Almost 10 years ago, Fayetteville and Cumberland County declared itself a “Soldiers’ Sanctuary.” In September 2008, in a statement of support for the nation’s military men and women, Cumberland County declared itself the “World’s First Sanctuary for Soldiers and Their Families.” It was an undertaking of the Fayetteville Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. “The Communities of Cumberland County have always supported our military neighbors,” said FCVB President & CEO John Meroski. The now- familiar blue and white signs were posted along all major highways leading into the county.
The idea of a sanctuary for soldiers was and is to provide them and their families with local services ranging from free child care to job placement for soldiers’ spouses. On Declaration Day, then-8th District Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) read a proclamation in a ceremony at Fayetteville Independent Light Infantry Armory and Museum in Downtown Fayetteville. What became known as a 500-plus member Army’s Army of community leaders and volunteers pledged to “watch over those who watch over us,” by designating military families honored members of the community.
The Army’s Army was a frontline support group at a time when two wars raged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Local member businesses offered discounts and preferential treatment to the troops. Many of them still do nine years later. An online networking website, www.Fayettevillewantsyou.com, was created to connect soldiers considering moving to Fayetteville with one-on-one citizen guides that helped steer them through the relocation process. It’s still online and calls itself “the foremost military resource for our community.”
The Soldiers’ Sanctuary is spearheaded by Cumberland County community leaders and the Army’s Army. It was an outgrowth of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Act. Thousands of military and defense department families moved from Atlanta to North Carolina when Ft. McPherson was closed and the Army’s Forces Command was repositioned at Ft. Bragg. They were required to settle in one of the 11 counties closest to Fort Bragg. Try as it did to accommodate them, Cumberland County was not the choice location for many of those soldiers and civilian DOD employees. Hoke, Moore, Lee and Harnett Counties became temporary homes for many of the transplants. Some of them rented their Georgia homes and returned to the peach state after fulfilling their obligations to the Army.
Yet, in the face of those disappointments, Greater Fayetteville poured its collective heart out to those military families who continued coming to Fort Bragg. First Lady Michelle Obama adopted support for service members and their families while she was in the White House. “You have found ways to help strengthen families under great stress. You’ve found ways to make life fun for children who wake up and go to sleep worried about their moms and dads,” she said of Fayetteville and its commitment to the military. The FCVB’s Meroksi put it best when asked to reflect on the creation of the Soldiers’ Sanctuary Community: “Community and state leaders who came together to declare the county a Sanctuary Community were merely stating what was already true.”