COLUMBIA, SC — Each year, about 46,000 new soldiers graduate from Fort Jackson in weekly ceremonies attended by three times that many cheering family members.
In the past, the graduations were held at the Hilton Field parade grounds, which consisted of a large metal grandstand, port-a-potties, vendors in tents and not much else. Recently, however, the Army has spent $2 million sprucing up the grounds with a grand entryway, brick promenade, paved roads, handicap parking area, a statue of Andrew Jackson, 50 palmetto trees and permanent restrooms.
On Friday, Richland County and Columbia dedicated 26 little gem magnolia trees for South Carolina soldiers killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also dedicated two live oak trees for all soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We wanted to honor the sacrifices of those soldiers and support the military,” said Jim Olsen of Columbia Green, a former Fort Jackson employee who has worked on the Hilton Field and other improvements to the installation for the past seven years.
In all, 64 members of all branches of the U.S. military with S.C. ties have died in Iraq; 47 have died in Afghanistan, according to a listing of war dead compiled by The State.
Officials attending the dedication ceremony also noted that Friday – Arbor Day in South Carolina – was also just a day before the anniversary of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.
This was the fifth joint project at Fort Jackson for Richland County and Columbia Green. In all, they have planted more than 200 trees at the fort, Olsen said.
The two live oaks are the first step in a planned Walk of Honor plaza, part of a 10-year community effort to update the Army’s largest training base for its 100th anniversary in 2017 and to show community support for the troops.
“This is where the families come, and we wanted to make it welcoming for them,” Olsen said.
Each of those families usually spend the night, eat out and explore Columbia and the region’s tourist sites, pumping nearly $25 million each year into the regional economy, according to a study by the S.C. Department of Commerce.
“When you multiply all those soldiers by their families, it is extremely important because they have such an impact on the community,” said Richland County Council Chairman Kelvin Washington.
Richland County, through its appearance commission, donated $5,000 for the trees. Community partners donated their time and effort to plant the trees. Also, granite tree rings donated by master stone carver Ron Clamp will be installed in January. The total value of the project in cash and in-kind donations is $16,500, county officials said.
Other partners include the Richland County Conservation Department, Sox & Freeman Tree Service, Memorial Design and Woodley’s Garden Service.
The fort worked with tree experts to select the right trees and ensure they were planted in areas in which they will thrive. Those experts say planting the trees at Hilton Field will improve water quality, reduce erosion and provide shade for soldiers and their families during graduation events.
“This will make the fort more sustainable, cooler and more beautiful,” Olsen said.