Wednesday, July 20, 2011

20 JUL 11: Folding the Tent

Nearly ten years after that terror-filled Tuesday, Fort Benning soldiers continue to head overseas for year-long deployments. Many of them leave spouses and children behind, waiting anxiously for their return -- while dreaming of making money writing scripts for the TV series "Army Wives."

One longtime support mechanism for Fort Benning soldiers has evaporated in the summer heat. The River City Report confirmed Tuesday the Columbus USO office has shut down. In fact, there's a hole in the Victory Drive sign where the logo once was. Using that sign for marksmanship practice now will be even more dangerous.

The list of USO offices in Georgia no longer shows one in Columbus. But the center at Atlanta's airport is still open - the one named after the wife of Aflac co-founder Paul Amos. Did the current executives decide the Columbus office only needed cookies and fruit juice?

It's only fitting that The River City Report broke the USO story - since web queen Robbie Watson was the Columbus center's first director in 2008. A picture of her serving soldiers is on a wall at the National Infantry Museum. Hopefully the historians have been told since our 2009 visit that Watson's last name was misspelled.

Robbie Watson moved on [28 Sep 09], Reggie Richards moved in - and that's when rumors about the Columbus USO center began to build. Some people claimed Richards was in a romance with then-National Infantry Museum Chair Jerry White. The fact that the USO office moved to a new motel probably did nothing to squelch those rumors.

Then I received a "tip" that retired Gen. Jerry White put his granddaughter on the USO payroll. White told me she was merely a part-time volunteer [26 Oct 10]. The allegations of nepotism seemed to melt like a July ice cream social on the lawn....

But then someone filed a sexual assault suit against the Columbus USO office and retired Gen. Jerry White [5 Dec 10]. White suddenly announced his retirement from the National Infantry Museum -- and from what I've seen on TV recently, Barry McCaffrey is the only real candidate to replace him as Chairman.

Online postings indicate the Columbus USO office closed two weeks ago. The Suburban Motel now reportedly is connected with Operation Homefront - which only makes sense, since soldiers probably consider Columbus a lot more like home than Kabul.

But as the USO marks 70 years of support for military personnel, has it become outmoded? Fort Benning has plenty of support groups for Army families, both in person and online. And soldiers have other places to go in Columbus for companionship. Shooters allows gunfire, while Ranger Joe's does not.

An apology should be offered here to the woman who left me an answering machine message last week about the USO office. This could have been a blog exclusive days ago, but I've been busy with a variety of projects. Besides, other "hot tips" were ahead of this one waiting in line - and perhaps one of these days, someone will talk on the record about the Friendship Volunteer Fire Department.

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BLOG UPDATE: Georgia Governor Nathan Deal comes to Columbus today - but a scheduled afternoon news conference with Mayor Teresa Pike Tomlinson has been canceled. A statement from the mayor's office said "the Governor's schedule will not allow" it. What does it say when workers at Pratt and Whitney rank higher than the mayor?

Someone else at the Government Center begins our check of other Tuesday news....

+ Richard Hyatt's website noted the start of a Facebook page "For Isaiah Hugley." When I checked Tuesday night, 111 people "liked" the Columbus City Manager - compared with 1,074 who like "Meteorologist Kurt Schmitz." Right now, I'm not sure this is a race Hugley can afford to lose.

(The Ledger-Enquirer reported there's also a "Fire Isaiah Hugley" Facebook page - but I couldn't find it in a search of the website. Perhaps the City Manager finally got the message, and took swift action to stop a conspiracy against him.)

+ Bobby Gates won a runoff election to become Talbot County Sheriff. Considering the recent arrests of law officers there, female deputies in Muscogee County probably could move to Talbotton and have any job they want.

+ The Ledger-Enquirer reported drug-sniffing dogs will be used in random searches of city government facilities. Yet somehow, I suspect a few facilities will be exceptions to this rule. Imagine how hyperactive those dogs could become at a sewage treatment plant.

+ Phenix City Council discussed a proposal to increase the city sales tax three-quarters of one percent. Only three-quarters - not a full percent?! Maybe Mayor Sonny Coulter and Councilor Jimmy Wetzel still can work out compromises after all.

(Some of the money from the proposed sales tax increase would pay for a new swimming pool at Idle Hour Park. If you're not as tall as the picture of Councilor Arthur Sumbry Sr., please stay in the shallow end.)

+ Phenix City officials also announced plans for a new downtown Marriott hotel, with a construction cost of $10 million. The Marriott chain has ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - so you can stop the recycled Ronnie Gilley jokes right now.

+ Instant Message to the Springer Opera House: Smart move - scheduling a summer play called "Go Dog Go," for balance with the play last fall about Bear Bryant.

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