Community leaders tasked with recommending a new name for Fort Bragg had no shortage of options as they combed through the installation’s 100 years of history.
There were recipients of the nation’s highest award for valor. Men who put their own lives on the line for their fellow soldiers, such as Roy Benavidez, Felix Conde-Falcon, Gary Gordon, Randall Shughart, Rodolfo “Rudy” Hernandez and Alvin York. There was the first woman military pilot to be killed in hostile action, Kimberly Hampton. And there were battle-tested leaders and trailblazers like James Gavin and Roscoe Robinson Jr.
All are legends in their own right and giants in the local military community. All made a short list of possible names during the process led by the federal Naming Commission, which was created by Congress in 2021.
But none of those names was chosen for the nation’s largest military installation by population.
That’s the wrong question, said Col. John M. Wilcox, garrison commander of what will soon be known as Fort Liberty.
The question that plagued local leaders throughout the renaming process, which so many struggled with amid an avalanche of suggestions, was: “How could you choose just one?”
“How do you pick one hero among hundreds of heroes that have served here and are deserving of the name?” Wilcox said. “The short answer is that you don’t.”
The solution to that dilemma came during one of many meetings to help local leaders — all members of the local community but no currently serving soldiers — home in on a potential new name.
A Gold Star mother, who has since asked to remain anonymous, stood in the meeting and said what others had been thinking: It would be impossible to decide on a single name. What she said next helped change history, giving leaders a name they would be proud of.
“My son didn’t die for Bragg,” she said. “My son died for liberty.”
“Very, very quickly, the entire tone of the room changed to line up behind this idea that maybe the largest military installation on the planet by population needs to be a step beyond a single name,” Wilcox said. “Maybe something aspirational is what’s more appropriate for this installation.”
The more officials thought about it, the more they fell in love with the idea.
“The first line of the 82nd Airborne Division song is, ‘We are soldiers of liberty.’ If you look at the crest that Special Forces soldiers wear that serve on Fort Bragg, it says ‘De Oppresso Liber,’ liber being the Latin derivation of liberty,” said Wilcox. “And just south of here is where the Liberty Point Accords were signed in 1775, where Cumberland County signed on to be part of the Revolution, one of the first places in North Carolina to sign on as such.”
“This area, this community has had a connection with liberty since the very beginning of the nation,” he added. “It is part and parcel of who we are and who we aspire to be.”
‘Marching toward liberty’
The name change is inevitable, but Fort Bragg leaders admit it was not an easy change for many to accept.
The change itself was born out of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act and a congressional commission created to identify and suggest alternatives for installations and other military property named for those who voluntarily served in the Confederate army during the Civil War.
That commission made multiple visits to nine Army installations in 2021, participated in listening sessions with military commanders and community leaders, and collected more than 34,000 public comments.
The commission recommended that all nine installations be renamed. In addition to Fort Bragg becoming Fort Liberty, other changes include Fort Benning and Fort Gordon, both in Georgia, becoming Fort Moore and Fort Eisenhower, respectively; Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia will become Fort Walker; Fort Hood, Texas, will be renamed Fort Cavazos; Fort Lee, Virginia, will become Fort Gregg-Adams; Fort Pickett, Virginia, will be renamed Fort Barfoot; Fort Polk, Louisiana, will become Fort Johnson; and Fort Rucker, Alabama, will be renamed Fort Novosel.
Fort Liberty will be the only renamed post not tied to an individual.
Retired Navy Adm. Michelle J. Howard, who led the Naming Commission, said the organization sought to find names that would be inspirational to the soldiers and civilians who serve on the Army posts and in the communities that support them.
“We realized that we had more heroes than we did bases to name,” Howard said. “And we were overwhelmed with the greatness of the American soldier, from those who gave their entire adult lives to the Army to those who sacrificed themselves in valorous acts. We were reminded that courage has no boundaries by categories of race, color, gender, religion or creed.”
Wilcox, who became garrison commander last year and has spent 15 years of his Army career at Fort Bragg, said his was a very emotional response to news of the name change. He has served with many friends and loved ones, honored fallen friends and built his family all within the confines of the post named Bragg.
When he meets with community stakeholders, many express the same reservations. But he believes many will come around to the idea of Fort Liberty.
“What we’re doing is not forgetting our history or flushing our history away,” Wilcox said. “We are simply redesignating this installation to match more closely what we’ve been doing every single day since this installation was established. We’re marching toward liberty every day.”
Drew Brooks has more than 16 years of journalism experience across the Carolinas and Washington, D.C. He spent a decade covering Fort Bragg troops, reporting from Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Germany and Poland, among numerous other assignments.