COLUMBUS, Ga. (WTVM) - Next week, a potentially large group will gather at Fort Benning to protest the former School of the Americas, on the 30th anniversary of an event that prompted the annual rallies: the Central American University massacre.
But times have changed at that school, as officials there gave us an inside look at what’s now known as WHINSEC, or the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
The school’s new Commandant, Colonel John Suggs, tells us each year they have around 2-thousand soldiers or students come through WHINSEC, from close to 25 different nations, all their flags and uniforms on display. The school’s history though includes three decades of protests against what once was known as the School of the Americas. So I asked him, are WHNSEC and the former SOA the same?
“Yes, some of the reasons the School of the Americas existed for training and cooperation throughout the Hemisphere, some of those reasons have carried over. No, it’s not the same school and we don’t teach the same thing," WHINSEC Commandant Col. John Suggs said.
Crowds as large as 20,000 showed up 15 years ago to the rallies against the former School of the Americas, but lately, the crowd has been only a handful of peaceful protestors each year.
“They have a right to protest, this is America and if they want to do it, they should," Col. Suggs said.
Celebrities, like actor Martin Sheen, have showed up for the cause, these protests prompted by accusations in 1989 that foreign soldiers, who were trained at SOA, killed six Jesuit priests and a teen girl in El Salvador.
Richard Woodard, from the National Peace Tax Fund, said “We’ve tried to encourage Fort Benning and the government to close down what was called the School of Americas. It changed its name but that doesn’t mean it’s changed it’s purpose.”
The SOA Watch protests did lead to Congress making laws about how the U.S. trains with our partners, including human rights requirements.
“You wanted change. Change occurred. If you are a US citizen and taxpayer, and you want to come look at what we do, my doors are open," Col. Suggs said. “We have a human rights school, we have a tactics school."
The school’s commandant says the focus is on building readiness for security forces for countries in our hemisphere that share our democratic and moral values. Petty Officer 2nd Class Luis Veloz from the Dominican Republic says he enjoyed his 50 days on Fort Benning, in a leader course at WHINSEC.
“I want to go back to my country, the Dominican Navy, to show to my soldiers the real leadership," Veloz said.
“The guys who graduate here are going to go on to be the heads of their militaries," COL Suggs told us. “The relationships they built here...it fosters peace throughout the whole region , it helps them get things done.”
Colonel Suggs’ 31 years of Army service includes working in Bolivia, Argentina, and Peru. He speaks Spanish, and so does all his staff at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which includes a police school that has success stories abroad.
COL Suggs mentioned one from recently: “The Peruvian police sent back a video from their news where they had captured a large drug shipment. They dedicated that to us...We also teach humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to them."
Veloz added, “The Fort Benning base is amazing. WHINSEC is the best school I’ve seen in my life.”
That’s a much different story than what we heard from previous protestors.
“Anyone with even a little bit of an open mind, I would love for you to come and look at what we’re doing," COL Suggs said.
It’s a transparent invitation from a Colonel who is back on Fort Benning after going through basic training there.