SUMTER — In 2005, Sumter and the Midlands received a huge economic boost from the Pentagon when the Department of Defense announced that Third Army would move to Shaw Air Force base from Atlanta’s Fort McPherson. Now called U.S. Army Central, the command is the planning and logistics arm of the Army for the Middle East and southwest Asia, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, 1,300 soldiers are permanently stationed in Sumter, a town with a population of about 41,000. Another 15,000 soldiers from the unit are stationed overseas, but about 4,000 of their family members have settled in the Sumter and Columbia areas.
For Earth Day on Tuesday, Army and Sumter officials symbolically completed the transition with the ceremonial planting of palmetto trees at Patton Hall, the command’s headquarters at Shaw.
“The palmetto tree has meaning for our soldiers living in Sumter – and those stationed in the Middle East,” said Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, the three-star general who commands U.S. Army Central. “I have to tell you that in all my travels to (the) region, there are three things I continually encounter: heat, sand and palm trees.”
The four towering palmettos were a gift from the city of Sumter and were planted at the entrance to the command’s headquarters. But they symbolize more than U.S. Army Central’s transfer to Sumter. They are symbolic of the economic as well as the emotional bonds between the military and South Carolina.
The military – including the state’s eight major installations, military contractors, retirees and National Guard – pump nearly $16 billion into the state’s economy each year, according to a report by the S.C. Department of Commerce.
In the Midlands:
Fort Jackson’s economic impact is $2 billion annually.
• Shaw Air Force base adds $1.8 billion.
• And McEntire Joint National Guard Base generates $300 million.
Those numbers are threatened, however, by the impact of deep cuts to the military due to the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and automatic cuts mandated by Congress as a result of the 2011 debt ceiling fight, called “the sequester.”
Fort Jackson, the nation’s largest training base, already has been asked – as an exercise – to present a plan to operate with half of its estimated 7,200 employees, civilian and military. Shaw and McEntire have been threatened with outright closure in the past and could be eliminated or combined in the future.
But in the meantime, the influx of 1,300 soldiers and their families into Sumter – added to the 8,000 airmen of the 20th Fighter Wing, the nation’s largest F-16 fighter command - has been a big boost to the Gamecock City and the Midlands.
Stephen Creech, chairman of the Sumter Military Affairs Committee, noted that:
• 72 percent of U.S. Army Central soldiers live in Sumter.
• The city has built 300 houses and is constructing 600 more to accommodate both soldiers and airmen.
• And most of the command’s personnel are well-paid officers or higher-ranking noncommissioned officers.
“Is it a big economic impact? Heck yeah. It’s tremendous,” Creech said. “And what has really shocked me is the number of them retiring and staying here in South Carolina.”
Terry said that of the five to 10 soldiers retiring from the command each month, about half are choosing to stay in the Midlands. They are choosing to do so, he said, because of the climate, the cost of living and the support for the military.
Also, Terry said, the soldiers and the installation are valued more here than they were in Atlanta, one of the nation’s largest cities.
“Our soldiers know that when they have to go forward into harm’s way, that they have not only the base, but an entire community behind them that will take care of their families,” he said. “That frees the soldier up because they know their loved ones are going to be taken care. And that’s what this community is all about.”