FOR 100 YEARS, THE Midlands and South Carolina have benefited from the foresight of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce during World War I.
With America being pulled closer to the fighting in Europe and the country unprepared for war, chamber officials pushed the Midlands as the site for an Army training camp. They argued to the Army that land formerly owned by the late Wade Hampton would be an excellent location for military training. The chamber also led a drive to raise money to buy the land.
Those efforts paid off on May 19, 1917, when Maj. Douglas MacArthur announced that Columbia had been chosen for a training base. A few days later, The Columbia Record newspaper predicted the base would provide an economic boost to the community.
For most of the past year, the fort has been celebrating its centennial. That observance will culminate during the next week with several events, including a free concert Saturday evening at Hilton Field with country music stars Hunter Hayes and Kellie Pickler.
Columbians have many reasons to join the celebration. One of the biggest dates back to The Record’s prediction more than 100 years ago. It’s frightening to imagine our economy without the more than 7,600 people who work at Fort Jackson or the nearly 70,000 soldiers who train there each year. While nearly 50,000 of those soldiers are basic trainees confined to the base, many others live in our community. They buy groceries, clothing, cars and electronics. They eat in our restaurants, and they attend community festivals and sporting events.
Every Thursday, about 5,000 parents, friends and others from around the country descend on Columbia for graduation ceremonies at the nation’s largest basic training base. Those families fill up restaurants and hotels, and they then return home to tell others about Columbia and South Carolina.
The Columbia Metropolitan Airport estimates that 20 percent of its traffic is related to the military.
Fort Jackson’s total economic impact on South Carolina is estimated at $2.3 billion a year, according to a study by the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. The study said Fort Jackson directly employs 7,620 people and is ultimately responsible for more than 20,000 jobs.
The Midlands also benefits because Fort Jackson is such a good community partner. Its officers and other soldiers volunteer in the community, participate in parades, coordinate with area law enforcement officials, and host an annual Fourth of July celebration. All of the commanding generals — despite their duties — have been visible in the community.
We also benefit from the types of training conducted at Fort Jackson. In communities where active combat units are based, some soldiers — though certainly not most — can get rowdy from time to time as they unwind from the stress of war.
At Fort Jackson, basic trainees are restricted to the fort until graduation day, when they’re allowed to spend a few hours off base with families and friends. But even on graduation day, the recruits must return to the fort by early evening. They are simply given few opportunities to get into trouble — at least off base.
Of course, the fort conducts other training as well. But soldiers involved with those other 18 missions, including the U.S. Armed Forces Chaplaincy Center and the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant Academy, tend to be so committed to their careers that they’re unlikely to break the law.
For Columbia and the Midlands, Fort Jackson is a near-perfect neighbor. It generates lots of business and creates few problems.
But those aren’t the biggest reasons for Columbia to appreciate Fort Jackson. The biggest is that the fort, every day, fulfills its “Victory Starts Here” mission. Since 1917, the fort has trained nearly 1 million soldiers who have sacrificed to keep America free. Those soldiers ensure we have freedom of speech, the freedom to worship as we please and the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
On Sunday, The State’s Jeff Wilkinson introduced you to five soldiers who trained at Fort Jackson and later won the Medal of Honor: PFC Charles H. Barker of Pickens County, Sgt. Richmond H. Hilton of Kershaw County, Lance Cpl. James D. Howe of Six Mile in Pickens County, Cpl. Freddie Stowers of Sandy Springs and 1st Lt. Charles Q. Williams, who was born in Charleston and lived in Columbia after serving in Vietnam.
President Donald Trump last month proposed a federal budget that calls for a new round of military base closures. Many South Carolinians likely remember that a previous round of base closures cost us the Charleston Naval Shipyard.
Nationally, it may be prudent to close some military bases, and every community will surely fight to keep its base.
But we think the argument for Fort Jackson is irrefutable, in part because of its size, its current missions and its relationship with the community. Just like the Columbia chamber more than 100 years ago, people in the Midlands need to stand tall for Fort Jackson.
Local leaders call us the most military-friendly community in the nation, and maybe we are. But we doubt there’s a more community-friendly military base than Fort Jackson.
So a hearty happy birthday to Fort Jackson. Let’s stay friends for at least another 100 years.