Palmetto Tree planting symbolizes the support between the Army and Sumter

jwilkinson@thestate.comApril 22, 2014 

  • TIMELINE

    2005: Pentagon announces Third Army, now U.S. Army Central, to move from Atlanta to Sumter

    2009: Ground broken for headquarters at Shaw Air Force Base. It’s called Patton Hall after Gen. George S. Patton, who led Third Army in World War II

    2010: First 22 soldiers arrive at Shaw to pave way for others

    2011: Patton Hall completed, all personnel transferred

    2012: Most families transition to Sumter/Columbia area

    2013: Name changed to U.S. Army Central

    2014: Transition capped by dedicating symbolic palmetto trees at headquarters entrance

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    By the numbers

    $16 billion

    Annual economic impact of military in South Carolina

    $1.8 billion

    Annual economic impact of Shaw Air Force Base

    $137 million

    Value of supplies purchased by U.S. Army Central from local sources

    $128 million

    Annual payroll for U.S. Army Central

    15,000

    Soldiers deployment in forward operating areas

    1,300

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    Soldiers stationed at Shaw Air Force Base

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    What is it?

    U.S. Army Central is the planning and logistics arm of the U.S. Army in the Middle East and southwest Asia. It is responsible for moving, arming and supplying Army troops in 20 countries, if needed, including those in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also oversees the areas of conflict between Arabs and Israel, Pakistan and India, and Sunnis and Shias throughout the region. It conducted one of the largest movements of troops since World War II during the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and will be responsible for moving all combat troops and equipment out of Afghanistan by the end of this year. It is headquartered in Sumter, but has a forward command post at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. It is commanded by a three-star general, Lt. Gen. James L. Terry.

— 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.”

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