FORT BENNING, Ga. - The foundation for the long-awaited union of Infantry and Armor is in place, but Army and tricommunity leaders can't get complacent as the Maneuver Center of Excellence takes a final step toward reality, the MCoE and Fort Benning commanding general said Thursday.

Maj. Gen. Robert Brown said progress has been significant but 2011 will be brisk for officials working to meet a Sept. 15 deadline for full operating capacity.

"It's really impressive what's been done," said Brown, who became the Maneuver Center's second commander in November. "My first reaction is I was proud to be an American (because) they take care of our Soldiers so well and understand how important it is to have the right type of facilities to train tomorrow's leaders here at Fort Benning.

"(But) we've got to get across the finish line. It's going to be a busy year. While the planning has been superb, there's the action now to get us across the finish line, do it right and form a real team here at Fort Benning that's unstoppable."

Under the MCoE banner, Infantry and Armor will maintain their traditional identities, but the merger at one location will be mutually beneficial, he said.

"They're both incredibly inspirational branches, and look at what they've done over our history," he said. "They think differently, and they need to keep that. At the same time, they've got to come together. ... What an opportunity. Here, we can train together where we never could before.

"I don't want an Infantry second lieutenant, the first time he sees a tank, to be in combat. That doesn't make any sense to me. ... Where they can get exposure to each other as early as possible, the better."

In the 1980s, Brown attended the Armor Captains Career Course at Fort Knox, Ky.

"We had what I thought were fine facilities, but they pale in comparison to the state-of-the-art facilities here," he said.

Those Harmony Church buildings have begun filling up as Soldiers arrived earlier this week for the first Armor School class: the M2/M3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle System Maintainer course.

"It's a very exciting time. It is a big deal," Brown said. "We're making sure we bend over backwards to let the Armor team that comes down know this is their home. We're a combined-arms team, we're a Maneuver Center. We fight together, we should train together and be together all the time. It's a terrific change."

MCoE transformation began in 2005 after the Base Realignment and Closure committee's decision to relocate the Armor Center and School from Fort Knox to Fort Benning, but the planning process goes back about a decade, he said.

Advance parties from the 194th Armored Brigade and 316th Cavalry Brigade started prepping the platform last summer. To date, they've moved 52 million tons of equipment here. The general said Soldiers and families should begin arriving in March, with the largest surge set to happen this summer.

"You'll continue to see a gradual growth," he said. "I don't think anybody should expect to see a whole slew of people all of a sudden walking through the gates. It just doesn't happen that way. It's a natural assignment process."

Area financial experts are forecasting a $1.5 billion annual injection - or $20 million per month - into the local economy once the move is complete. The post's financial impact on the tricommunity already exceeds $2 billion a year, and the MCoE buildup ultimately will bring 4,200 new families to the area.

"That's a good thing, (especially) when there are some areas that have lost all their military or it's shrinking significantly," Brown said. "We're proud to be partners and neighbors here in the Chattahoochee Valley (and) part of the great team."

Brown said there are always lingering challenges with infrastructure, resources and integration when carrying out a major relocation of so many people. He believes the groundwork is laid to accommodate the influx.

"A great plan (and) great linkup with the community has been established from the leaders before us, everything from schools to businesses," he said. "But the biggest concern is making sure people just don't think this happens automatically. We've synchronized it as only the military can do ... but then you've got to execute the plan.

"We don't want to take anything for granted along the way. If we miss something, let us know. The last thing we want to do is burden a family, community member or anybody else with something we forgot. We want to fix it (ahead of time), but if we don't know about it, we can't fix it."

Editor's note: In an hourlong interview Thursday from his office at Ridgway Hall, Maj. Gen. Robert Brown also discussed his priorities, philosophy, leadership style, and personal thoughts about Fort Benning and the tricommunity. See story in the Jan. 19 edition of The Bayonet.