By Michael Campbell, News Editor
July 14, 2017 | 12:00 p.m.
FORT LEE – Monday was a special day in the history of America’s armed forces as the community joined members of the military and leaders from around the region in celebrating Fort Lee’s 100th anniversary during a series of special events in and around the base.
First opening its doors in 1917 during the height of World War I, Camp Lee at that time trained tens of thousands of soldiers for battle before they were deployed to the Western Front around France and Germany before the war ended the next year and the United State War Department opted to close the base in 1921.
Following its reactivation in 1940 as World War II heated up, Camp Lee, now Fort Lee, continues to be a vital part of the U.S. military’s operations, serving as a key training stop for troops, particularly with the construction of the Sustainment Center of Excellence, which provides focused training for military supply, services, maintenance, munitions, and transportation to over 70,000 soldiers at Fort Lee annually.
In the days leading up to the anniversary celebrations, the weight of the base’s importance to the military and to the Crater region, which is comprised of the Tri-Cities, Dinwiddie, Prince George, Chesterfield, and a number of adjacent communities, was not lost on Prince George Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Robertson, who opened up about the close relationship the county has with the base and those who live and work there.
“In all actuality, Fort Lee is in Prince George County but it operates almost like a separate city upon itself, except for a few items,” Robertson explained, noting the humble beginnings of the base back in 1917 when the War Department acquired a sprawling tract of land in Prince George to build one of 32 military cantonments during World War I.
Speaking about how the county supports the base’s men and women, Robertson pointed to several elements, most notably, the county’s school system, which teaches the young minds of those stationed at Fort Lee. According to Robertson, roughly 30 percent of the students enrolled in Prince George Schools are from military families on base.
In addition to education, Robertson said other county services, such as social services and courts are also utilized by those on-base regularly but, the impact of Fort Lee isn’t just felt in the county but throughout the region thanks to the economic activity of those who live and work at Fort Lee.
“It not only has an impact on Prince George but the whole area because it is a major employer as far as civilian workers and the recruits that come there or get stationed there for advanced training or come to the logistics university, they go to Southpark Mall, they come to things in the county and in Hopewell at the Beacon [Theater], and events in Petersburg,” Robertson said. “It’s truly an economic driver for the whole region.”
Following the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure legislation from Congress that saw Fort Lee expand further, adding over six million square feet of new facilities that allow for the training of over 70,000 new troops at the base yearly, the economic impacts are more visible than ever.
“You go around lunchtime or dinnertime on either side of Oaklawn Blvd, on the Prince George or Hopewell side, or you go to Colonial Heights, you see people in uniform buying food at the local places or other restaurants, you see them shopping at the mall,” he continued. “Even though the commissary and the PX are there, you still went out to to the local places because want to get off base.”
The important part the region has played in Fort Lee’s history was reflected on during Monday’s celebrations and in the days leading up to it as a “Centennial Run” was held Sunday where teams of soldiers ran 16.5-mile routes through the communities of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Prince George, and the Tri-Cities, along with the Petersburg National Battlefield to commemorate the 100th anniversary.
“As one team of soldiers complete a portion of the route, they will pass a baton adorned with the centennial logo and the respective community’s name to the next team,” said Sarah Gauvin, Media and Community Relations Officer at Fort Lee, with the final being completed Monday at Williams Stadium during the celebration.
For Robertson, who is a common fixture at various base events and meetings at Fort Lee, it’s important for him, both as a county representative and as a military veteran himself, to be present and receptive to the needs of those on base.
“They are our citizens,” he said. “Even though we don’t have police authority on base, those citizens are citizens of the county. Some of them come to social services, and, regrettably, some come to the county food bank and some receive food stamps.”
Robertson, who went into the United States Marine Corps in 1965 and served in Vietnam before later going into the Marine Corps Reserves in the 1980s, reflected on how times have changed militarily during his time in the service and beyond and how that’s impacted soldiers who come through Fort Lee and bases around the nation.
“When you’re at the bottom of the rung and you’re just getting started out and you have a family, there is not a lot of money there,” he said. “I can remember when you could go to the PX or the commissary and, for $50, you could fill up a car with groceries and other items. That $50 now, you walk out with at least two bags but sometimes, you may not have two bags and it just shows how much things have changed since we went to an all-volunteer military.”
He added that he and other members of the Crater region did what they could to ensure the PX would keep operating on base, sending letters to officials when there was talk of closing the facility.
“They still need that and we are certainly in favor of that staying there for them,” Robertson said.
As chairman of the Prince George Board of Supervisors, Robertson has worked with members of Fort Lee’s ranks on various matters involving the base and the county and offered praise to the leadership that has made its way through the base over the years.
“I have gotten along very well with the generals at Fort Lee,” he remarked. “The reason the last three generals we have had there have left is because they each got their third star. We have had some incredible leaders come into Fort Lee over the years.”
That intimate relationship between Prince George and the Crater region as a whole and Fort Lee has fostered a connection between the surrounding localities and the base that only grows stronger as the years go on.
“We are pleased to consider ourselves a military community,” Robertson said. “We are proud of our military and, as Mr. [Jerry] Skalsky would say during his invocations, we are free and we owe our freedom to our military and we are proud to have Fort Lee within our boundaries.”
Among the events held Monday, Prince George leaders joined others in adding items to a time capsule that would be sealed until 2117, an anniversary that is beyond many of our lifetimes.
Even as that special event looks toward another 100 years down the road, Robertson notes the importance of America’s armed forces remains day-to-day, even when the celebrations end and its business as usual at Fort Lee.
“As former military, I understand the importance of the military and I appreciate what they do and it’s a big portion of our population,” he said. “Fort Lee is truly almost like a town here in Prince George.”
“At the end of the day, the base is just buildings and land. It is the people that come through there and is serving our nation and we have to remember it’s an all-volunteer military. Our message to them is a message of thanks for their service and we are appreciative of all those who volunteer their service to this country,” Robertson closed.