FORT BENNING, Ga. - Fort Benning ushered in a new era Wednesday with the launch of the Armor School's first class at Harmony Church.
At a ceremony in the Bradley Vehicle Maintenance Instruction Facility's main bay, the Maneuver Center of Excellence formally kicked off the M2/M3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle System Maintainer course and activated F Company, 3rd Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment, which will direct the advanced individual training for Bradley maintainers. The event featured a "christening" of the VMI to symbolize the training function's transfer from Fort Knox, Ky.
"Many thought it would never actually occur and would never work, but it has happened and it is working," said Maj. Henry Delacruz, executive officer of the battalion's forward element. "This is so because of persistence, vision and a lot of hard work by leaders at all levels within both the Armor and Infantry schools over the last five years. ... This facility, and indeed all of Harmony Church, is magnificent."
Fort Knox has been Armor's home since 1940, but the move here is actually a return of sorts. The Armor School was at Fort Benning from 1932 to 1938.
"We've been waiting a long time to merge Armor and Infantry and get the folks down here from Knox," said Maj. Gen. Robert Brown, the MCoE and Fort Benning commanding general. "This is an exciting day because it's happening. ... We fight together, so it's pretty awesome that they're here together. We can do so much more together."
George S. Patton, then a colonel, commanded the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Benning after its activation in July 1940 and trained the unit here prior to World War II.
"If it's good enough for General Patton, then it's sure as hell good enough for us," Delacruz said.
F Company includes both instructors and students under the same command, a first in Armor School history. They were assigned to different companies at Fort Knox, so the unit didn't exist. It will number about 65 permanent personnel and 120 trainees.
Twenty-one cycles a year are scheduled at the VMI and each class includes 40 Soldiers. About 400 students are set to come through in 2011 and more than 930 overall by the end of fiscal 2012.
The VMI is "the best facility for instruction I've seen anywhere in the world, bar none," Brown said.
"It's not a minor thing. To keep (the Bradleys) running is not easy," he said. "It hurts you if you're going into combat and they're not all running. ... These mechanics are critical - they do a great job and they're the best in the world ... because of the facilities provided."
Sgt. 1st Class Rob Putzer came to Fort Benning in July as NCOIC of 3rd Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment's advance party, which entered the VMI before the first Bradley arrived and the smell of fresh paint still permeating the hallways and administration office. He'll now serve as chief instructor for the Bradley maintainer course's armament phase.
"The building is bustling with activity. It's just amazing," he said. "It's like holding your kid for the first time. You have ownership of this; you're emotionally invested in the program."
Some students wondered what all the hoopla was about. Most were in elementary school when the effort to bring the Armor School to Fort Benning began. Base Realignment and Closure was announced in 2005, but officials said the planning goes back about a decade.
"I didn't think it was going to be as big as it was," said Pvt. James Hamilton, who finished basic training last month at Fort Sill, Okla., and arrived here Jan. 5. "But now that we're here, I'm kinda proud of it. I didn't know we were actually the first out of so many that are going to come in."
Pfc. Scott Walsh, who graduated Dec. 15 from basic training at Fort Sill, said he was amazed by the training facility.
"When I first walked in here, it blew my mind to see all those Bradleys," he said. "It's really big. I couldn't believe it."
Was he expecting this kind of reception'
"Not at all. I'm shocked," Walsh said. "I didn't see it coming ... (but) it's pretty cool just to be part of history."
The final M2/M3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle System Maintainer class at Fort Knox graduated in October. The course lasts 12 weeks and four days - cadre will pick up a new batch of Soldiers every two weeks.
This inaugural Bradley maintainer class will graduate in April. The top six graduates with assignments to M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle units will remain at Harmony Church for three extra weeks to complete the Additional Skill Identifier Course.
BY THE NUMBERS
Bradley Vehicle Maintenance Instruction Facility
138,534 - square feet of instructional space
10,000 - square-foot technical library
58 - vehicle instruction bays
20 - hands-on turret training bays
14 - live engine bays
6 - multipurpose classrooms equipped with the latest teaching technology