Fort Benjamin Harrison: Where History Marches on
Just 20 days before his scheduled return home from Afghanistan, 23-year-old Lawrence Central High School graduate Sgt. Christopher Karch sacrificed his life for his country. Karch, who served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, died August 11, 2010, after insurgents attacked his unit with small-arms fire.
His father, Patrick, himself a U.S. Army veteran, honors his son by visiting the memorial set up in his name and the tree planted in his honor on Lee Road, near the former site of Fort Benjamin Harrison. “This is something that can grow and keep his memory alive,” says Patrick Karch.
Fort Benjamin Harrison’s history as a military base and training camp during WW I and WW II makes it a fitting place to honor the fallen solider. After the base closed in 1996, many believed the area would suffer. But today the Northeastside neighborhood attracts new businesses and young families who lovingly call “Fort Ben” home.
Along the main streets of Fort Ben, which is located 11 miles from downtown Indy and within the City of Lawrence, large white banners with blue stars and the names of active-duty soldiers.
The Lawrence Blue Star Banners program is the brainchild of Candy Davis, a retiree in Lawrence. Davis feels driven to recognize servicemen and their families, and she knows first-hand the sacrifices they make for their country. Davis’ husband and son both spent time abroad in combat. “I want the service members to see the community is standing with their families as much as we are standing with them,” she says.
Hundreds of banners have already been hung since the program’s founding in 2010. Today, 60 banners line Fort Ben streets. When a soldier leaves Indiana, Davis sends a picture of the service member’s family holding the banner along with a note saying, “The City of Lawrence salutes you.”
While stationed in Kuwait in 2010, Army Staff Sergeant Nathan Byers received a photo of his wife, daughter, mother and the Mayor of Lawrence holding the banner. “It makes you feel good all over, like what you are doing actually matters to people at home,” Byers says. Byers, an Angie’s List member, now lives with his wife and two daughters in Benjamin Square, a subdivision with newly built homes and within walking distance of his job at the Defense Finance and Accounting Services on 56th Street. For 13 years, he’s served in active-duty for the Army.
Fort Ben’s history
Prior to Fort Ben’s base opening in 1902, founders named Lawrence after the naval hero of the War of 1812, Capt. James Lawrence, who is remembered for the command, “Don’t give up the ship!” When the base officially opened, the War Department used it as a training camp during World War I, World War II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and other U.S. military actions. In the 1940s, the base served as a holding facility for German and Italian prisoners of war.
The Army built the DFAS in 1953, securing Fort Ben’s future for decades. The DFAS, which is still in operation, handles payroll and other financial aspects for the U.S. Army.
It employs nearly 4,000 employees, both civilian and military.
Life after the base closure
Charles Thompson, an A-rated certified public accountant, operates his thriving business out of his home near Fort Ben. He worked as a civilian for the DFAS during the base closure. “So many people were afraid the area would wither away, but today there are more people employed in the area than when the Army was there,” he says.
Thompson lives in Boston Commons, a subdivision near Fort Harrison State Park. “The park is essentially my backyard. My wife and I walk there at least a few times a week,” he says. There they enjoy watching horseback riding, kayaking and ice fishing that attract visitors from all over the state.
Living at Fort Ben
Highly rated Lawrence Realtor Chris Fahey says Fort Harrison State Park, the state-of-the-art Lawrence Soccer Complex, a skate park and Triton Brewing Company make Fort Ben a destination neighborhood. Because Fort Ben lies inside the city of Lawrence, residents get a unique chance to vote for the Mayor of Indianapolis and their representatives on the Indianapolis/Marion County City-County Council as well as Lawrence’s Mayor and other elected officials. Residents can attend Lawrence Township schools and choose among a wide variety of housing options.
“Homes in Historic Standish Estates [formerly barracks] and Lawton Loop don’t come on the market too often,” Fahey says, adding that older homes in Fort Ben have sought-after features like copper gutters, limestone stills and full-brick exteriors with modern upgrades. He says empty nesters, young professionals and families flock to the area because of newer shopping and dining options.
Developing the former base
City officials have big plans for Fort Ben. In May, developers broke ground on a new project on the northwest corner of 56th Street and Lawrence Village Parkway that will include Irvington staple Jockamo Upper Crust Pizza and other retail storefronts. It’s part of the Fort Harrison Reuse Authority’s master plan to establish a true downtown district for the neighborhood.
Military groups are also returning to the area. The Indiana Military Hall of Fame will hold its inaugural induction event there on Veteran’s Day. The National Guard opened a $25 million armory on 59th Street, and the U.S. Army Reserve opened its state headquarters there in September.
The base’s last commander, Army Maj. Gen. Ronald E. Brooks, now runs the American Legion’s Marketing Services Group in an office nearby. He thought the base closure was the worst thing that could happen to his career and the area, but he now thinks differently. “This is how you close a base and keep a neighborhood,”he says.
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