Top Army officials will have Columbia at attention this week. Here’s why

This is a big week for the military in Columbia.

The city is celebrating being named one of only five Great American Defense Communities in the nation, and Fort Jackson will host Secretary of the Army Mark Esper.

Also coming are 78 civilian aides to the Secretary of the Army representing each state for their national conference. Civilian aides — who have the protocol equivalent of a three-star general — are business and civic leaders with a connection to the military who serve as Army liaisons to their communities.

It’s an opportunity to show the Army’s top civilian leadership that Columbia and the Midlands are serious about their support for the military.

“We want to show off what we are offering here,” said Carl Blackstone, president and CEO of the Columbia Chamber. “We want to make a statement that the entire community embraces the military.”

Esper will fly in on Tuesday and meet with post commanders, watch basic training, visit with drill sergeants and others. But most important from a state and local perspective, Esper and his aides will meet with Gov. Henry McMaster, his cabinet and other state dignitaries at a reception at the Governor’s Mansion to demonstrate South Carolina’s support for the Palmetto State’s military bases and missions.

The civilian aides will be here Monday through Thursday to learn more about Fort Jackson, the Midlands and South Carolina and to hold their annual conference.

Fort Jackson is the world’s largest basic training base, turning out about 40,000 new soldiers each year and providing advanced training to another 23,000 or so soldiers and sailors. That role will likely grow as the Army expands from 476,000 soldiers in 2018 to 487,500 this year under the National Defense Authorization Act.

Army recruiters failed to meet their goals in 2019. So Fort Jackson will also host Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, commanding general of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, to address the issue with the secretary and civilian aides.

Kevin Shwedo, a former deputy commander at Fort Jackson who serves as the civilian aide for South Carolina, said Fort Jackson officials hope to use the meeting to help demonstrate how communities can support recruiting efforts.

“We want them to learn what they can do to open doors for recruiters,” said Shwedo, who also serves as the head of the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. “If the Army is going to grow, you can’t just turn on a switch.”

On Wednesday, about 160 people — including Brig. Gen Milford Beagle, Fort Jackson commander, and Maj. Gen. Van McCarty, the state’s adjutant general — will gather to celebrate the Columbia region’s designation as a Great American Defense Community.

It shares that title this year with:

Bay County, Florida, home of Tyndall Air Force Base and Naval Support Activity Panama City;

Middle Georgia, which hosts Robins Air Force Base;

North Country, New York, home to Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division; and,

Clovis, N.M., which has Cannon Air Force Base, home of the 27th Special Operations Wing.

Columbia and its fellow communities will be honored at the Association of Defense Communities National Summit beginning June 10 in Washington, D.C. The meeting is an opportunity for local officials to rub elbows with a host of military and political leaders and argue the region’s case for more missions at Fort Jackson, Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter, and McEntire Joint National Guard Base near Eastover, Blackstone said.

“Shining a light on the good work that is going in Columbia and broadening our base, nationally, is important,” he said.

Jeff Wilkinson has worked for The State for both too long and not long enough. He’s covered politics, city government, history, business, the military, marijuana and the Iraq War. Jeff knows the weird, wonderful and untold secrets of South Carolina. Buy him a shot and he’ll tell you all about them.