a casualty of the Gulf War, a victim of friendly fire from his own comrades when they accidentally shot is helicopter down. And in 1993, the community mourned the loss of six U.S. Army rangers who died in Somalia. But the military history of the area began before Fort Benning. The last land battle of the Civil War was fought in Columbus.
BILLY WINN: This is an old frontier town. It's an old Indian frontier town, and it has a sort of bellicose attitude ever since it was founded. This is also one of the major towns involved in the Civil War. This was the second leading manufacturing center of the Confederacy South of Richmond. So we have a long history here of involvement with the military and support for the military.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The economic benefits Columbus enjoyed because of the military in the Civil War continue today. Burnie Quick compares the impact of the base to that of the university in a small town. Quick's a former Fort Benning official who's now retired and working to develop the area's economy.
BURNIE QUICK, Developer: At Fort Benning, they like to say Fort Benning is the largest university in the state of Georgia, because some 60,000 student soldiers pass through their gates every year, ten thousand students on any given day. It is estimated that Fort Benning puts about $60 million a month into the local economy.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It comes from soldiers who come to town for haircuts and go to a local mall to buy Christmas presents. The relationship between Columbus and its military neighbors has also stimulated economic growth. Down by the waterfront, along the Chattahoochee River, the city and the army are pouring millions of dollars into Riverwalk, a joint project to refurbish an area once dominated by old textile mills.
JEAN PUCKETT: Remember when we got these in Germany?
RALPH PUCKETT: I do remember that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the relationships that dominate this military community more than any other are human relationships. About one half of the town has a personal tie to the military. Like so many military wives, Jean Puckett met her husband at Fort Benning. He had just come home from Korea as a wounded veteran.
JEAN PUCKETT: This is a photograph of my husband that was taken in 1950 and appeared in the Columbus paper. I saw this photograph before I met him, and I thought, this is without a doubt one of the most handsome young men I've ever seen.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: They were married 43 years ago. It's those kind of stories you hear all over this town of how the military brought people together and how Columbus has come to be known as the mother-in-law of the infantry. As the first troops begin their deployment to Bosnia, the mayor has called for a city-wide prayer service on Monday. Once again, the residents of Columbus are supporting their troops.